This is what a feminist looks like

Steff is a rising Senior working at Legal Momentum with the National Judicial Education Program.

“She’s really strange. She’s really loud and opinionated, and messy, and I’m pretty sure she has some sort of weird lesbian infatuation with me! Hah I can’t explain it… It’s weird.” My friend was half laughing, half sketched out as she was telling the story of her roommate this past semester at school. We were in our usual hangout place, in her basement,  lounging on the cozy L shaped couch with a few others. Many a significant occurrence had happened on this couch, from first kisses to first alcohol-induced slumbers, from existential conversations to typical girls’ night bitchfests. Tonight was no exception, as it was the last weekend before I was to depart for my summer in the city and therefore one of the last times I’d be able to attend one of these ritualistic basement rendezvous. In typical fashion, we were having a great time doing really nothing at all.

After struggling with her words for a little bit while describing “weird” aforementioned roommate, another girl offered up what she at the time probably thought was the perfect categorization. “Oh… is she like…a feminist?”

The girls around me laughed, and the conversation continued smoothly.  I looked around in disbelief but said nothing, tuning the rest of them out as I took a second to ponder the weight of my friend’s words. Despite the fact that my silence had probably signaled approval to the rest of the girls, I was definitely confused. Why is labeling oneself as a feminist a bad thing, even amongst other females?

Actress Ellen Page said recently “you know you’re working in a patriarchal society when the word ‘feminist’ has a weird connotation.” A connotation that we hate men, for example. Or a connotation that we demand certain privileges because of our gender. Around my the friends who I grew up with, and even some of those I go to school with now, feminists are seen as extremists, making things complicated for what they like to see as “the natural world order.”

For these reasons, I absolutely consider myself a feminist, but usually only refer to myself as such around like-minded individuals who understand that the term has nothing to do with hatred and everything to do with equality. Am I proud of this fact? Certainly not. But am I afraid of situations becoming hostile just because I promote basic human rights? Definitely. People would argue with me that I should be educating my peers instead of staying silent, but it’s more complicated than that. Ignorance is a choice. I can be disappointed with people because of the choices they make, but they themselves must possess the will to change—something I’m not sure I am able to instill in them.

Labels can be dangerous, especially for those not born at the top of the privilege totem pole. People are immediately stereotyped based on their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. Even after telling my friends about my internship for a women’s legal advocacy foundation this summer, I was met with plenty of questions regarding “my status as a feminist.” When asked point blank, I have no problem admitting it. But I hate the appropriation of the term “admitting” in this situation because I feel as though I’m likening being a feminist to having a dirty secret. But that’s just what I do—I admit my feminist status as opposed to take ownership of my feminist status.

As time goes on, however, I find myself talking the necessary steps towards becoming more involved in the feminist movement of my generation. I have a sticker on my laptop that says “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like”—something I probably would have been hesitant to do as recently as a year ago. I enjoy telling people that I want to go into gender equity law because it shows of my ambition as a smart and capable young woman. I am proud to be a part of the Duke Engage Moxie project because my program peers are involved in all different types of things on campus—but we can unite together here with our shared interest in equal opportunities for all.

Through this program, I’m confident I’ll make the change from “admittedly feminist” to “proactively feminist”—because I possess that will to change.

2 thoughts on “This is what a feminist looks like

  1. Your post eloquently describes a situation we have all been through: debating — or in retrospect, regretting — having kept “our mouth shut” in the name of politeness, friendship, and/or emotional safety in an awkward social situation.

    Of course, your friends laughter about feminism need not be the “last word” in the conversation; indeed, it can be the beginning of a completely new one. You can choose to share with your friends the experiences your are enjoying this summer. You can bring up the topic on an individual basis, or decide to raise it with several friends at once (perhaps by sharing this post with them). In this way you will begin to build a space so feminism, a part of yourself you consider important, can be recognized and respected when in their company. From this starting point, piece by piece, you might be able to then make feminism an accepted and cherished part of their lives as well.

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