Picture source: Hark! A Vagrant
In high school US history class, the author of our textbook was kind enough to dedicate some pages to "social history," aka "What were all those women and POC up to when white men were running the world?"
Because of these few pages in which I saw my gender represented, I discovered Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. I was forever changed...
My mother put our education first and for that, I am eternally grateful. At the same time, there was always the underlying expectation that I should finish my bachelor's degree and even my graduate degree so, unlike her, I would have a backup in case anything happened to my breadwinner...see, my mother finished one year of college, dropped out, married my dad, had 3 babies, but my dad died prematurely when she was 32, I was 10, and my brothers were 6 and 7 years old. Her goal for me was to do exactly as she did, but with some degrees under my belt...you know, JUST IN CASE!
I was being steered toward domesticity my entire life, so despite the fact that The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, it was just as relevant to me in 2001 as it was to white, middle-class housewives back then.
My problem that had no name? Despite all the freedoms afforded us by 1st and 2nd wave feminists, I still felt...confined.
I felt confined to a life where I was expected not only to finish a graduate degree, but, to a certain extent, ignore my career aspirations in favor of finding a man who worships the ground I walk on and wants to make babies with me...while I stayed home and did most of the housework and childcare. Again, my mother wanted me to grow up to be a more educated version of herself: demure, domestic, unambitious, except when it came to finding a man who made a good enough living that I didn't have to work full-time (or at all)...
There was also all the favoritism bestowed upon my younger brother. Unlike me, he was allowed to have an active social life that was free of my mom's interrogation. He was allowed to sleep over his girlfriend's house while I wasn't even allowed to date. My mom always told me she couldn't afford to buy me a car, which I accepted...but she was somehow able to buy one for her son. She never told him that he should find a career that afforded him the flexibility of being able to stay home and take care of his kids.
My mom's attitude toward raising sons was encapsulated in the common refrain "boys will be boys."
I know sibling rivalry is common and expected, but I also know my mom's favoritism she showed toward my brother wasn't just because "he's so easygoing," "so easy to raise," and "it's so hard to get mad at him." I knew he was being held to different standards because he was a boy.
I used to joke that when she was about to yell at me and throw things, she should just pretend I was my brother so I'd be spared from her abuse...
On my dry erase board, I counted down the days until I was scheduled to go off to college. In addition to studying psychology, I also couldn't wait to finally take women's studies classes and engage in activism!
And did I ever engage in activism...I joined the Campus National Organization for Women and one of the first projects I was involved in was petitioning the FDA to get the Morning After Pill over the counter. This was 9 years ago, so we were doing this the old-fashioned way: with paper and pencil and direct human interaction. We protested the Bush administration's Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act by standing on the corners of a major intersection holding up signs. We also engaged in some good old-fashioned consciousness-raising about...
...topics that interested the president of our organization. Over time, we became increasingly dissatisfied with the direction our group was taking - it seemed everything on our agenda was all about what our president wanted and as far as I remember, we were focusing almost exclusively on reproductive justice issues. There was no attempt from our leadership to make our goals intersectional. In addition, as is common within any organization, there were personality clashes and most of them were between the president and various members of the group.
So we staged a coup...and it was successful. We overthrew our president and filled all of our leadership positions with members of our "party." Our group was now free...
...to do nothing. I mean, I think we had some meetings, but I searched through my old emails and I can't find any evidence that we really accomplished anything after our coup. I think we had been so tied up with our dissatisfaction with our leadership that we just didn't have any firm plans as to what to do next.
The last email having to do with Campus NOW is dated December of 2005, my third year of college. At this point, I was focusing almost exclusively on my career: I was working on research projects with my professors, I held an officer position in the Psychology Club, and was wrapping up my women's studies minor and beginning my coursework in gerontology. I also had a part-time job at the campus bookstore.
Feminism just wasn't on my mind anymore. Plus, what the hell were we going to accomplish during the Bush administration anyway?
Looking back, it wasn't just a matter of being too busy and existing in a reactionary political climate. It was also the reactions I was getting from my peers and family members. When I wasn't being teased for being a "feminazi," I was being held to unfair standards - how could I consider myself a feminist and listen to early Beastie Boys singing about "Girls?"
I found that the people most likely to call me a hypocrite were the ones who were the least concerned about feminism and were contributing nothing to the movement.
My mom Googled me and found my name on the morning-after-pill petition. She told me that I'd made a big mistake because my name would forever be attached to this petition (along with 1,300 other people). Sure, that petition was a pledge to give a friend your morning-after-pill prescription if she needed it, thus breaking the law, so I guess my mom had a reason to be concerned. But still...did she really need to shame me for doing what I thought was right?
Overall, no one around me wanted to hear about feminism. When your usage of the "f" word leads to being condescended to and teased by peers and family members, you stop wanting to use it. You distance yourself from the word and the movement as a whole. The very idea of discussing feminist issues makes you cringe because you anticipate others' mockery. It especially hurts when your ideas are being dismissed by those you love and are supposed to trust.
While I wasn't explicitly being told to shut up, I might as well have been.
My feminism was dormant for about 8 years. I found myself in a series of unhealthy relationships, one of which was with someone 13 years older than I was and who was my supervisor at the bookstore I was working at. I thought I was in love, but I was really just lost. I was constantly seeking validation from him and other men.
Later down the road, I found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship in which I felt compelled to suppress my emotions so what's-his-face wouldn't get mad at me for...feeling feelings. Luckily, I had it in me to escape...
It took me years to overcome my internalized misogyny and my need for validation from men. The fact that I had rediscovered my love of feminism helped!
I don't remember why exactly I started reading Jezebel, but it was about a year ago. I had also begun engaging in feminist discourse on Facebook via several pages, including Being Feminist, Guerrilla Feminism, Equality for Women, and Unpacking the "F" Word.
My feminist voice was back!
I even started a blog, but it was under my own name and I didn't want potential employers to Google me and not hire me because of that wretched "f" word I was using.
But I needed an outlet for my voice, so for months I commented voraciously on Jezebel under my current screen name...
...and then #Mileygate happened and Ninjacate drew me into Groupthink with the blog post heard 'round the world. I'd read about cultural appropriation before and attempted to explain it to people (this is the original source of the gif and the caption, btw...) when the initial Jezebel coverage of #Mileygate came out. Explaining cultural appropriation to people was incredibly frustrating for the most part, especially since my comment thread inexplicably went into the grey.
But Ninjacate brought it home...and cited many other commenters' perspectives on cultural appropriation.
I wanted to be part of this Groupthink, this community of people who really seemed to "get it." I decided it was time to blog again, so I dusted off my favorite post from my closed blog and asked Penabler to share it to Groupthink.
I obtained posting privileges within hours...I wish I'd asked sooner.
By and large, Groupthinkers seem to appreciate the difference between disagreeing with someone and acknowledging that someone who does not share your gender, race, socioeconomic status, and ability level may see things in this world that you do not see.
I am white and was born into the middle class, so I certainly cannot speak for all women. However, through consuming copious amounts of feminist literature, I have confirmed what I have suspected was happening to me my whole life: we live in a culture that silences women both IRL and online.
While much online silencing of women takes the form of rape and death threats, some of it is more subtle. Just like IRL, we're often told that our feelings are wrong and our opinions are invalid because we're expressing emotions. We're basically being told once again to "act like a lady"...
To quote blogger TooYoungForTheLivingDead,
Living in a world that reminds you daily of your lesser worth as a human being can make a person very tired and emotional. When someone says something oppressive — that can be a racist slur, an ableist stereotype, a misogynist dismissal, an invalidation of identity/experiences, being asked invasive and entitled questions, and so on – it feels like being slapped in the face, to the person on the receiving end. The automatic response is emotion and pain. It’s quite exhausting and difficult to restrain the resulting anger. And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression. Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.
[Tone policing] dismisses the other person’s position by framing it as being emotional and therefore irrational. The conflation of emotionality with irrationality is often used to silence women and people who are read as women, when they are trying to speak about anything at all. It’s also used against all marginalized people when they attempt to speak about their very personal experiences with oppression. But being emotional does not make one’s points any less valid. It’s also important to note that, by tone policing, you not only refuse to examine your own oppressive behavior, but you also can blame that on the other person, because they were not “nice enough” to be listened to or taken seriously.
Now, I’m not saying it’s okay to be abusive, or oppressive in response to a person who fucks up. But anger is valid. Anger is valid, anger is important, anger brings social change, anger makes people listen, anger is threatening, and anger is passion. Anger is NOT counterproductive; being “nice” is counterproductive. Nobody was ever given rights by politely asking for them. Politeness is nothing but a set of behavioral expectations that is enforced upon marginalized people.
When I say I almost quit feminism for good, I'm not speaking only in the past tense.
Many women take to the internet to speak their minds because IRL, they're talked over and told to "calm down." However, when our opinions are invalidated by others who you thought knew better than to employ silencing tactics, you are hurt all over again. All of your efforts to empower yourself wash away...you want to slam down the lid of your laptop and sob...and disappear...
Rediscovering my feminist voice was essential to overcoming my internalized misogyny, my need to seek men's approval, and my need to fulfill my mother's goals she set for me from the moment she discovered she was having a baby girl.
If my feminism hadn't been dormant for so long, I perhaps wouldn't have found myself in so many one-sided, unfulfilling, and sometimes abusive relationships. I wouldn't have shamed myself for the number of sexual partners I had. I wouldn't have blamed myself for all the "bad sex" I wound up having.
The amount of tears I shed over all these experiences could fill a lake.
If I hadn't been so preoccupied with all of this pain that was ultimately brought on by being born female and socialized as a girl, who knows what I could have accomplished instead.
I've documented much of my pain here and I hope I've turned it into something useful. Perhaps people will finally see how silencing women IRL and online replicates existing power dynamics whereby your voice matters less by virtue of your gender identification.
When you tell us to "tone it down," be "less aggressive/hostile," and that "people will listen to you if you speak more calmly/rationally," you're reinforcing the lessons we've been taught from birth. You're reminding us that we are ultimately powerless in the face of oppression. You're reminding us who's really in charge.
In the spirit of Eloise V, I'm ending this post with a request: no matter how bothered you are by women's anger, let us be. Let us fume. Let us speak in our own voices. We sure as hell can't display our anger IRL, so please allow us our space.
If you encroach on our space, we might slowly disappear...
I don't want to go through that again.
Photographer: Francesca Woodman