This Is What A Feminist Looks Like(?)

Alex is a rising Senior working at Hollaback, which is dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology.

My “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” pin that I keep on my book bag has definitely gotten me some attention around Duke’s campus since I put it on last fall.  From everything to, “Wow, I love that pin!” to “So you would consider yourself a feminist?… That’s interesting.”  Either way, I was never really concerned about people’s perceptions of me if I identified openly with feminism.  After all, I was not shy about institutional racism and inequality, or poverty, and there was no way I could separate these issues from those that feminism dealt with.  For quite some time now, I have been convinced, and unshakably so, that I was, in fact, what a feminist looked like, or at least could like.

Perhaps I should backtrack.  No, I definitely should backtrack.  The 21-year old self-identified feminist from rural North Carolina attending Duke University is no way to begin telling any story.  In my first two years at Duke I thought of myself as a very “race-conscious” person, someone who was not afraid to articulate what I felt were the undeniable and ever present systems of inequality still at work in America. But my scope, in retrospect, was dangerously narrow.   As I think college is supposed to do, Duke provided me with exposure to people and ways of thinking that I would have never come across in Wilson, North Carolina.   Slowly, I began to understand the inter-connectedness of racism, classism, sexism, and able-ism, from an academic standpoint.

Fast forward to this past spring semester, and my amazing course with Robyn Wiegman “Thinking Gender.”  This was perhaps the most influential class I’ve taken during my time at Duke, and it really transformed my approach to understanding systems of oppression and the histories foregrounding the institutions that make up these systems.  From Judith Butler and Bell Hooks to Marx and Foucault, I really felt like I was on to something, I really identified with what I came to understand to be the feminist approach to the world.  Very quickly I came to consider myself to be a feminist, and had no second thoughts about it.  Of course, not everyone, especially men and minorities, saw what I saw in feminism; a link to new ways of thinking, new ways of creating and articulating truth, that possessed, at their core, the ability to speak to and about this world the heterosexual, middle class, white man has constructed for us here in the West.  I took the criticisms of my position in stride, after all I could understand how the socialization of these groups could lead them to approach feminism the way they did.

Now the ground has begun to shake.

I have long been aware of the critique that feminism has become a white woman’s movement, but I’m convinced my own privilege has helped me approach that fact as one that could possibly change.  However, as I look around at the leaders of the organizations Moxie is working with, the beneficiaries of the work these organizations are doing, the ways of thinking that led to their existence, and even the very demographics of the Moxies, it has become very apparent to me, with an unnerving quickness, that I am in fact, possibly not what a feminist looks like.   This is definitely not the end of the story, but I can’t say I know where it goes from here.  In the coming weeks and months I really will be considering what the price of my pin’s message is.  What does it mean for feminism to have physicality, for feminism to be embodied?  How can identity politics be quarantined from and re-employed against, especially here in the US, the discriminatory institutions that have lived on them for centuries?


6 thoughts on “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like(?)

  1. Isn’t feminism the right and ability for each woman to be authentic and true to herself? That has included a range of options and choices for me throughout both my professional career and personal life.

  2. I found your post very thought provoking. I share with you the sense that feminism is a continuously evolving set of ideals, commitments and responsibilities towards others with the goal of constructing a world structured by equality. I am therefore curious about why you conclude that feminism is a politics of identity rather than a politics of material realities — of bodies and the economies through which said bodies socially organized and deployed.

    I look forward to seeing you revisit some of the scholarship that has inspired your thinking about gender in light of your experiences during the Moxie internship.

  3. Alex, I am curious about how the organizations connected to Moxie have caused you to question some fundamental assumptions you have about feminism. What are the organizations doing, and how are they composed, that has caused you to question in whom and how feminism is embodied?
    I also wanted to comment on an influential course I took in graduate school many years ago called sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism. A fundamental point of this course was that humans and animals organize themselves into ingroups and outgroups. Ingroups share common physical features, attitudes, values, and behaviors and tend to see themselves as more valuable than the outgroups. Moreover, these groups organize according to a dominance hierarchy, and unfortunately, those groups accorded lower status fair worse than those higher in the hierarchy, frequently suffering discrimination, oppression, and other ill effects of inequality. If similar processes underlie oppression of any outgroup, what does this mean for feminism?

  4. Thank you all for the responses. Apologies for the late responses but these were amazing replies so I really want to answer them.

  5. @Yvonne: “I am therefore curious about why you conclude that feminism is a politics of identity rather than a politics of material realities — of bodies and the economies through which said bodies socially organized and deployed.”
    So when I ask myself, “Who is a feminist?” (based on what I have seen with Moxie) the image that comes to mind is one of a middle class, straight white woman. Now there are DEFINITELY others involved who don’t share that identity, but when I look at the core of who dominates the discourses of feminism I see a politics of identity. I see women who are similar on the basis of class, race, sexuality, what have you, coming together to often represent their own interests. Now I’m not saying this is wrong, its just what I have seen so far.

  6. @Michele: I think my reply to Yvonne sort of answers the first part of your question, sort of. As for your last question, it definitely makes sense, and I don’t know that there is a way of completely avoiding that hierarchy that you’re referring to. I think the best option, then, is to acknowledge it, rather than promoting the attitude that because one is a feminist, he or she is in fact an advocate for the utter and absolute equality of all people. The rhetoric can often come off that way.

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