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For the past few weeks, the Internet has been collectively rolling its eyes at the "Women Against Feminism" Tumblr, in which (mostly young, mostly white) women hold up signs describing exactly how much they don't understand what the word feminism means.
And yes, it's annoying, it's frustrating, even a bit maddening, to see women discounting the need for feminism in modern society and taking hard-won freedoms for granted. But it's also familiar. Because I too was once a "woman against feminism."
In my high-school junior English class, we had an assignment to write a letter to our future selves, which our English teacher promised to mail to a "permanent address" in 6 years. I should probably publish this whole letter another time because it is freaking weird. But the part the really floored me was the section where I listed some of my current likes and dislikes. My likes included glitter, high-heeled shoes, The Daily Show, poetry readings, punk rock (natch) and Rush Limbaugh (wha?!). And then I go on to say this:
"I absolutely despise South Park merchandise, marriage, feminism, teenage couples, the Catholic church, Communism, high school football, children, soft rock, the Promise Keepers, Star Trek, The Republican Party, Nirvana (the band, not the enlightened Buddhist state), and T-shirts with catchy slogans."
Um, OK. Politically, I was all over the place, probably because I had NO idea what I was talking about. But one thing I was sure of was that I "absolutely despised" feminism. And after receiving this letter I remembered making similar statements all over the Internet -- my AOL profile page also prominently announced my hatred of feminism, as did anywhere else I was asked to enter information about myself online. Luckily, I was a teenager back in early Internet, before people were paying that much attention to what weirdo teenagers were doing online, as long as they weren't talking to sex predators. Today I'd probably be in one of those photos plastered all over the place holding up a sign about how I'm against feminism because I shave my legs and need help opening jars.
By the time I received the English class letter, I was minoring in Gender and Sexuality studies in college and baffled/amused by the whole "I hate feminism" thing. And I can't say I remember the thinking behind my anti-feminism stance. But it probably had something to do with my basic understanding that feminists, in the Bible Belt Republican Evangelical Christian territory where I grew up, were the butt of the joke. And that men responded favorably to my denial of them.
Looking back, I can see that my subconscious strategy for coping in a sexist society was to align myself with men, to avail myself of their considerable powers of protection, to get what I could from them using the only weapons readily available to me -- my body, my charm, my femininity and my compliance. By gaining the approval of those in charge, I hoped to gain access to the perks and opportunities of masculinity.
I took things a step further, distancing myself completely from the things women liked, the things that I knew were demeaned by society at large. "Sex and the City," romantic comedies, pink-covered paperbacks and female singer-songwriters were stupid stuff for stupid girls. In a society that disparages women's culture, distancing myself from that culture was a way of benefiting from sexism by again aligning myself with the dominant regime. "Yes, women suck, but I'm not like all those other women."
It was the same impulse that leads so many women to say that they "just don't get along with women; they're so catty after all." The underlying message is: I am one of you, not one of them, and entitled to the advantages you enjoy."
Most of posters on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr instead embrace the trappings of traditional femininity: They don't need feminism because they "love to cook," "want to be stay-at-home moms" or they "like men." Obviously these women are operating under a very flawed understanding of what feminism means. Feminists didn't fight for the right to cook and be a mom because those options have always been on the table. They wanted additional choices. (The logic flaws in their argument are nicely summed up here.)
But I think the WAF are ultimately utilizing the same strategy I was back then: Sisterhood is dangerous. Much safer to uphold the status quo, to say to your oppressor, "You know what? I think you're right about this whole feminism thing." Aligning yourself with the dominant group and upholding their ideas is a subconscious attempt to benefit from their power. And it can work, for awhile.
Ultimately, the problem is that this is a short-term survival strategy, based on an assumption that inequality is the way of the world, that it's unlikely to change anytime soon, and that one has to figure out how to get by within that unfair system. For a 16-year-old girl with no real power in the middle of Oklahoma in 1999, that felt very true. For young women who live in a place where gender roles are very entrenched, where those who reject sexism are in the extreme minority, and where there is a lack of access to the resources and community that can sustain them during a lopsided fight, they may never adopt a more long-term strategy.
But there is hope, because for me at least, anti-feminism was a phase in a process of political awakening. The very youth of most of the women in these photos is encouraging. They have so much time to learn and grow, to be exposed to different environments and viewpoints, to educate themselves. Sixteen-year-old me "despised feminism" but 19-year-old me was soaking up feminist theory in my Gender and Sexuality classes. And 31-year-old me is a "modern feminist," as so many of the Tumblr signs refer to us -- outspoken, unashamed, unconcerned about whoever doesn't like it. Odds are good that a portion of the "women against feminists" will end up the same way.