In this blog post, I am going to tell you how I came to feminism, why I consider myself a feminist, and why I don’t call myself one. It is kind of an exercise in the Egotistical-I, which it
is also against. Please note that this post was written before Charles Clymer came out as gender non-conforming.
Yet more tales from the fascinating world of ME. Oh, well, I’m a shameless navel-gazer. It does seem to have some value.
I was introduced to feminism by the upcoming writer Francesca Haig, recommending Atwood. To my shame, the message that got through was ‘not all feminists are man-hating lesbians.’ Now, of course, being much older, I understand that there is obviously nothing wrong with being a lesbian, and misandry is absolutely justifiable – urgently necessary, even.
Atwood (I think it was The Penelopiad) opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many narratives we’re just not receiving. Voices on margins are not just voices – they are universes; whole systems and ways of being that can be at odds with everything we are used to. And to accommodate these voices we need to listen to them … not just listen, but let them speak. Let them be. Let them narrate.
Calling myself a feminist
So at university I took a course on feminist theology, which was another eye-opener (although in theology, feminism is often trans-exclusionary as it tends to appeal to the foundational or God-ordained truth of biological sex). I started calling myself a feminist, even sharing that godawful arrogant ‘congratulations, you’re a feminist’ meme. People were proud.
I only got into queer theory, and Butler’s radical suggestion that biological sex is a gender-construct, constituted via a ‘stylized repetition of acts’ as it is enacted, in the early stages of my PhD. I started writing under initials because I don’t want people to assume I’m male; initials can suggest a woman writer struggling for acceptability (JK Rowling, PD James, even, in a different way, Dorothy L Sayers). Now I’m not sure if that’s a co-optive or silly gesture on my part. Thoughts appreciated.
Of course, I’ve tried to introduce others to feminism, have taken part in feminist activities and debates, etc. My biggest achievement is introducing my fiancé to feminism, which has helped to changed hir life in huge ways.
After a University of Exeter Debating Society Event, which pitted Men’s Rights Activist Swayne O’Pie (who can’t see the flaw in the logic of, ‘If there is a minister for women, why is there no minister for men?’) and Katie Hopkins, who needs no introduction, against two PhD students, I realised something. It isn’t just that people don’t know what feminism is or can be. Some people genuinely, unbelievably, scarily, actually do not believe in gender equity; that marginalised voices need to be heard; that change is vital. You see, the anti-feminist side nearly won the debate.
Immediately upon arriving home, my friends and I fumed about the event on Twitter. I changed my bio, calling myself a ‘queer feminist.’ This was in 2012. And, as far as I know, nobody has ever challenged the claim to feminism. Between then and now, a surge of male celebrities have claimed to be feminists, including some dodgy characters like Joss Whedon and Stephen Moffatt.
Problems with calling myself a feminist
Recently, I noticed the hashtag #StopClymer all over Twitter, and investigated. Charles Clymer is one of those self-absorbed internet personalities. There are so many around. It’s a good enough summary to say he’s a proud (young) American army veteran who has founded a well-known Facebook page, ‘Equality For Women’, hosts a website full of photos of himself, and deletes and blocks any women with whom he disagrees on his ‘safe space.’ He has won awards and openly acknowledges that his feminist activism is about satisfying ‘[his] ego’ and ‘building a career.’ In addition, he insults and patronises women with whom he disagrees, dictates exactly what ‘feminism’ is, and is generally unpopular among a lot of feminists, especially women of colour.
Seeing this kind of scary extreme of white male saviour syndrome made me think long and hard about what I’m doing on the internet. I’m not an influential internet feminist like Clymer, and unlike Clymer I would never maintain a position of leadership in a feminist community — it seems so obvious that there can’t be a safe space for minoritised individuals in a white supremacist patriarchy headed by a heterosexual white man. But even calling myself a feminist — some women are uncomfortable with that.
Then I read this wonderful post via STFU Moffat (I’m not familiar with the original blogger, sorry), setting out the reasons why the person writing called himself ‘pro-feminist’ and not feminist:
By calling ourselves feminists, we’re saying that we feel entitled to the same sort of feminist voice that is entitled to women who have been sexually abused, discriminated against in the workplace, or suppressed in any way because they don’t enjoy the same level of privilege that we do.
[…] Imagine you’re a woman who has been beaten, abused and oppressed by men her entire life. Seeking self-empowerment and solidarity, you go along to a feminism meeting at the local community centre, only to find a bunch of straight, white guys sitting there alongside the women. “Uh, yeah? We’re feminists too, you know?”
[…] So now I call myself a “profeminist” instead of a “feminist”. I believe strongly in the feminism movement, and will do everything in my power to further it. But I’m not entitled to a feminist voice. To call myself a “feminist” when I can still walk home at night without looking over my shoulder feels dishonest, and somewhat indicative of my white male privilege.
Of course, I’d come across the term pro-feminist before but had more or less ignored it because it’s discomforting. It sounded to me like not wanting to commit, the ‘I’m not a feminist but’ thing. It even felt patronising, as though saying ‘I approve of your movement but won’t get involved.’
Aaaand I was failing to get my pretty little head around the fact that as a white cisgendered western man, I have a great deal of privilege and inviting myself into one of the few spaces that are kind of defined by marginalisation is massively irresponsible. Moreover, the term ‘pro-feminist’ is not patronising at all, but respectful. I’ve always had this sense that not dictating what feminism is or should be to other feminists makes me somehow entitled to call myself a feminist. But now I realise that in doing so I am at least complicit in abuse.
As will be obvious in my next post, about the Bechdel test, I am not a fan of over-complicating the simple. But over-simplifying the complicated can be dangerous.
To summarise, I still believe what I always have believed – even when, as a pompous teenager, I didn’t want to. And it’s a mind-bogglingly simple idea.
I believe that all human beings are of worth, deserving dignity, respect, and opportunities. I believe that given the current state of the world, conditioned over millennia to repress the essential personhood of women, some radical actions need to be taken, and as men we need to make sacrifices, to positively discriminate, to actively enable revolution rather than expecting it to just happen without inconveniencing us.
I consider myself a feminist. But I have no right to, and thinking of myself that way is down to my own sense of entitlement and privilege. I will not continue to call myself a feminist. I am pro-feminism.
Just because we’ve been conditioned by history to expect change to happen without inconveniencing us doesn’t make it remotely right. Not being able to call myself a feminist discomforts me, but is literally nothing in relation to the daily pain and violation we routinely expect even privileged women to go through. It is, though, an important step.
Men: If we insist that we are entitled to call ourselves feminists – against the voices of various women – then who does our feminism serve? If our feminism is about anything but ourselves, we should respect that it is bigger than what we want from it. Always support, promote, and enrich — but we should know when not to take part. Co-operate, don’t co-opt.