Ms. Opinionated: Am I a Bad Feminist if I Don't Take a Stand on Every Issue?
This week, Sydette Harry takes on a question about feeling like you're a "bad" feminist.
Dear Ms Opinionated,
Congratulations! Welcome to the feminist fold! *throws confetti*
Do me a small favor. Before we do anything else in this column: breathe. Listen. Then do it again.
The ability to stop, take in what's around you, and then pause is one of the skills that is most important about being an organizer—and is often one we leave out when talking about being a feminist. A lot of feminist literature advocates making your voice heard, standing clear in your opinions, and not backing down. I love that. I wouldn't be a blogger, columnist, general pendant if I didn't. But the sound of my voice talking doesn't change much. If you want to invest in bringing folks together, you have to a lot of listening.
The idea that you have to have an opinion on everything is false. It's actually one of the most annoying things you can do. Sometimes, issues just don't concern you or don't involve you. People feel very passionately in their lives about the causes that concern them and they want you to feel the same. But you just won't in every case. And that's okay. Forcing someone to identify as the kind of feminist you want them to be is not that different from making a friend try to be a "good" woman in a kyrirachial role. One of the great things about being a feminist is that feminism is about applying the rules of being a good human to helping women. It s not something you get a cookie or award for but it is satisfying and can change the world.
Got that? Deep breath! Great. Frankly, I am trying to coordinate some way we can send a welcome pack of warm emails, tasty treats, and a helmet to people who declare themselves a feminist. You’ll be in for some negativity and some battles. But I don't have the transporter I was promised by Star Trek, so I'll have to make do with just supporting people as best I can. Feminism at the end of the day is people meeting and interacting around certain principles. If you get any group of people together they will disagree. Feminist disagreements can feel terrifying and be off-putting but disagreement is not hurting the feminist cause. Feminism survives thanks to discussion and disagreement.
You used the example of the "socially superior vegan" and as a proud mentor of team meat eater, I feel you. If I feel I align with someone’s cause (I'm deeply anti-fur) and I can do some work that helps, I will. Sure! Why not? If I don't align, I keep pushing the issue—and sometimes we clash. For example, I think vegan movements have a big blind spot around farm worker's rights. It happens.
With all that in mind, my advice on "converting" someone to feminism is rather blunt: Don't be an asshole. The same way you feel about evangelizing vegans may be the way your friends feel about you. Think of why that annoys you and apply that to your discussions. Empathy is a great tool in this. Talk to your friends about the things that matter to them and look at what motivates, scares, and concerns them. A friend who is worried about the unequal pay at her job has a feminist concern. A friend who is annoyed at the presentation of women on TV is talking about feminist issues. A friend who is upset about poor access to childcare is definitely discussing feminist work. They feel these concerns because the world doesn't hear them or listen to them—ignoring their unique concerns and opinions in the name of hewing to one style of feminism is the last thing you want.
Our foremothers called this “consciousness-raising” and they did a lot of it for a long time. A long time, like years and DECADES. So give your friends some time. Remember that you become a feminist to love people and support them and to challenge the systems that don't. That's the important thing: Not what someone call themselves, not whether they have all the correct opinions, but how they’re working to make a better life for women.
To do that you have to listen.
Let me know how it goes! Also seriously, I need science to create a transporter already because I would like to send many, many people delicious feminist fudge. It would be awesome.
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