Monday, June 10, 2013

Why I’m Thankful for Feminism

Originally published at Opine Season

Because this is a follow-up to last week’s column on Men’s Rights Activists, it’s tempting to frame it as “an open letter to MRAs and critics of feminism.” But I’m not going to do that, for three reasons:

1. Let’s be honest: arguing in circles about terminology and engaging in endless link wars over studies and statistics never really convinces anyone of anything.

2. As I was outlining my response, I realized that this piece over at Jezebel of all places by Lindy West covers all the points I was going to cover. If you’re someone who has honest questions about feminism, patriarchy and MRA stuff, it’s a great place to start.

3. Most importantly: in the social justice movement, we spend far too much time distracted by extreme minorities of people who are never going to agree with us anyway. If 10,000 people read this, the percentage who identify as MRAs will be a drop in the bucket compared to random Facebook/Twitter friends, internet surfers, college students doing research, etc. So I’d rather write something for them.

Even though some commenter last week bizarrely demanded that I tell “the truth” instead of just “my truth,” I can’t really do that. I can only share my own experiences with feminism and feminists.

I got my start as an activist around the 2003 Iraq war protests. I was young and had no idea what I was doing, but I was constantly supported by all kinds of people—socialists, anarchists, artists, union organizers, students, hippies, veterans, moderates, and people from all identities and walks of life. The self-identified feminists, in particular, were some of the most effective activists I encountered. Because of ongoing debates within feminism, they had a firm grasp on the importance of intersectionality—understanding how struggles are linked, and highlighting the connections between different oppressions. They were also just good activists—able to write press releases, canvas door-to-door, speak in front of crowds, facilitate meetings and all the little things that go into any movement.

I wish I didn’t have to point this out, but I do: none of them hated men. None of them advocated for female supremacy. Most of them were women of color. Most of them were working class. A few of them were guys. None of them fit the stereotype. It makes one wonder where that stereotype comes from.

Today, my job takes me all over the country, performing and facilitating workshops on social justice concepts. Since many of the organizations that book me work on gender issues, I get to meet and talk with feminists with countless different philosophies and approaches to the work. Some of the stuff they’re working on: challenging rape culture, cultivating critical thinking skills and media literacy, working in solidarity with other organizations and their causes, advocating for healthy sexuality and access to effective sexual education, raising awareness around sexual assault in the military, fighting for trans rights, organizing for the inclusion of gender-neutral restrooms in public buildings, providing resources for people going through partner violence, holding leaders and media personalities accountable for their words and actions, defending a woman’s right to choose, challenging the rigidity of gender roles, organizing discussion groups for men around healthy masculinity, engaging in educational work around body image, and a million other things.

Again, notice that there’s nothing here about elevating women over men, or making men feel bad, or using blood magic to turn your daughters into witches. Most of these campaigns help men too. Most of these struggles are reactions to (often urgent) existing problems. All over the country, feminists are fighting for gender equity, because that fight continues to be necessary.

I’m trying to get at two things by sharing all this. For the MRAs, I just want to say: I know a lot more real-life feminists (as opposed to radfem strangers on Tumblr) than you do, and they’re committed, effective organizers who don’t fit your stereotypes at all. And for the rest of us, I want to say: one of the reasons that feminism is important is that it provides a framework not just for theory and ideology, but for action.

I could quote bell hooks over and over again, but this is a good one: “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” She wrote this in “Feminist Theory: From the Margin to the Center,” and revisited it more recently in the excellent “Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.” I like this definition because it’s pretty straightforward, and also frames feminism not just as a theory, but as a movement.

It’s one thing to say “I’m one of the good guys” or “let’s all just be egalitarians,” but does that change anything? If you want to fight sexism, whether you’re a feminist, an MRA, or anyone, you have to actively fight sexism. It is not enough to just “be cool and hope for the best.” And feminism provides a rich history of action, approaches to activism, toolkits and much more.

I’m thankful for feminism because feminists work on issues that affect me and the people I love. I’m thankful for feminism because it proves that movements can evolve, from a movement of “rich white ladies” to a movement that understands how identities are intertwined and how liberation must be an ongoing, simultaneous process. More than anything, though, I’m thankful for feminism because it proves that people working together can actually make a difference. If we fight for the things we care about, we can win.

Feminism isn’t the only movement that demonstrates that, of course. And there are plenty of super legitimate criticisms of specific campaigns, individual activists and thought-currents within the larger movement. But if we are ever able to forge a coalition that can challenge injustice and oppression at every level, a feminist analysis is going to be part of it, and I’m thankful for that.

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