On Being a White Feminist (No, Wait, Please Hear Me Out)

I am a white feminist. You guys*. It’s true. I’ve made the argument before that the idea that I function as a woman of color is at best, problematic and defies any uncritical acceptance. I want to go further, now, and point out that I am a white feminist. This puts me in illustrious company – Amy Schumer, Taylor Swift, that actress** who said something ignorant at an awards show, that other one who said something ignorant at an awards show, that other one who said something ignorant at an awards show. Well, you get the picture. And a pretty one, she is not.

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You guys, our feminism is WHITE. With just a touch of color over on the far end. Just like this picture. (Source: Unilever)

I don’t actually want to spend this post proving this to you. But let me start with the whitest feminist of my white feminist perspectives. When people say things like, “Can’t we understand that we’re all just people first?” I shut these conversations down, often, particularly recently. I shut them down by pointing out that, precisely because I am a woman, I am messaged in subtle and overt ways, over and over again and since my birth, that I am not a person – that women are not people. The second wave rallying cry, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” was necessary as precisely in that day, because society did not behave in a fashion that suggested it believed this statement, as the phrase Black Lives Matter is necessary in more recent discourse.

This is the whitest thing I have to say, of all the white things I say and all the white things I do – I see myself as a woman first, before all my other identities. This is white feminist precisely because, as I’ve come to be educated, my feminist – even my womanist – sisters of color very rarely see things this way, because race is almost always their most unignorable experience. It isn’t mine. So they’re proudly women, but woman is somewhere lower on their list, most commonly. Often second. In contrast, most of the time, like other white feminists, my race is only relevant in discussing my experience because it privileges and protects me. And like my white sisters, I am more often unaware of it than in any other state. What is important about this is that I am not saying I “pass” for white – I am saying I function as white. These two are not at all the same thing. I benefit from privilege. I did not seek it out.

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You guys, this is how far our sisters of color have to go to correct the bullshit that we too often call feminism.

But back, for a moment, to my white feminist identity. I say I am a woman first, not because I want all sisters to say this, but because this is how I experience the world. I stop, later, and recognize, yes, I do have a race, and that it is indeed part of who I am. And that I have a class – actually, I am aware of my class more often than my race. But even that is a relative rarity, while I am almost never unaware of how being a woman affects my experiences.

I’m not entirely saying I don’t experience racial microaggression***. Occasionally, other white people – like really, really white people – can make a play to erase my privilege. In fact, last night, I had one of these conversations with a white woman. You know the one. It began with. “You’re so exotic. Where are you from? Don’t say Michigan.” But this not only happens less and less, but it seems to be less and less effective at marginalizing me.

Sisters of color, if you are not already fed up with me, have not already stopped reading, please know this (and continue reading, if you’d like). My goal is simple: I want to help us white feminists figure out how to stop being such a pain in the ass. Don’t be nice. You know it’s true. That is precisely what we are. My goal is to help us be the good Sisters we are meant to be, and not the bad Sisters we have been most of the time. My goal is not to celebrate the outsize space we take up in movement, but to help us to a path to actually allow us to address our misbehavior and stop stealing your space.

Back to my fellow white feminists. Okay, so a solid chunk into this screed, how am I going to accomplish this goal, if I have not turned you, too, off? I think I have an answer. Like all very complicated things, it is also very simple.

We are faced with a conundrum. We are rightly called out for our white feminism. We are told to knock it off. In fact, we want to knock it off. Badly. Erm. We want it badly, but we actually instead do it badly. Here’s why. We replace white feminism with white intersectional feminism. Which, unsurprisingly, is crap. What do I mean by this? White feminism is the queen of all single-cause social justice movements. Its one cause is to help white women feel less worthless all the time. You see, we take up outsize space within movement, and we take up even outsize space in racially mixed groups outside movement, but we take up far less space than we are due in polite white society. And we do, actually, feel worthless, like all the time.

This is the conundrum in which we’re stuck, much to the chagrin of our sisters of colors. We are white feminists because of our experience of marginalization. Our experience, in which race is a source of privilege and not marginalization, begins young. We are not born hating women, perhaps. We open our eyes and see our mother (most of us do), and we love her. She is, in fact, nearly everything. But soon, we notice that the world does not love her, does not value her. And perhaps we learn to hate women by first scorning her as the world scorns her, or perhaps we do not learn to hate women until we recognize ourselves in the mirror. But hate women, we do, sooner or later. And as we are nurtured on the mothers’ milk of misogyny, we learn that we are needy. Overly emotional. We are told and told constantly, although it seems like we try to take up no space at all, we are in fact taking up far too much space. We are told that, although it seems we give far more than everything we have to others, we are greedy for withholding our bodies, our hearts, even our smiles. This is, perhaps, why we sit on the edge of chairs even when they are made for only one person. Because we are not worth the space of one person – we can at most be a fraction of a person, and even then we are inevitably too large a fraction. This is, perhaps, why we paint our smiles on twice, once with makeup and once with the falsity of “putting forth one’s best.”

Our feminist experience then, white feminist sisters, is that we learn this state, we become awakened (often by sisters and sometimes even by brothers of color, who have always had our back in a way that we have not had theirs), and then we band together with others of like experience – that is, other white feminists (because, help us though they did, our experience did not feel quite like the experience of our sisters of color, because, in fact, it was not quite the same). So we bond with other white feminists. And we do get as far out of privilege-borne narcissism to realize that their suffering is like ours, and that the means to our own happiness and theirs are inextricably linked. This is our feminist experience – it is not quite like the feminist experience of our sisters of color, many of whom are taught to hate their race even before, and far more thoroughly than, they are taught to hate their sex.

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Kyriarchy, as far as I know, has nothing to do with that annoying 80s song (Source: That annoying 80s artist who sings that annoying 80s song)

Being confronted with the white feminist nature of our white feminism, surprisingly, is precisely where we go most astray. For we are faced, it seems, with two options: White Feminism (capitalizing for the willful practice of foolishness), or intersectionalism. Some of us choose White Feminism. We turn to actively saying things that are destructive. Our feminism becomes a tool of kyriarchy**** and not of liberation. For the rest of us, who would rather die than knowingly put people in chains, the only option we have is intersectionalism. But we don’t know how to stop being white feminists (back to lower case), so we become white intersectional feminists. This, I am arguing, while insidious in its danger, has the possibility of being even more problematic than White Feminism.

The why and wherefore of this comes directly back to how we became feminists – our marginalization histories, and our years of internalized misogyny before we were awakened*****. Sadly, this is the only framework in which we can process the fact that we take up too much space in movement – both in feminist movement and in social justice movement. We do two deeply destructive things in response. They both run deep in us, but for different reasons.

The first, which comes from our marginalization, is that we cover over our need, as we always did before we awakened. We recognize that, in the scheme of things, although we are less privileged than wealthy white men, we are often very privileged. So we place ourselves in a classic old feminine hierarchy, one in which too many of us spent our whole childhood being victimized, deciding whether our pain is of enough merit to voice, and we find that it is not – almost always not. But our silence is precisely what suffocated us before, and it does precisely the same now. And suffocating, dying of asphyxiation, our feminist yearning to survive takes hold, and so even in trying to do this, we lash out. Except now, and precisely because we were holding our breath to try and make space for them (or rather, to try and avoid our habitual stealing of their space) that we lash out at our sisters and brothers in arms. But we know this is wrong, and we hate ourselves all the more for it.

The second thing we do is much like the first, but it comes not from our marginalization but our privilege. We take on the role of Overlady (or Overlord, if your feminism thinks you will be equal when you are a man). I have seen this so many times. White intersectional feminism, unlike intersectional feminism that is not white, is hegemonic in general, like all white feminisms. Its hegemony comes from our whiteness and not our feminism. When she is taught intersectionalism, she “naturally” takes on a conductress role in which she becomes Arbitress of the Intersections. She self-designates her role as deciding who matters more, and who matters less. She silences thus, not just herself, but her sisters as well, for the misguided hope of “giving her voice” to her sisters of color, when indeed, they need not be given her voice so much as she must stop stealing theirs. This, of course, is the prison of internalized and self-policed misogyny in which too many of us were reared – that is, we are leading our white feminist sisters back into precisely the gilded cage from whence we emerged, and we believe it is feminist that we lock them back in the cage and stand guard******.

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This is what that Arbitress role looks like when it is held by a dude. Please overlook the grammatical lapsing in my comment, however, which was originally directed to our new Mayor

It should hopefully have become very clear that she does this because she is white, not because she is a woman or because she is a feminist.

We need, very simply, to stop being white intersectional feminists and engage in a more assertive******* dialogue in which we embrace our feminism but learn to undo our whiteness. Our white feminism tries to say, because race marginalization is so much more onerous a burden on others than gender marginalization is on us, womanhood doesn’t matter. That is not a feminism at all. This is not an assault on our sisters of color – only we white feminists say anything this stupid. Note that our sisters of color who reject the label of feminist call themselves womanists. But we create a feminism that liberates others but does not liberate oneself, and this encapsulates, inevitably, that most unfeminist sentiment of all. If I do not believe I matter, then I cannot truly believe women matter, for I am a woman. I learned this years ago but forget it, time and time again, with surprising alacrity.

I become the proverbial empty pot from which no tea (but much hatred) may be poured. But likewise, a feminism that says that race marginalization is not real, or, astoundingly, says treatment by society is better when one is poor and black in America than rich and white, is just foolishness masquerading as feminism. Of all the intersectional feminisms, only white intersectional feminism would make either claim. The problem is not that we white feminists do not occupy intersecting identities, but that we occupy a great many privileging ones, and the still-profound marginalization we experience is due to just the one or two, having to do with our womanhood and femininity, that are not privileging.

We thus cannot simply drop the white and be intersectional feminists, which would be a simple answer and of great service to our sisters of color if it were possible. We do not know how to do this. We might, someday – this would do so much, if not everything, to stop racism. This is because, and we must learn this, race is entirely about the fact that our whiteness makes us “matter” in the kyriarchical system of racism, and the non-whiteness of others makes them not matter, or at least matter much less. Thus, if we could stop being white******** – that is, not stop having a racial identity, but stop having an hegemonic racial identity, then we should undo racism itself, because it is precisely the hegemonic nature of our racial identity that created and maintains racism.

It is not incidental but paramount in understanding the situation, to realize that white is not a single racial identity but a cluster of racial identities into which groups have been privileged, over time, and it, itself – not our skin color but the in-group powers we are conferred when our skin colors are granted the privilege of whiteness, is the source of the hegemonic systems that hurt us and with which we hurt our sisters and brothers in arms.

This is the non-parallel nature of the system. One does not need to learn to stop being African or Latina. But one must learn to stop being white. It actually does operate much in parallel with the hegemonic nature of manhood, into which one is privileged, and the captive role of womanhood, into which one is cast. Just as we have learned that eliminating sexism, even from ourselves, is no easy task, eliminating whiteness, even from ourselves, will be no easy task. One does not need to learn to stop being a woman. One must learn to stop being a man in the hegemonic identity sense, if one wants not to be a tool of patriarchy. African and woman are not hegemonic identities*********. White and man are. We white feminists have a foot in both worlds. The wealthy white feminist is like the child who leads far and periodically darts back to base to tag up and avoid being thrown out by the pitcher for stealing.

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I make, dear sisters, a sporting analogy (source: Wikimedia)

What is different about this line of sentiment is that it recognizes we cannot fiat our way out of whiteness nor expect others to do so. It allows us to confront the domineering nature of the discursive system our whiteness creates, while continuing our own liberation as women, and reducing gender-based oppression. I am neither asking us to magically stop being white, nor asking us to accept our whiteness as “the way things are.” So in the end, I offer no magic bullet, but rather a turning into the sharp points. I call us as white feminists to do the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do, and learn how to stop being white, and in this way, and this is precisely why I am recognizing my white feminism, I believe we can learn to stop being white feminists and finally become feminists.   

Notes:
* After all, I do say “you guys.” Like, a lot. And like, like, a lot. And it labels me as in group instead of marginalizing me.

** Another post, another time, on why it is not such a feminist victory that we say actor instead of actress, but I will respect the preference of others, and it seems that Delpy uses actress, which is admittedly the term I would also use, were I an actress instead of a provocatrice.

*** And I’m certainly not saying that all my Indian-American feminist sisters are white feminists. Probably most of you don’t feel you are, and the circumstances of my experiencing life in such a white fashion are a complex thing that still remains much shrouded in mystery, even to me.

**** If intersectionalism is the recognition that we operate in intersecting identity spheres that confer on us layers of privilege and marginalization, and that make our experiences, each of us, unique, then kyriarchy is that kissing cousin who reminds us that patriarchy itself is one of intersecting systems of dominance and marginalization that, itself, interacts with other systems, such as racism and classism.

***** Awakened with a kiss, doubtless, this is a white feminist fairy tale, after all, and one reposes gracefully to be woken by kisses in our world. It’s just a fairy tale of the proper, Grimm sort. That is, the fantasy is more warning than pleasant distraction.

******  Right outside the cage door, since someone must be free, after all, and it might as well be me. And we fool ourselves that, because we are in the prison as wardens and not prisoners, we are free, when we can never be free as long as there are prisons.

******* When we teach communication, we teach that there are three principal styles – aggressive, assertive, and passive. A passive style – which is nadir and birthplace of most of us white feminists – is one in which the needs of others matter, but our own needs do not. We know this too well, but our feminism was liberating to us entirely because it exposed this lie, and it will never be a source of liberation for anyone if it returns to it. It is the style of the self-made martyr. An aggressive style – in which our needs matter but those of others do not, is the quintessentially White Feminist style. The white intersectional feminist style tends to be a mixture of the two – passive aggressive. Which you’ve probably been taught is not a compliment.

******** Here I reveal that when I talk about being white, I am entirely talking about privilege, and the harm done to the world because I am given it. I do not aspire to whiteness and claim to have reached it – I find myself stuck in it and am trying to escape it.

********* At the risk of having a ridiculous number of footnotes, there are some rare but notable exceptions to this statement. In the context of exclusionary feminists who operate not in the context of women and men, but in the context of cis women and trans women, woman in their usage becomes a hegemonic identity into which one must be privileged. In general, in this way, Straight is a hegemonic identity and queer identities are generally not, but a like exception in the context of queer women’s culture is when lesbian friends reject a woman whose partner comes out as a trans man, perhaps because he will now have to struggle with having moved into a hegemonic category as a man. I feel like I have to run the risk of footnote perversity and explain this exception, since I was reminded of it by a couple I just met yesterday, who had that latter experience.

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A Brief Note on Self-Policing

This brief piece is a response to recent comments by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, as can be seen here or here, for example. It builds on my call to build an inclusive feminism, as well as to create a culture of calling in, wherever possible (sometimes, it is admittedly not possible). 

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Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) was the source of recent controversy for blaming the loss of reproductive freedom on women born since Roe v. Wade.

In the spirit of calling Ms. Wasserman-Schultz in, rather than out, her statements really help reiterate the importance of teaching the powerful role of self-policing in patriarchy / kyriararchy processes. The system knows that no one will ever guard the cages in which women are held better than the women themselves. The “system” benefits by pitting women against women, because it frees up its resources to focus on robbing our rights from us.

When a woman lashes out at other women – young women in this case (even as young as me, since Roe v. Wade has been in place all my life) – it is not a random act of relational aggression. It is a design of the system. I should like to see Ms. Wasserman-Schultz learn this. I should like to see every woman learn this.

Self-policing is part of what makes these processes like patriarchy so insidious and so difficult to eradicate. A crucial thing for us all to understand is that, because we were born in cages, we do not know fully what the freedom we are creating looks like. None of us has ever seen a world in which women matter – a world truly free of misogyny. We have never seen a world without the cages we are trying to destroy, even when we have broken free temporarily from them. And far more powerful than the bars of the cage is the belief by many caged people – women in our case – that there is no cage, or worse, that the cage is where we belong.

When Ms. Wasserman-Shultz understands this, she will understand that, even when it is true that women are enforcing the patriarchy (which is not at all true of the entire class of women who are under 43 years of age, but in this case, is true of her, herself), we need to educate them, precisely because we believe that women (and every other marginalized group) deserve to be free. And irrespective of everything else (e.g., if she is asked or choses to step down), it is my hope that we all do exactly this for her, and for anyone else who makes these kinds of missteps.

An Ode To One’s Spirit

Jupiter and Juno by Annibale Carracci

Jupiter and Juno by Annibale Carracci

She says the greatest sin is to not live for oneself. You do not understand her.

You say she is selfish and she blushes in gratitude.

Her responses confound you. But in the contradiction, there, you may glimpse her.

Though she alone owns her body, she alone owns her spirit, she sees her self, her identity, her body, her spirit, all these things and more, as a gift to be given freely and richly, and in giving that gift she finds greatest pleasure and greatest sense of self. So give she does, over and over, and her joy and her self both show increase for it. Such gifts that she fashions, which she makes only for herself and gives only to others.

This is her cave of two mouths.

She will allow you passage through her, the truth visible for barest glimpse. She will not force you to know her.

Emerging, you would think it arrogance. But in that moment, that glimpse, you saw, for a moment, that it is not.

The glimpse was fleeting, and it indulges you to slide back out of her, but you will not know her unless you embrace it, unless you remain inside her. So remain you must, and see her truly, for she will show you gladly. She knows no secrets.

And when you do, you who wish to compliment her, you who accept her truth, you will say nothing, offer only nod of encouragement or fleeting smile.

If you remain inside her this long, you will breathe a unity that needs no words, and you will rarely speak of it. When you must, you will say this:

This is she, who dreams of what might be, who prays for what should be, and who creates what must be.

On Embracing My Fears

For living a joy filled life, for finding passion and excitement, making dreams come true, living stories that I will tell and retell, every single day, I want to make an admission that might surprise you.

I am afraid.

Always.

It is a constant current running through the back of my mind. I wake up every day to a day full of opportunities to disappoint everyone I care about, to fail everything in which I believe. To not make a good enough breakfast for Teri. To not be a good enough mother to Iago, a foreshadowing of my failures to come as a mother to a human child. To not be pretty enough or put-together enough. To not be a good enough entrepreneur or scientist – to let down my team, which is a family to me, and especially my two closest co-dreamers. To let down all the children and families we serve.

I am afraid, too, that we will not keep our house well enough to be good neighbors. That I am not doing enough for my community. That I am not doing enough with my voice to make our world better. That I do not give enough money, time, or attention, to all the causes that need me.

And always that I will let down my mother and father.

This isn’t something to be overcome.

Audre Lorde said this:

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

Lorde wrote this in the context of her Cancer Journals, understanding-through-writing about her experience with breast cancer. Although it is in part an ode to grappling with mortality, it is a paean of everyday life, too, for all of us as women especially, and given the statements about fear found stitched throughout Lorde’s powerful writing, for her, herself.

Lorde's many comments about fear and the role it plays in women's lives are a worthy reminder for all of us, whether we have embraced strength or are still striving to do so.

Lorde’s many comments about fear and the role it plays in women’s lives are a worthy reminder for all of us, whether we have embraced strength or are still striving to do so.

Like Lorde, when I say that I do not see overcoming my fear, I mean that I cannot stop being afraid, but I can learn to live in a way that makes my fear irrelevant. The reason I am joy-filled and adventure-filled today is, in great extent, because I have been learning to do this, and although I remain filled with fear, that I am also filled with joy and that my life is filled with adventure tells me validates my path for me.

One of my recent realizations is that I have come an immense distance in my authenticity. I feel I am true in nearly every moment, and when I display artifice, it is with reason. I’ve even learned to be authentically vulnerable. But the interesting thing I find is that, even when I am authentically vulnerable, I am channeling my fear into lessons for myself others. What is wonderful about this is that I have learned to be powerful even in the midst of embracing fear.

The revolution is not that I say, “I am not afraid anymore.” It is that I say, “I am strong.”

I find the latter so much harder to own than the former, even though it is truth and the former is lie.

When I say that I am strong, I am filled with fear.

To this there is only one antidote.

Whenever I am filled with fear, I will be strong, and fear shall become my kōan.

Maybe It’s Time I Became an Openly Progressive Woman

I think it might be time I change my perspective on something. I have never affiliated myself directly with a political party – I’ve always been an independent. I’ve voted for many Democrats, especially at the national level, but I’ve cast votes for many Republicans, as well, often at the state and local levels*. I’ll always vote for the best person (ideally the best woman) for the job, but I think it’s time I sacrifice a little bit of my fiercely independent nature and pull in closer to the Sisterhood.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to the first Women’s Health & Economic Summit, hosted by the Michigan Women’s Progressive Caucus, and particularly Democratic women from the State House. I had been quietly getting to know progressive women here in West Michigan, over the past year, in part because I see very clearly the war on women, on black and Hispanic people, on the LGBT community, and, all too often, on common sense. I do not wish to roll the clock back even farther, and I am keenly aware of the risk the next few cycles of elections holds for all of us.

I walked in on the event, yesterday, with some concern, which was not entirely unfounded. I am a businesswoman who has a very strong sense of entrepreneur identity. I work at a mid-size non-profit (Hope Network, which has a financial size of more than $100M in revenues), and I innovate there. We’re doing things now that have never been done at Hope before, and we already have in our cache the next, next, and next levels of what we’re trying to do (and are prepping the old guard to be very, very afraid). Some people also call those of us who are entrepreneurs “in the big box” intrepreneurs, and I do like that, too, although my businesswoman identity is tied into pro-social innovation, not the big box, so social entrepreneur is probably what I like best. Anyways, as I walked in the door worried that I would not be welcome as a businesswoman, even though we know how many progressive women are small business owners.

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Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), a hometown sister, delivering her statements early in the day.

I was a little right. In the Q&A following a morning panel, two people used their opportunity to ask questions to attack entrepreneurs and providers and everyone else who serves in the healthcare industry. While there is some validity to their point, I felt personally attacked by this, because it’s what I do, and although there is a great need for structural reform (for which I myself advocate, in fact, I advocate unhesitatingly for a transition to a single payer system, to, in essence, doing what works in many other parts of the world, rather than practicing American Exceptionalism), I do not believe in an attacking dialog on this, and especially not one in which there is no room even for healthcare providers to have voices.

Intersectionalism runs deep – this is not a claim to my identity, just a statement of fact. It’s the whole point of intersectionalism. I cannot put away the fact of my Indianness. I cannot ignore the fact that, during my lifetime, although Mr. Obama is a noteworthy exception, every time there has been a Democrat in the White House, relationships with India have become jingoistic on the American side, leading to cooling of bilateral cooperation and adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of my family. I have, nonetheless, supported all the Democrats who tried to get there, during my adult life, starting with hand-delivering get-out-the-vote information for Bill Clinton when I was a senior in high school. In this same sort of way, and perhaps more saliently to me, because my identity as a businesswoman is probably stronger than my identity as an Indian (for better and worse), I can’t put away my belief in economic empowerment through business development when I enter progressive spaces.

I want to back up a step, though. Before that happened, when I walked in the door, people immediately recognized and welcomed me (and I wasn’t really sure there would even be many people I knew). I didn’t have to give my name. My friend, Amber, at the check-in station, already knew it. Representatives and activists came and made me feel welcome. Right away. This is pretty much what happens, time and time again, when I enter the spaces of my feminist sisters. It is frequently not what happens when I enter LGBT spaces**. And it’s something I’ve been listening to, thinking more and more about how I need to embrace my feminist roots, and my feeling that there is some structural mis-alignment (as exemplified by my giving) that over-represents my LGBT identity and underrepresents my feminist identity, when the latter is one I have been clear is much stronger for me. That is, my strongest identity of all is that of being a woman, of being a Sister.

So I did not walk in the door feeling unwelcomed – I walked in the door feeling very welcomed, at home, where I belong. This is a thing I’ll come back to, please bear with me. If the moment I described above validated my fears, they were subsequently invalidated by the rest of the day. I attended two great panels that were about empowering women economically.

The morning session I attended was music to my ears, talking about the value women bring to workforce development, and the many shared goals women of all ages and millennials bring to the workplace. The things with which we will change the world. We talked about fighting sexism, recognizing implicit biases in the workplace that harm women (and minorities), and building a workspace that meets the changing needs of the workforce as women and millennials come to dominate.

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Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) speaking at a morning panel about women and the strength we bring to workforce development

One of my goals is to integrate my life even more – I want to live my career, whether my current role as Director of my Center for Autism, or future ones, in a deeply feminist way. So we’ve been tackling a lot of these issues at the Center. And it’s tricky. I find my millennial leadership team members, amazingly, afraid to ask me if they can bring their young children into work due to a sudden issue with childcare. At my Center where we grow the lives and dreams of young children. In part, they’re scared because, technically, this is against our corporate policy. I respond (and HR may deal with me as they wish) by reminding my leadership team, gently, that they set an example of how to work with the families we serve, who are dealing with the same exact problems, and that of course they should bring their children in, and of course I trust their judgment in the matter. They do not need to say that dedication to their jobs will not be adversely impacted by their children paying occasional visits to my Center. I knew that already.

Time to admit I have some work to do.

Time to admit I have some work to do.

The rest of the day was much like that. Rashida Tlaib, alongside whom I spoke last year at Lady Parts‘ V to Shining V, received an award at lunch and delivered an impassioned and remarkably funny speech. Particularly impactful to me was her story of breastfeeding at the State Legislature and something atrocious a man had said to her, emphasizing that no matter how high we climb, we are still sexualized and objectified and well, treated like women. It mirrored something in passing that another Representative had said, which emphasized how women who are running the State still find themselves running home to cook meals for their families, much like I do.

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Rashida Tlaib of Sugar Law Center being fierce. It’s kind of what she does.

One more thing that resonated with me is how many of the women in the House spoke about how influential women in their communities had told them to run for office time and time gain – sometimes more than ten different women had told them this – before they listened. This has actually happened to me more than a few times in the last year, and at least two women I respect immensely have told me to do it. I need to think much more carefully about this, as I learn about what it is that I don’t know (which is kind of a lot) about the business of running for office. I think I worry, too, that I may not be electable, and that if I ran, I would be taking up attention that another politician deserves – taking up too much space. I don’t know if the former is really founded, because I have so many people in my life who are willing to support me. And I got a good dose of reminder that the latter is how entirely too many of us women think, entirely too often.

This is where I want to leave this story. I think it’s time that I think much more critically about my sense of need for independence, and the extent to which that’s a show, pretend, vs. my really deep-seated sense of Sisterhood, loyalty, and alliance. I need to question the implicit assumptions I have that Progressives and Democrats are anti-business. I need to listen to my heart, that tells me when I’m among progressive women, I belong more than I have ever belonged. I need to listen to my brain, which tells me that women are in a perilous time right now, and solidarity is more important than ever. And I need to listen to my voice, which tells me, sister, you’re stronger than you think you are, and you have more to say than you give yourself credit for. And I will listen. To all three.

* I do own my regret that some of the Republicans for whom I voted did what I wanted as a businesswoman but turned around and sided away from business interests, with social conservatives, when politically convenient, to the detriment both of women and of the LGBT community. While I’m a dimensional, non-single-voter issue, this is a compromise I recognize that I made, in the past, without full appreciation of the consequences, and I am trying to learn better.

** Although even in that story, Christina Karhl and her wife waylaid us for a drink and were one of the shining spots in that awful night.

In Search of Sexually Empowering Feminism

Okay, you guys, I swear this is not an XO Jane Unpopular Opinion piece, but I am not a sex-positive feminist.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified - t's really deep.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified – it’s really deep.

Oh, I like sex. I like being sexy. I like it when my fiancé calls me sexy*. But I don’t like being reduced to the role of an object, even if I play object roles. And I don’t like being a tool, especially not of the patriarchy. And I am not a sex-positive feminist.

It wasn’t a typo.

So I gave a local training to a family health center, today, and the idea of sex-positive messaging came up, unfortunately advocated for, blindly, by a university nursing professor. Her advocacy of this issue is wrong for one of the most basic reasons I oppose sex-positive feminism – because her embrace of it is uncritical. No feminist – no woman – no person – should be uncritical. Not about sex, and honestly, not about anything. It isn’t safe. Not in a world of criss-crossing power structures and systems of oppression. To make blanket assumptions that sexuality is safe in the sense of its relationship with power has deadly consequences, particularly for women, every day.

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn't mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn’t mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

I want to outline the reasons why I am a sexually empowering feminist, but I am not a sex-positive feminist. I’m not the first one to talk about something like this. In 2012, a feminist from the UK, Lisa Downing (Prof. LD) coined the idea of sex critical feminism. She was writing in response to Fifty Shades of Grey, which many revile as terrible writing, but far more importantly, many feminists and others call out as being not about lust but about sexual victimization (the BDSM community took exception, also). Downing wasn’t the only one. Whether they banded behind the sex critical term** or not, these authors talked about some major themes – how sex positivity feels to them as victims of sexual violence, because it is uncritical, and because it pits women against each other. And yes, XO Jane Unpopular Opinion got on the bandwagon, too***.

  1. Sex is at the very root of sexism. Sex and things related to sex, like pregnancy, abortion, rape, victimization, trafficking, are, of all the spaces in which we fight, the space in which we are most literally fighting over a woman’s body, whether we are feminists who are there to help her stand tall, or tools of the system that are there to violate her. To consider sexuality in an “empowering” way that does not recognize that sex has deep intersections with power structures and systems of coercion that keep the Patriarchy in place is unacceptably ignorant. Now, there’s that much ballyhooed over-simplification of second wave feminism, right? All sex is rape? What was really going on in the Second Wave that is important for us not to forget is that feminists were asking radical questions about how sex could be ethical. They did not blindly assume sex was ethical – rather, one of their most radical questions of all was to ask, “What if it isn’t and cannot ever be?” These questions inform conversations like the question of how living in the gender binary can be ethical, and they remain very relevant today, as exemplified by news like Bill Cosby’s serial raping, women being criminalized for miscarriage, the absurdism of “legitimate rape.” Sex positivity just forgets or washes over all of this. Sure, it recognizes that rape is an act of violence. Sure, it advocates for explicit consent. But again, the idea that men not raping anybody and asking for explicit consent before having sex, just those two things, makes sex ethical, is completely ridiculous.

    I don't mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the

    I don’t mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the “sex positive” movement is often objectifying to women (Source: CKUT)

  2. Sex-positivity all too often sells sexual messaging that is masculocentric. Now this gets into bones of contention among feminists, and I disagree with some women I respect mightily. But for most women, we cannot be truly sexually empowered if we are pretending to be men. And yet, too often, sex-positive messaging is like the “shrink it and pink it” of athletic wear. So sex-positivity forces us to talk a masculine game. If a woman stomps her fist and demands orgasm, that’s increasingly cool, and some very visible women are doing that – Amy Schemer, Nicki Minaj, and others, and this conversation is increasingly going global. That’s cool – I applaud that. But, if a woman – even a woman who has and enjoys many orgasms – says that her enjoyment of sex isn’t centered on orgasm, she is immediately viewed with suspicion, and admonished to demand orgasm from men like these model women. She is never asked: “Okay, then, orgasm isn’t the be all and end all for you. Cool. So how can I make sex more pleasurable for you? What gives you value in sex?” Why isn’t she? Why don’t we believe, in this era of sex positivity, and sex positivity that is supposedly feminist, that a woman could have a viewpoint on her own sexuality? But just like past eras of sexuality where it was a liberating idea that a woman could be on top in heterosex****, all it does is take a man’s conception of what sex should be and put it on women. That isn’t empowering to me.

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women's Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women’s Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

  3. If you’d been traumatized, you might feel differently. Sex positive messaging also has a tendency to celebrate sexuality in a way that is deeply inconsiderate of trauma survivors. Worse yet, sex positivity and the demands to conform to this view that the “movement” places on women place sexually empowered women like me at odds with survivors who do not feel safe with sexuality, when in reality we are sisters and we need to be lifting each other up.
  4. Why doesn’t anyone think about the aces & aros? Sex-positive messaging (and I’ve made this mistake, too, although I do know better, and I need to knock it off) does not recognize that there are some people – including some, but not all asexual and aromantic people, who may not want to have sex, and who may not need to enjoy sex. Sex positivity not only doesn’t recognize that not all people are sexual, it writes over the narratives of the marginalized with the majority’s narrative. That’s so not cool.
  5. The Sexual Revolution All Over Again. And here’s the rub that women know all too well. The sexual revolution was this proclaimed attempt to free our sexualities. But what it did for heterosexual women is primarily create a set of rules to maximize our bodies’ availability***** to men. While the sexual revolution seemed appealing to many women at the time, in the long term, it was deeply problematic for us, and it leaves us a legacy yet today. Look at online dating and “hookup culture” – Tindr was created by two guys (and from the looks of it, not nice guys). The idea that women can either be sidelined by some other woman who is more willing than they are, or they can play the man’s game on the man’s rulebook, is a fool’s choice. Even for women who do legitimately find value or meaning in hookup culture, it’s vital that we understand that we are participating in a game that plays by rules that are deeply patriarchal in their design.

* And Teri is quite the Prince when it comes to tolerating the dissonance between the fact that I love my sexuality yet question its ethicality.

** Notice I used “sexually empowering” instead of sex critical. This is not because I don’t respect Downing’s work – I do, immensely. Rather, I think the name sex critical is problematic. Unlike some of our most radical sisters of the second wave, I see sexuality as something that fulfills a deep, human need for many (but not all) people. Being sex critical to me implies that doubt of the second wave that sexuality can even be ethical. I’m committed to the idea that we can make it more ethical, and I’m committed to the idea that anyone can be sexually empowered, whether they are sexual or not, whether they have sex or not.

*** I kid, I kid, I love XO Jane, I totally click through and read all the articles. And although I disagree sometimes, I love the idea that women can have opinions different than mine.

**** Straight people and their sexual practices are so quaint.

***** I was going to say, our sexual availability, but the reality is that it wasn’t and too often isn’t ours, and it’s not us but our bodies that society wants – this is ultimately the entire concern critically conscious women, even women like me who love sex, have about sex positivity.

The Place of Female Chauvinism in Feminist and Women’s Movements

This is something I’ve been struggling with. So, I’m a female chauvinist. And I’m not really sorry.

Well, sort of. You know I’m sorry about everything, except for being sorry about everything. I should be clear about what I mean. Because I don’t hate men, at least not in the sense that you think of that term in the context of feminism (slash basically no feminists really do*). Sometimes I think I’m better than them (okay, kind of a lot, you guys make it too easy) and sometimes I think they’re better than me (okay, only occasionally). But saying I love being a person wouldn’t cover it – I love being a woman. And that’s on the short list of things for which I’m not at all sorry. I’m thankful to have been born born all kinds of other things – fast, smart, trans, pretty, occasionally funny but not when I tell dirty jokes** – but particularly, I’m thankful to have been born female.

So, chauvinist but not exactly a chauvinist pig.

Truth be told, calling people pigs has always sort of ... I don't like that. It really bothers me, for some reason. Source: Wikimedia

Truth be told, calling people pigs has always sort of … I don’t like that. It really bothers me, for some reason. Source: Wikimedia

And I think there is room for restorative pride in the feminine experience, pride in womanhood, pride in girlhood, that recaptures the imbalance in society’s objectified, distorted, and sexist ways of patterning everyone’s thoughts about us (including us). The idea that pride is restorative is really bedrock to this. Pride in womanhood is fundamentally different than pride in manhood because of the hierarchical sexism inherent in our society that places manhood above womanhood. Pride in femininity is fundamentally different than pride in masculinity because of the hierarchical sexism inherent in our society that places the masculine above the feminine.

Seriously, so note how much makeup the inpatient in a hospital is wearing for her review with her attending. In an article about how sexism hurts women's health, for the love of all that is good and holy! (Source: Role Reboot)

Seriously, so note how much makeup the inpatient in a hospital is wearing for her review with her attending. In an article about how sexism hurts women’s health, for the love of all that is good and holy! (Source: Role Reboot)

In this way, talking about pride in being a woman – female chauvinism – is not only a good and radical thing, but it is analogous to other pride in the context of other kinds of struggles. So white folk get uncomfortable at the idea of #BlackLivesMatter, wait wait wait, uh, you mean all lives matter, don’t you? And please don’t mug me – I listen to Beyoncé! And straight people can’t understand why gay people need a pride. Why don’t I get a flag? And when they do have a flag, they have distorted reasons about what it means within a system of oppression from which they benefit. 

But, while “good feminists” embrace the idea of black pride, they reject the idea of female pride. And I’m saying they shouldn’t.

I believe these phenomena arise from a really interesting side-effect of marginalization, which I want to be the focus of this piece. In many ways, the mechanism of marginalization – of all these isms – tends to attribute all the diversity to the dominant group. So we pay lots of attention to differences in hair color and eye color, because they vary a lot in white people, but we ignore all the things that are different about the billions of us black haired, brown eyed peoples. Guys are individual, identity-laden agents of change, but women are interchangeable hoes***. And there are a million and one straight love stories, every one of them different, but society-killing, Christ-denouncing, global-warming-causing same sex marriage can be simplified into a unitary construct, as if there’s no diversity among LGBT love stories.

We should be proud in our womanhood like Bree Newsome is proud of her blackness (incidentally, you go, sister!) Source: Inform!

We should be proud in our womanhood like Bree Newsome is proud of her blackness (incidentally, you go, sister!) Source: Inform!

Now you’re really going to think I’m crazy, but what I’m going to do here is say that the dominant culture – the white guys – also have a point. Don’t worry – it’s not the point they think they have. The interesting phenomenon is that, simultaneously, dominant group mechanics, while seemingly attributing all the diversity to the dominant group, actually whitewashes**** much of the really meaningful diversity in the dominant group. You can see this in white folk who cling to the 1/64th of their ancestry that is Chippewa or Cherokee – because they recognize that being “white” does not confer them a really meaningful racial/ethnic identity in the way that being Indian-American does me. This is why every white person wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s day. You can see it in how all the clothes all the straight guys wear looks exactly the same, but it’s really important to them to be distinctive by having those shoes in just that shade of brown – again, the process of marginalization makes the world all about men, but it whitewashes men in some special and perhaps hard to realize ways. And they don’t want to be whitewashed (and I’m glad of it!).

This isn’t just a case of the grass is greener, of all the straight haired girls want curly and all the curly girls want straight. This is a fundamental characteristic of that asymmetrical relationship.

To me, the solution to this is radical, and it comes from chauvinism. I actually think that straight people should have a Pride. It’s just that it’s the LGBT Pride we’ve already got. As we become a cultural force with which to reckon (oh, we will / we are), I think it’s right to think about making the centerpiece of Pride be about gender and sexual diversity, but to emphasize that not only LGBT people are diverse with their gender and sexuality. Of course, our diversity is the most obvious, but straight people are diverse, too. I’ve taken to pointing this out, every time I talk about the concept of gender expression. You take 100 straight girls who work in the same industry, and some of them don’t even own pants, and some of them wouldn’t be caught dead in a skirt. Some of them don’t wear makeup to interviews, and some of them wouldn’t be caught without false eyelashes at the gym. That’s diversity of gender expression. And you don’t even need to understand LGBT people to get that it exists. And if you really celebrate it, to me, you’re welcome at Pride, not as an ally, but as a full blooded sibling. Even if you’re straight.

So, my answer, radical as it is, is to not only embrace chauvinism in my womanhood (and the idea that I can be proud of being a woman but that pride does not bind me to a course of being sexist), but to embrace the idea that you can be proud of who you are. Even if you’re a straight white dude! But you’re going to need to re-capture who you are. Because you’ve been defined in this sexist way that makes you everything and makes us nothing, and surprisingly and unintentionally, also makes you nothing and makes us everything

This is a big part of the reason I really nudge Teri and his friends along in this idea of developing a robust, future-compatible concept of manhood, not just for themselves, but as a gift to all men. Sure, I benefit, because if men weren’t tools, feminist movement would be so much easier. Obvi. But the truth is I benefit directly, because Teri is a man, and moreover, he’s my fiancé, and the better man he is, the better my life will be – not because I need a man anymore than a fish needs a bicycle, but because my life and his are wound together. Just as the better woman I am, the better his life will be. That’s the shared destiny of our selecting each other as mates, and it’s the consequence of the commitment we make to each other, the one we will consecrate someday soon in marriage.

And finally, yes, I glossed over it so I could pack in a not very funny joke, but I did say born female. As a trans woman, I take some relatively strong views. One of them is that I am biologically female, irrespective of the sex to which I was designated, irrespective of anything, period. I don’t know what my karyotype is – I haven’t and don’t need genetic testing to know who I am. Moreover, that very concept is backwards – my genes have the potential to explain the diversity of sex, because they probably aren’t typical female genes, but they’re carried by a woman (me). I’m a woman irrespective of how they look – and I know this from years of trying to deny this simple truth. In embracing authenticity, I’m not living “as a” woman or or somehow changing to my gender identity – I’m simply accepting reality*****. For this reason, I reject terminology****** like male-to-female or female-to-male, for myself, anyways.

This is a karyotype. Not mine. Some guy's. Seriously, if you want to have a conversation about the biology of sex and you don't know the word karyotype... Source: fineartamerica

This is a karyotype. Not mine. Some guy’s. Seriously, if you want to have a conversation about the biology of sex and you don’t know the word karyotype… Source: fineartamerica

The relevance of this strong view is that I reject the idea that I was a man, or even a boy. Which is important, because it allows me to be unabashedly a woman – I think everyone who knows me knows I don’t identify as anything, and I don’t prefer things, either.

So I’m proud to have been born female. And I’m proud to be a woman. And I’m not sorry. And I want you to be proud, too. I just want you to be proud in your identity, and I’m willing to help you find your identity. Because you can’t be proud in your privilege.

* I found this article while I was looking for another article, and it’s so amazing that I have to make sure I mention it, by creating a footnote to nothing (cue the bridge to nowhere hyperbole), and I’m going to have to figure out some way, before I publish this piece, to footnote something with this. Because this is amazing. The truth is that, although she uses aggressive language (very Dworkin-worthy), I pretty much actually agree with her. Except that I, unlike her, am kinda cutesy. Well, more than kinda. And I don’t fight, I play fight, and most likely, I don’t hate, I play hate. No, not player hate. Ahem. She explains by the end of the short piece (although apparently too long for the men’s rights folks to finish reading it) that she doesn’t actually hate men, which would also have been obvious from the rest of the piece if one were actually reading it (slash if one were a woman). Also, in solidarity with her, I hate refrigerator magnets. Ask Teri. Or better yet, ask me about the whole situation with having to clean rust off my stainless steal dishwasher that I hardly ever use because of the giant stupid refrigerator magnet someone put on it. Ahem. No, we’re cool, actually I totally love her, we’ve since become really good friends, that one and I.

** Okay, I told one dirty joke that was actually really, really funny, and totally on point. But it’s the only one I can think of. The punchline was “Let me introduce you to my Beaver Cleaver.” You kind of had to have been there. Erm.

*** Or, all too often, interchangeable holes. Oh, you thought I couldn’t be that radical? But seriously, this idea is rife in the “makeover” element of every movie where some mousey girl gets a makeover and looks like she came off the cover of a young woman’s magazine – it’s important, because the dominant culture messaging of men says that every woman could be that girl, if she just toed the line a little harder.

**** Only here to be funny to Teri: Well, that’s an unfortunate name.

***** Truth be told, I still use the term transition – the thing about having a reclaimed identity is not just that I didn’t make up the language, but that I must find a way to describe who I am in a language that wasn’t my choosing and that wasn’t designed to include me in the range of possibility. So, I still use transition, but I’m predicting that you’ll see it appear less and less, and although it’s been in many of my posts, and in this case, I’m relegating it to a footnote. Baby steps.

****** I kind of had a moment of annoyance at an event I did a few months ago – a local activist asked me to be on a panel to “speak about the transgender,” and she had an “MTF” and an “FTM” and a “non-binary” and anyways… I told her, sorry, I don’t do talks about the transgender, and I don’t share stages with MTFs or FTMs. Mostly being flippant, but I think, in the long term, you’ll like my language better, because you’ll like the identity-validating message underlying it. And also the simplicity. Because seriously, like, I can’t keep it straight, whether I’m an MTF or an FTM or an MTFTMTF. I’ve got a little pea-sized girl brain, give me a break.

The Hidden Danger to the Sisterhood of Hierarchical Assumptions

I believe that one of the most worrisome, hidden dangers to the feminist movement of the fourth wave, is hierarchical sexism. This is sexism in the form of beliefs and attitudes that the masculine is better than the feminine and that the typical behaviors of men are better than the typical behaviors of women*. No feminist actually explicitly believes that men are better than women, mind you. But pervasive in our dialogue is the idea that masculine behavior is better than feminine behavior. This argument is supported from the other direction, too – masculinity is better (generally) than femininity in subjects, but femininity is better than masculinity in the isolated context of asking what may be objectified.

Heels can be a tool of patriarchy, but, somewhat amazingly, jackboots cannot. This was seen in the conversation between Laverne Cox and bell hooks about whether one can wear heels and not pander to the patriarchy, but it is much broader than that. Masculine garb is the attire of leadership. At the same time, women who simply prefer it face criticism for refusing to be objectified, prominently, Ms. Clinton. Thus, women find ourselves “damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.”

Photo of Military Presence in Georgia

Jackboots have never been used to advance the patriarchy? Really? Really?

The dialog around how often women say, “I’m sorry,” is entirely rooted around women apologizing less often. It carries the implicit assumption that masculine behavior is the baseline against which femininity should be measured. Women are taught to stop apologizing for taking up space, a very feminine behavior, far more than men are taught to stop assuming a right to take up space (although, finally, the latter is also happening). It is never suggested that men apologize more, and only that women apologize less**. Again, in contrast, when women are expected to take up space, it is typically for objectification (so our naked bodies are on far more billboards… sometimes selling the most seemingly non-sexual of things).

Dude, stop the spread, please.

If one really wanted to press the analysis, she might observe that men are asked, rather sheepishly, to change their specific behavior, but they are not asked to think about occupying space in the way most women think about occupying space.

We fight objectification (masculinity is far more rarely objectified), but we struggle immensely with the idea that women can ethically choose to be in object roles, even though we know perfectly well how many sentences in our language require both a subject and a direct object (this is part of the complex question of ethical sex work, although to me, this in itself is not enough to define the road to ethical sex work). Yet, again, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

When powerful women choose to play object roles - in big ways, like an Allure photoshoot, and in small ways, like wearing sexy clothes to the bar - we frequently face criticism for  being sexy (and open to objectification)... while ignoring the inescapable fact that a great many of us want to be seen as pretty (and yes, sometimes sexy).

When powerful women choose to play object roles – in big ways, like an Allure photoshoot, and in small ways, like wearing sexy clothes to the bar – we frequently face criticism for being sexy (and open to objectification)… while ignoring the inescapable fact that a great many of us want to be seen as pretty (and yes, sometimes sexy).

And – to our credit, we’ve picked up on this one a little bit – we have many conversations about whether women leaders can butch it up enough to lead, but we never talk about whether male leaders are feminine enough. Womanning up is not a thing at all***, and no one talks about how, if he spent a little time thinking like a woman, Vladimir Putin might engage in a few less atrocities – no, in order for there to be any sale to men of his ilk (say, our own Dick Cheney), sale must be made entirely on the idea that it is actually more masculine, more manly, to stop the bloodshed****.

This is the state, too, of conversations inside feminism, not just out in the broader world. Serrano and others, particularly in queer theory or queer feminism, argue the dangers inherent in this explicitly because masculinity and femininity are not the same as maleness and femaleness, but inside the sisterhood, we need to be particularly wary because, even if they are not the same concept, they are highly intercorrelated. This is a concept queer theorists seem to struggle with immensely – yes, gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things, but they are highly intercorrelated – it is not a coincidence, and any neuroscientist or biologist could tell you it is not a coincidence – that masculine people of any sex are relatively more likely to be attracted to femininity, and vice versa.

The Genderbread Person is useful to illustrate that gender identity, sexual orientation, etc., are different things, but there is danger in assuming that two different things are automatically entirely uncorrelated.

The Genderbread Person is useful to illustrate that gender identity, sexual orientation, etc., are different things, but there is danger in assuming that two different things are automatically entirely uncorrelated.

This is also really a message that is recapitulated in many other -isms, and thus sharpening this dialectic sharpens our intersectionalism. Poor people are expected to understand and demonstrate some of the behaviors of affluence (or at least the lower middle class – most visibly seen by the fact that scarcely any Americans view themselves as not part of the middle class). In other contexts, at other times, they are expected to “act poor,” so that the barrier between affluent and poor people can be preserved. And thus poor people face criticism for having, perhaps, an iPhone, eating fish, having stylish boots or a statement purse (it is not the poor who are meant to be making statements!), or a decently clean and late model vehicle. Black professionals struggle with being open to criticisms that they are “acting too black” in the workplace, and at the same time, we can levy harsh expectations to “act black” on superstar African American musical artists and others. And queer people are at their most acceptable either when they are highly socially conforming, or when they’re highly “gay,” so that they can easily be read and othered.

Thus, this is important as a general concept. Any system in which the behaviors more natural to one group are assumed to be better than the behaviors more natural to another, without some more meaningful reason than the -ism, is dangerous to all of society. But, again, my provenance is the Sisterhood, and although I care about all these groups, I do care first and foremost about the cause of us as women.

Notorious, indeed.

Notorious, indeed.

And we sisters want a world that is made better because it is full of women leaders. There will be enough female heads of state when they are all women. There will be enough female Supreme Court Justices when they are all women. But here’s the tricky part: we want them to be all women, but are we ready for each one of them, to be, herself, all woman? Meaning, can women be seen as authentic with whatever mix of masculine and feminine traits they take on? Are we ready for unabashedly feminine leadership? Are we ready for femininity in leading men? Are we ready to see a world that changes, and changes we believe for the better, because it is full of the feminine leadership that patriarchy systematically weeded out (whether witnessed in men or in women), or are we only sufficiently invested to get to a world that is full of leaders who are women acting like men?

To me, if we accept the latter, we feminists risk unwittingly losing our fight altogether.

* Cross-reference, later in the article, this concept of intercorrelation, and how queer people don’t like intercorrelation, even though not liking intercorrelation is sort of like not liking the gravitational constant. The truth is, of course, that we all occupy dynamic space composed of some masculinity and some femininity – I am not, myself, wholly feminine in my predilections, and I have just a pinch of my own androgyny.

** Placing me in the somewhat amusing role of taking up space to voice my demand that I be allowed to say sorry whenever I damn well please.

*** This is evident in a much deeper way in American coming of age expectations. Girls are often considered women based solely on menarche, and thereafter their (young adult) womanhood is not called into expectation, whereas manhood is defined largely on “acting like a man.” For the longest time, I saw how this was harmful and problematic to young boys, but it is deeply problematic to women, as well – it sends a clear hierarchical message that womanhood is just something that happens (perhaps transforming the girl from “jailbait” to the woman who is “fair game”) not a chosen feminine object role but clearly objectification. Only manhood in this calculus is seen in aspirational terms.

**** And as I mentioned, previously, as in the case with Forster’s pithy analysis of colonialism in India, if femininity or womanhood is in this conversation, it is included primarily to discuss how it’s presence modifies masculinity.

My, How We’ve Grown

This morning, I’m finally watching Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk. I hadn’t had time to watch it yet, but I’m being selfish with a few minutes on a Saturday morning. I think you should watch it, too. Like the best of TED talks, Ms. Lewinsky bravely wraps her personal story around knowledge about how others have been harmed as she was harmed, and insight about how her story is a starting point to changing the world and making it better for all of us. She does, incidentally, just exactly what Teri and I have been trying to do with Our Narratives. And Monica used the opportunity to do this on an explosive, national scale, in that unique way only TED truly allows for.

In 1992, I, myself, fell a bit in love with Mr. Clinton – while I had been used to fighting for environmental action and other causes, I had never stumped for anyone in my life, but a classmate and I spent our volunteer hours stuffing mailboxes and trying to “rock the vote” and get people out to vote for Bill and his, at the time still somewhat zombie-like sidekick. He’s still the only president I’ve ever done something like this for, so I guess in my own way, having never met him, I can sympathize particularly with that element of Monica’s story. I remember, in conservative Holland, going to a downtown restaurant and celebrating the Clinton/Gore victory among the tiny cabal of Democrats. I didn’t (and don’t) identify strongly with the Democratic Party as a whole, but I felt it at that moment*.

By 1998, I was still a budding feminist (I’m just a couple years younger than Monica, and I will turn 40 at the end of April). In the past years, I had spent time as a contributor, editor, and ultimately editor-in-chief of a news journal at the University of Michigan, the Michigan Review. The Review and my time with it is a complex story. At times, it has been a neoconservative hotbed, and I am sometimes loathe to admit any affiliation with that. In my time, it was a dynamic balance between social conservatives and libertarians, who often did not agree or see eye to eye, although we all valued the individual and our talent, creativity, and passion as the basis for change and for progress in the world. That ephemeral balance, in those days, was something magical, and an important part of who I am.

I rode in amongst a wave of other libertarians (although I didn’t even know what a libertarian was at that time, and once, a fellow editor told me to ask a prominent local libertarian what the difference was between a libertarian and a libertine, without educating me on what the question meant… good prank), but I recognized tensions with the social conservatives. Most of the social conservatives I rode in with were respectful people, who tolerated difference even if they did not celebrate it. But not all. Sometimes, I stood up. I remember that there was a particularly obnoxious young man who came to the Review. He became infamous in our time on Michigan’s campus – it’s not that easy to stick out amongst 40,000 people. Once, he wrote an “article” in which he stated that a protestor “smelled like a wet Pakistani.” I led a nixing of this foolishness. Another time, in a staff meeting among many young women, he pitched an idea on how he had just turned 21, and gone to a strip club, and how he wanted to write, again #airquotes, an “article” on which girls would “do stuff” when he stuck dollar bills in their panties. I ran him out of that meeting, as managing editor, and damn proud am I. Other times, I sat silently and uncomfortably, on my hands, as women and women’s rights were mocked in our space, and sometimes, I even stooped to the level of token minority, or pretended to laugh along, in order to hide my inner revulsion. I am sure I was an Uncle Tom at many other times, much as I frequently feel like the Uncle Tom (or Aunt Tomasina, or whatever) of the trans community these days. Occasionally, though, I got it right. I actually found (it’s on page five, here) one of the articles I wrote, of which I am somewhat more proud, and Teri and I re-read it, and … I’m still at least not mortified by it**.

I continue to push myself to feel in the real world in each moment, and not to discount my experiences because they are mine. Now, I recognize how much of this was my internalized and self-directed misogyny, as well, although that was something I did not grasp, then.

I continue to push myself to feel in the real world in each moment, and not to discount my experiences because they are mine. Now, I recognize how much of this was my internalized and self-directed misogyny, as well, although that was something I did not grasp, then.

But, at that time, although I questioned her treatment, and I usually avoided the vulgar jokes, I didn’t have the tools or the words to express or understand what was so wrong with the way she was treated. I remember also, clearly, from that era, how I had not understood what had really been going on with Anita Hill. Much as I was a libertarian before I understood the term, and this often led to me not being able to articulate my viewpoint effectively or rise appropriately or summon courage consistently when it was needed, I was a feminist before I properly understood the term, and my early implementations of feminism were, honestly, weak. It would be a few years, around 2001, until I became properly versed in feminism, spending a seven-month period of joblessness, superimposed on 9/11, reading Gloria Steinem, Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet, Naomi Wolf, and so many others, as well as backing philosophers like Michel Foucault, the rave of feminists “back in the day.” It was at that time, that I went back to Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and even Frederick Douglass (whom I keep quoting), and re-contextualized what I heard***. And it would take the next 15 years, following that, for feminism to work its way through my tissue and cure me, and like vampire poison, sometimes, I still feel that sense of womanhood and sisterhood coursing through me and curing me, yet.

Now, looking back at all this, 20 years later, I recognize the blatant sexism and mistreatment Monica endured. After some feminist or other explained to me why anyone would reference a “pubic hair on a coke can,” and what the comment had meant, and after Toni and Zora explained to me just a little of what it is like to be black woman in America, now, I better understand what happened to Anita Hill, too. By the time Hilary Clinton was in the news for something called “cankles,” I still had to look the term up, to understand what it meant, but I had a fair idea of what was being done to this accomplished and dedicated leader. And like Monica did in her talk, I now recognize the overlapping and intersecting aims of bullying as it is leveled against not just women, but the LGBT community, and everyone who is not rich, white men and their sons (as long as the sons don’t turn out to be poofters).

By now, I can clearly and comfortably say, that Monica should be so proud of this TED talk. And all women should be proud alongside her, as I certainly am. The way she was treated, twenty years ago, was an attack on all women. It had little to do with the ethics of cheating or leadership impropriety – serious issues but just a front for the subtext in that era – and everything to do with the objectification and denigration of women’s bodies and women’s experiences, a celebration of the sexual double standard, an an entrée into the emerging world of cyber slut-shaming, cyber bullying, and all the brave new things technology fused with hatred brought us in the internet era.

I was not equipped to understand that, and speak out ferociously, in 1998. Neither was Monica Lewinsky. But we have grown into fierce middle-aged women, not in spite of ourselves, but because of ourselves. We just had to overpower the messages society sent us about our value, and reinstate our internal notion of our worth.

My, oh my, how we have grown.

* Later, the second time I felt moved by a candidate would be in Chicago in 2008, when I saw elderly African American ladies waiting at the bus stop, in church lady dresses, with Obama t-shirts pulled on over the top of them, and I was overcome with this magical sense that these women had never felt like the President of the United States of America could belong to them, and I reveled with them in their delight.

** As it turned out, thus far, I have not “turned to the bottle,” but I have experienced, briefly, unemployment, if not any kind of economic deprivation.

*** I was an engineering student at Michigan, and in those days, at least, engineers had maybe 17 credits altogether to spend on everything other than engineering and “hard” science. I think many of the engineers found “blow off” classes to knock out these requirements. I exempted from freshman English, which is hard even for the liberal arts students and nearly unheard of for an engineering student, but I was also the only one I knew who did her liberal arts sequence in English literature. African American literature was probably my favoritest class at Michigan, even better than quantum mechanics (which I also loved). Prescient, non?

Why I’m Giving Up Picking Fights within the Sisterhood

Back when my friends, whose religious practices involve sacrificing something for Lent, were making their picks, I quipped that I would give up picking fights within the Sisterhood* for Lent. It became a little less quip and a little more aspiration, over time, and “for Lent” gradually became a provocative question of what life would look like if I (we) never picked fights within the Sisterhood. I’m not going to pretend that I’m doing that now, or that I will ever get there, but that provocative question gradually became a mission. When I take on missions – I don’t take them on lightly. I don’t know who coined the word impossible, but I bet it wasn’t a Sister.

I'm not stopping cracking the whip altogether. I'm just doing my best not to crack it at other Sisters.

I’m not stopping cracking the whip altogether. I’m just doing my best not to crack it at other Sisters.

Sisterhood** is a powerful thing. A powerful thing in my life – whether it was Gloria Steinem, or Jane Austen, or Charlotte Bronte, or so many other Sisters of the Revolution, who spoke to me as a Sister, and helped me find my own Sister’s voice inside me, or so many Sisters in my life yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It breaks down barriers. It allows me to talk with, to advocate alongside, women who are different from me in so many ways – our skin color, our socioeconomic status, our politics, our life experiences, our education, our queerness or straightness – and I have seen, so many times, we are instantly Sisters, and although all these other things remain, Sisterhood is more fundamental and more immutable. Of all the things worth preserving to me, as a woman, Sisterhood is the greatest***. And my choice is predicated on my treasuring of this most precious thing, on this day that belongs to us, and to me. 

I wrote last year, and spoke at last year’s V to Shining V, about the idea that fights both within and among marginalized communities inevitably stand to benefit our oppressors, and oppression itself as a force, and to fail to help any of us. I stand by that claim. This does not mean that Sisters should not continue learning to cultivate spaces in which inclusive and earnest dialogue occurs over our differences, because we will have differences – because of our experiences, because of our perspectives, because of which part of the Struggle in which we have embedded ourselves most passionately. We would do well as Sisters, also, to include people who are not Sisters in that dialog, because the truth is that there’s a lot of oppression in the world, and it isn’t all directed at people “like us.” And we would do well, as Sisters, to embed ourselves, when welcomed, within dialogs where we ourselves are the outsiders and allies.

I want to be careful here, because telling other people not to pick fights is, frequently, itself picking a fight. Or making some kind of subtle or not-so-subtle assertion that a certain narrative – usually a dominant narrative, like, inside the Sisterhood, the middle-class, white, straight feminist narrative – is more important than other narratives – like, inside the Sisterhood, the narrative of multiply marginalized Sisters. We know as feminists that this is precisely what is done to women – we’ve spent generations and millennia under patriarchy changing the world and then giving credit to our husbands (and even, often, having the gall to say that, with them is where the credit belongs). And, sometimes, we’re angry about it, and we probably do go about voicing our anger in ways that are counterproductive as measured by our own outcome desires (for instance****, in comparing the role of Suffragists in Abolition to the point our sister Patricia Arquette tried to make and the way in which she made it, at the Oscars). Anger is okay. And if my Sisters choose to direct it at me, or at each other, I am not going to judge them (or pretend to be better than them). I am just going to learn not to participate. And I am not going to conflate the Sister with her anger.

I am writing also, a little, and processing still a little, in response to the claims that feminism in Social Media is a toxic thing. I think most Sisters have seen the Sisterhood get toxic. I don’t want to deny this can happen, because it would sound absurd, even to me. But, aside from the ideological analysis of this kind of attack, how it is levied, on whom it is levied, and what its likely function in a system of oppression is (hint, it probably isn’t reducing marginalization), I think I, like many Sisters, reacted to this instinctively in a negative way, because the cloud of women we know in social media (and more generally in the Sisterhood) had done, are doing, will do so much to support us, lift us up so many times, be a cheering voice in our triumphs and a commiserating cry when we fell short. When we think of the Sisterhood, we know this is what we do. Whether modern feminism is toxic (it must not be allowed to be or become so) or whether some of these behaviors are toxic (they are) is just not a fight worth picking. That would allow the toxicity to define us, and it simply does not. Rather, it is reminding ourselves, focusing ourselves on, aligning ourselves with, each other as Sisters, on which we must focus. That defines Sisterhood, and that defines us and makes us who we are. So how am I going to give up picking fights? Without gagging and binding myself? This is what I am learning to do, and what I am pledging to do.

  • When there are opportunities to do good, to make progress, to change the world, I am going to focus my efforts on doing just that. This is probably the biggest thing I’m going to continue doing. My behaviorists talk about replacement behaviors (although there are limits to this philosophy, as we know), and I think this is really the Sister’s ultimate replacement behavior, because alongside connecting with and empowering each other, this is what we do best. So try and stop me.
  • I will continue to tell my own story. Because it’s the only one that’s truly mine to tell. And because there is no point in feminism if it creates a world in which Sisters matter conceptually, but not in practice, as individuals. We would then replace the patriarchy with some internal censer who places our narratives in a hierarchy and uses semaphores to direct us when to speak and when to be silent, and at that phase, the Sisterhood would cease to be revolutionary.
  • I will continue to listen to other Sister’s stories, and to all stories of oppression. I will never own stories other than my own. But having learned to know when our voices were missing, and to call the bluff on histories that pretend to be complete without us, I will continue to listen for the voices that do not get heard, because this is perhaps the most revolutionary act of radical feminism.
  • Whenever I can collaborate with you, I will. Not because I owe it to you, but because I believe in Us, because I owe it to me, and because although we are strong as individuals, Sisterhood makes us far stronger together.
  • If and while you choose to be a fight-picker, you may find yourself on my ignore list. Sisters don’t have to be suckers. If you are the person who wants to constantly ask why I don’t stop telling my own story or changing the world in the way that I’m changing the world, to tell someone else’s story or do what you think needs to be done, or if you want to nitpick or establish yourself as my critic, I’m just not going to respond to you, and please allow me to re-refer you, in advance, to the first bullet point. This also means there are a whole bunch of fights I’m not going to weigh in on, because they seem, to me, just opportunities to argue, and I have decided to be too busy changing the world to argue.
  • When I get angry at a Sister, I will ask why I am really angry. Solidarity in the Sisterhood doesn’t mean man hating (or masculinity hating). But I will remember my own claim, that this infighting is a tool of our oppression, and whenever I am angry at a Sister, I will ask myself what the patriarchy’s game in this is, and I will direct my anger back at oppression, where it belongs.

If you’re somebody who loves me, and you see me get off track with this pledge, please tell me. Preferably, in private, and definitely, in love. I will try to listen to you. And if you’re somebody who loves me, I hope that you will know that I will fail – will fail repeatedly – in my way to achieving this goal, and you will keep loving me anyways, not because I deserve it (I don’t), but because it’s who you are (it is).

It’s International Women’s Day. And women should celebrate by doing whatever they want to do. Because, well, that’s rather the whole point. What this Sister wants to do… is change the world, and she is paring down all the stuff that gets in the way of that.

* By Sisterhood, I really mean radical feminist women (I do embrace that term), but… well, see the next footnote. This raises a whole bunch of red flags to certain people, I’m sure, already. I’m going to talk about “us girls,” and in so doing, I’m talking about and with girls and women who make a choice to co-advocate alongside other girls and women for the good of girls and women. This isn’t really a blog post about whether men can be feminists (of course they can, my mister is a feminist). It isn’t really a blog post about whether or not other gender minority groups belong inside the big tent of women, either as guests or as members (I think they do). But I celebrate the right of women to talk about themselves and not only spend all their time talking about someone or something else.

** I chose Sisterhood as a term because it’s the one that means something to me. In some ways, Sisterhood is the movement wing of what we do in feminism (as opposed to the theoretical wing of what we do). On another layer, there is something sort of else about it. I think all the Sisters know what I am talking about. Probably, if I look at it really carefully, there are people who are women who make nuanced choices not to be Sisters, or who make thoughtless choices not to be Sisters, or who just find themselves not experiencing the connection of Sisterhood. I don’t judge any of them, but I do recognize that, probably, I like any other Sister, can only partially understand what that’s like. Not all women are highly relational, and of course, many men are highly relational. But there’s something special about being a Sister. It is also, admittedly, as much a not mythical thing as it is a mythical thing. It can go awry, which is the whole point of writing this blog and of taking this stand. Still, within the prism of my own experience as a woman, to me, Sisterhood is the best thing about being a woman.

*** And I’m an only child, saying this.

**** In fact, even trying to provide some gentle, inclusion-focused, non-shaming retrospective analysis of a situation, itself, becomes very quickly fight-picking.