After having graduated with an honors thesis that fell clearly into the realm of feminist studies, speaking at a relatively intense feminist studies conference, and beginning graduate work that once again embroils me quite thoroughly in the world of feminism, I have come to a rather surprising conclusion: I am not a feminist.
In fact, I'm very near what one might call an anti-feminist.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love being a (rather liberal) female, I fully support females and femininity, and I'm far from the typical "anti-feminist" throw pillow types who prefer adhering to standard gender roles over rocking the boat. You'd be hard pressed to ever find me in the kitchen with an apron. I'm still iffy on whether I even want children. While I love makeup, I go out most days without it. I'm certainly not in support of any oppressive patriarchy here.
Another necessary caveat entails the distinction between "feminism" and "feminist studies". I fully support, and find fascinating, the study of gender roles, including their construction and enforcement. Indeed, such study has taken over the vast majority of my collegiate career. I read Cosmopolitan in order to figure out the hidden messages behind "104 Ways to Please Your Man", right alongside many of the top feminists in academia. I find the academic, analytical side of feminist studies to be quite appealing, yet nevertheless I have always felt that awkward, deer-in-the-headlights embarrassment whenever I am called a feminist. After a few years of feeling guilty for my curmudgeonly refusal to stand beside fellow women in feminism, I've finally figured out the main problems - or, at least, my problems - with feminism.
First of all, feminism doesn't exist. If you asked one hundred self-identifying feminists what they stand for, you'd likely get one hundred very different answers. Obviously, this is also true for political parties, and other movements as well. Some vegetarians, for example, are against the meat industry, while others are against the moral notion of eating another creature. Some Republicans support the party because of their economic policies, while others support it for...well, I don't really know anymore, because politics have started to scare me, but I'm sure they have a reason. In any case, however, both of these groups can unite on one key practice: Pretty much all vegetarians choose not to eat meat (what type of meat, of course, is up for debate), while most staunch Republicans choose to vote for Republican candidates. Feminists, however, don't really agree on much. Minimalist feminists (say that three times fast!) think that there really are few differences between the sexes, while maximalists think there are key differences that should be recognized. Liberal feminists want to work within the current system to include women's voices, but materialist feminists think the system shouldn't exist at all. Stiletto feminists embrace their sexual power, yet other groups see sexuality as a form of male objectification. I'm sure there are countless other subfactions of feminists who all have different beliefs; third wave feminists, cultural feminists, and others that aren't even cohesively labeled as of yet. Various groups think that "women" should be defined and empowered as a separate gender group, while others want gender labels to become unimportant and view gender as a fluid identity characteristic. So, in short, "feminists" can't agree on whether women exist, how women should act, how women should be treated, and how other genders fit into this whole mess. While I fully support individuals aligning with a cause they believe in, I find it problematic to label any one of these "feminist" when we can't even agree on what feminism is and what it should strive for.
My second concern follows from the first somewhat paradoxically, in that I oppose the "image of feminism" (which by all previous logic shouldn't exist). Indeed, in spite of feminism's amorphous nature, a surprising number of (primarily uneducated) individuals have nevertheless decided on a stereotypical feminist image. Come on, let's be honest, I'm sure at least once or twice you've associated the word "feminist" with other words and images like "butch", "dyke", "lesbian", "man-hating", "troublesome", "rabble-rousing", "liberal", and even "crazy". It's not necessarily a pleasant image that comes to mind for many people. To be sure, these associations are not without cause. Feminist groups often embrace a Black Power fist-type logo, or coopt the image of Rosie the Riveter. Feminists are often outspoken, and...well...a bit crazy at times. Gay women have often been forced to deal with notions of gender identity more harshly than their heterosexual counterparts, so it isn't surprising that they have a voice in the movement, too. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, there is no such thing as a stereotypical feminist. It isn't fair to make these assumptions. More importantly, it entrenches a negative connotation with the movement that, before you get the chance to explain what species of feminist you are, immediately turns off a surprising number of listeners. So, I suppose that's my problem. Why would I label myself in such a way that will make it harder to get my message out? Even if the stereotype weren't negative, however, I would still oppose it, simply because it isn't fair. If feminists can't even agree on what feminism is, it's probably not a good idea for the rest of the world to try to decide for them, then get it wrong and alienate themselves along the way.
My final and most personal opposition to the label of feminist is one that, I realize, may just stem from my age, and my refusal to accept that women are the only (or more important) people who have been oppressed. I realize that I have grown up in a remarkably liberal environment, where I was never told that I couldn't do something because I was a female. I haven't seen a lot of overt oppression, although I recognize there is a startling amount of mind control still going on subliminally. However, I simply can't justify a philosophy that favors women over all other groups. If feminists are fighting for freedom, security, respect, and opportunity for oppressed individuals (which is probably the closest we'll come to finding something that all feminists agree on), I can't possibly see why those values would be promoted for females, yet not other individuals like transsexuals, those with disabilities, elderly people, black people, or even, heaven forbid, men. By calling myself a feminist, I linguistically limit myself to championing the rights of the female above all others. That just seems to fly in the face of everything that I, and many feminists I know, stand for in terms of equal respect and opportunity. Besides, with the growing acceptance of homosexuality, transsexuality, transgender roles, hermaphrodites, and other things we haven't figured out how to name, I'm not even so sure I know who (what?) falls into the archaic category of "female" anymore. So why would I align myself with a group that privileges one group over another, in order to combat...you guessed it...the perpetual privileging of a different group. To play on the classic phrase, fighting privilege with privilege makes the whole world oppressed.
So, what's the answer? If I'm not a feminist, what am I? Am I just going to stand quietly by and let the world go on wronging people around me? No, of course not. First and foremost, I shouldn't need a label to believe in something; I'd rather explain my beliefs through lengthy blog posts that nobody reads. However, because labels are catchy and do give some people a shared identity to empower themselves, I've decided that I'd like to be an equivalist. I don't believe in equality, which is a key facet of "civil rights". I think "all men are created equal" is dead wrong, and an absolutely ridiculous notion to uphold. We are not equal, and I am eternally thankful for that. We all have different ideas, skills, hopes, and beliefs, and that's what makes life interesting. I, personally, will never be good at sports, and I don't want to be given a spot on the same team as Brett Favre just because I'm a person and "deserve that right". I am, however, great at other things, and I'd like to be rewarded for those talents. The key? I want to be valued and respect just as much for my abilities and choices as the next person. In other words, I want equal value, or equivalence, not equality. Now, this isn't a foolproof plan. I recognize that my job as a janitor might not involve as much skill as that of a neurosurgeon, so I'm not saying we should value all skills equally; people will get paid differently, some people will be more skilled than others, and there is always going to be inequality. What I personally will be trying to do, however, is to give people fair chances, and respect the choices they make if they're not hurting anybody else. I won't deny people respect or opportunities based on identity features like race or gender. I'll do my very best to value people equally, in spite of their differences. I guess what I am saying is that we should take a little more time to respect that we do all have differences, and that's okay. In fact, it's a good thing. We just need to start seeing the value in other people's ways of life.
Okay, so I don't have it all figured out. I don't know what will make everyone happy, because everying is different. Moreover, there are just some things that I will never respect: Those who hurt other people intentionally, for example, are pretty low on my personal totem pole. We all have intrinsic value systems that, no matter how hard we try, will probably privilege one group over another. Maybe feminists have it right, and I'm just crazy. To be sure, they do some pretty cool things, and I say rock on if that's what you want to do and be. But it just isn't for me.
After four years of identity crisis rich enough to be a Lifetime TV movie (which isn't saying much, I know), I'm finally letting go of my shame. I am not a feminist. So what do I do know? I guess, to quote The Nightmare Before Christmas, I'm gonna do the best I can.