Marisa Wright: Feminism is not a sorority

Sunday, April 14, 2019 - 5:51pm

A few nights ago I was eating dinner with a group of colleagues, and like most conversations these days, we ended up talking about politics. Specifically, someone at the table began a long rant, filled with sexist tropes and ignorant conclusions, about people who free bleed — bleed without using menstrual products like a pad, tampon or menstrual cup — during their period. In her chastisement, she said, “Radical feminists like those people ruin it for the rest of us.”

What a profoundly ignorant and misguided statement.

While there were many issues with what this person said, including misogynistic notions about female bodies and reproductive processes, the idea that radical feminists were somehow a hindrance to other feminists was deeply uninformed and quite frankly, ridiculous.

Yet, I was not surprised. During the mid-2010s, especially in the wake of the 2016 election, there has been a resurgence of feminism, sometimes referred to as "fourth wave feminism." While feminism requires new feminists to join the cause in order to persist and thrive over time, it is imperative that new feminists familiarize themselves with feminist history and principles. However, in this new resurgence, many new and young feminists are perpetuating and popularizing a very shallow brand of feminism.

In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler, founder of Bitch Media, discusses the implications of marketplace feminism: where feminism is adopted by brands, which are often guilty of anti-feminist practices, to sell products as part of some sort of feminist lifestyle. In this way, 21st century feminism has been, according to Zeisler, “co-opted, watered down, and turned into a gyratory media trend…[with] a media landscape brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change.”

I have to agree. In fact, the idea of empowerment itself is foolish and ill-advised because it is based on the false idea that women are not leaning-in and seizing opportunities or power. When companies or policies claim to empower women, they fail to recognize the fact it is not actually women who aren’t asking for raises or saying no to inappropriate sexual advances, but systems of power that intentionally prevent women, particularly women with other marginalized identities, from gaining financial, political or social power in order to uphold patriarchal institutions.  

Especially on International Women’s Day or during the Women’s March, my social media feeds will be flooded with images of young women wearing pussy hats or something with a seemingly-feminist slogan or posts about girl power, women supporting women and so-called "sheroes." Yet, it is the same people that post a selfie in a “Girls just want to have fun-damental rights” T-shirt once a year whose claim to feminism is hollow and unproductive.

Of course, there have been feminist activists and academics doing hard and comprehensive work for years. I do not include them in groups that practice Frivolous Feminism, nor do I mean to be condescending towards young people new to feminism.

I certainly was not as socially or politically aware when I first claimed the feminist identity as I am now with women’s studies as one of my majors. And that’s OK. Becoming socially and politically aware is a learning process, one where we will make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

But we cannot learn from our mistakes if we don’t know when we’ve made them or understand their implications. This is where the importance of criticism comes in. Critical thinking is at the root of feminism, precisely because feminism was, in part, borne out of critiques of patriarchal systems, like those that did not allow women to vote.

When the aforementioned person decried radical feminists, it was clear she lacked knowledge about feminism and its history. It is also clear she has not read feminist text or engaged with feminist theory on any serious level, if at all. But she is not alone.

Among many newly-identifying feminists, there is often tone policing going on in order to make feminism more acceptable to other people (i.e. men). In trying to make it more agreeable, tone-policers are stripping feminism of its power to challenge and dismantle the systems of power and oppression that hurt and constrain women every day.

Radical feminists, particularly radical Black and lesbian feminists such as Audre Lorde or the writers of “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” have consistently been leading the feminist cause through progressive activism and contributing to fundamental feminist theory.

This is not about gatekeeping feminism by telling anyone they can or cannot identify as a feminist. It is about pointing out the problem with using feminism, especially when it is pseudo-feminism, as a tool to undermine and exclude other people.

A feminist awakening calls on us to examine the ways in which we benefit from and continue to uphold a white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Further, feminism requires work, including a personal divestment from systems of oppression.  

In the words of Black feminist Lutze B., “Feminism is not a sorority or Mary Kay like endeavor. It is a sociopolitical ideology. Become a student of it. Read.”

Marisa Wright can be reached at marisadw@umich.edu.