Sunday, 2 October 2011

What do we ask of one another when we ask one another to identify as feminist?

I recently came across a blog post - which, annoyingly, I can't find now - that reminded me a lot of this well-known discussion of self-identifying as a feminist: Yes, You Are. It's a fantastic piece and I recommend you read the whole thing but the key message is this:

If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist.

Yes, you are.

In other words, whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not, whether you choose to adopt the label or not, if you believe in gender equality then you are a feminist. This position is one that I've always enthusiastically agreed with, and I try to advocate for wherever possible; I dislike the idea that "feminist" is an exclusive label reserved for those who read Judith Butler, or who march to take back the night, or who use 'Ms' rather than 'Miss'. I still feel this way, and even though there are deep divisions of thought within the broad movement of feminism, I believe there's space for us all around the big, diverse, feminist table.

But lately I've been thinking. When I know someone self-identifies as a feminist, I tend to expect (or at least hope for) a little more from them than if they didn't. I'm more likely to invite them to a rally or protest, and more likely to feel disappointed if they don't want to come. I'm more likely to start a conversation with them about an issue of gender inequality, and more likely to feel disappointed if I find they don't see it the same way. I expect them not to use sexist language, not to make sexist jokes, rape jokes, or jokes about domestic violence, and not to enable people who do. So there's a conflict here: while on the one hand I want to say that the bar for self-identifying as a feminist is set really low, so low that most people qualify for it, on the other hand when someone does accept that self-definition, suddenly the bar has risen. That seems unfair.

Imagine the following conversation -

A: You believe in equality, right? So why don't you call yourself a feminist?
B: Fair enough. Okay, I am a feminist. Now I'm going to go and watch that film with that hilarious attempted rape scene.
A: What? How can you watch that? I thought you were a feminist!

See? Problem.

One of the things that prompted this train of thought was a post from a feminist blogger in the wake of the UK Feminista Summer School earlier this year. Here, Madam J Mo writes:

... Matt’s Powerpoint display flashed up the overused image of Bill Bailey wearing Fawcett’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt. This is an image that most people agree has been publicised to death because it’s, like, a funny man, and he’s wearing a feminist t-shirt, titter titter. But shockingly the giggles in the room were fresh – many people seemed not to have seen this photo before. But how could they have missed it? It’s been all over Fawcett’s website for a verrrrrry long time, and it’s all over the internet. The only way they could have missed it was if (gulp) they had never been to the Fawcett website. But they’re feminists. How could they NOT have been to the Fawcett website? (The tailback of implications here is terrifying, considering all of the attendees at the conference were self-identifying feminists.)

Personally, I don't find it terrifying that someone who identifies as a feminist may never have been on the Fawcett website. I think it's very probable that there are many awesome feminists who don't even know what the Fawcett Society is. But I wonder whether Madam J Mo fell into the same trap I described above - wanting anyone who looks fondly upon gender equality to identify as a feminist, then expecting more of them when they do so. And if I'm wrong about that, I wonder what her criteria for qualifying as a feminist include, apart from visiting the Fawcett website.

I guess the conclusion to be drawn here is that perhaps that we should try to be aware of this problem when we talk to other self-identifying feminists, and, if our goal is to ensure that all people who are feminists identify as such, we should try not to expect too much of them. I know that conclusion sounds thoroughly depressing in some ways, but I don't see how it does any good to alienate rather than accommodate those people whose feminism doesn't identically match our own.

I find it easier to come to terms with this solution when I think about the development of my own feminism. If I met a self-identifying feminist who spouted the thoughts and ideas that I did at 14, I might feel that her brand of feminism was somehow incomplete or sub-par. I might feel disappointed in her lack of radicalism or her failure to let her feminist principles influence her day-to-day life and relationships. But if, when I was 14, someone I saw as a fellow feminist had condescended to me like that, told me I was doing it wrong, suggested I hadn't earned the title of feminist - well, that could have put me off identifying as one for good, and I never would have ended up where I am now. And I still don't have all the answers; my views are constantly shifting and developing, as I hope most people's are. We aren't entitled to feel disappointed in other people's feminism because there is no single perfect form of feminism for us to unify around. So I suppose, as much as it galls me to say it, you can go off and enjoy that godawful film and still identify as a feminist. Because neither I nor anyone else has the authority to say you can't.