When I was in fifth grade, I demanded a classroom debate because my (female) teacher wouldn’t allow girls to play football at recess. I had zero interest in playing football myself. I still haven’t bothered to learn how it works (though I will cop to getting teary-eyed at Dillon Panthers victories). But I was outraged at the idea that we couldn’t do something just because we were girls. Around that same time, our school was looking for a new name and accepted submissions from students. I got up in front of the school and gave my speech in favor of naming it Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary, after the first female doctor in the US.
Despite those auspicious beginnings I, like many women, had a phase where I fell into some non-feminist patterns. I viewed other women warily and made friends mostly with men. I complained that the women in the college improv troupe I went to see loyally weren’t really funny. While it was still known that could you could bait me into a passionate debate by challenging women’s rights, I wouldn’t have wholeheartedly described myself as a feminist or embraced the label and the movement in the way I do now. I wasn’t tapped into any kind of vibrant, empowering feminist community of the kind that’s much more accessible these days no matter where you are, online at least. It’s embarrassing in retrospect, but also a not unusual part of the learning and growing process.
The label “feminist” in particular has long been contentious–sometimes based on dated, inaccurate stereotypes or misunderstandings of what feminism is, sometimes for more legitimate reasons of lack of inclusivity. Ann Friedman uses actress Shailene Woodley’s recent comments distancing herself from feminism to talk about her own “not a feminist” phase and take a sympathetic look at celebrities who reject the label. As she points out, the question is usually not intended as the opening of a meaningful conversation about feminism, but as some kind of trap.
Let’s stop and consider that maybe a brief interview withTime magazine is not the safest space for Woodley to explore complex ideas about gender, equality, and the pressure she feels to appeal to men — something that even proud feminists struggle to articulate. According to Time, “though many define feminism simply as equality between men and women politically, socially and economically, what constitutes the movement is up for debate among stars.” Actually, what constitutes the movement is up for debate among everyone, especially feminists. The difference is that stars often don’t have the luxury of having this debate in private.
It’s a privilege to feel secure enough to label yourself a feminist. I think of my shaky sense of self when I was in high school, and my conservative Catholic surroundings, and it makes total sense that I didn’t “come out” until I was nestled in the safe liberal bosom of college. I think of the countless women who have felt alienated by mainstream feminism’s race and class biases, and opted to reject the term altogether. I think of young celebrities like Shailene Woodley, who have more to lose by claiming feminism than they do by casually disavowing it. Correcting misconceptions about feminism is important, but implying these women are stupid or traitors for their decision not to embrace the term doesn’t make for a stronger feminist movement. It makes for fewer feminists.
My first instinct whenever I see anyone make comments like this that seem to demonstrate a lack of interest in really understanding feminism is to be annoyed and angry. Friedman’s piece is a good reminder to try to think of these moments as opportunities to engage, educate and build a stronger community.
Has anyone out there had an “I’m not a feminist phase,” or dealt with someone who was going through one? Share in the comments.