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I <3 Feminists Who Critique Other Feminists

Francesca Bessey |
September 30, 2014 | 4:10 p.m. PDT

Senior Opinion Editor

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. I’ve discriminated, I’ve judged, I’ve been insensitive without realizing it. I’ve been silent when I should have said something, and I’ve taken the mic when I should have been listening.

A lot of these offenses have supposedly been committed in the name of social good.

In recognizing and attempting to change these behaviors, attitudes and assumptions, I owe a lot to the folks who have been willing to voice their concerns about progressive ideologies that - like just about everything else out there - could use some improvement.

In feminism, the latest big thing to come under such scrutiny has been UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign, and its launch by actress, and the newly named UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson.

There were a lot of things I appreciated about Watson’s speech. I appreciated her characterization of a belief in gender equality as “uncomplicated,” and her explicit support for women’s control over their own bodies. I appreciated the positive impact she will undoubtedly have on millions of young women who may be hearing from others that feminism is unattractive and uncool.

Despite my appreciation, however, I was also grateful to see critiques raised of both the speech, and the #HeForShe campaign itself. Both Mia McKenzie and Amy McCarthy deftly analyzed the drawbacks of a campaign that doesn’t really ask men to do anything other than accept an (inaccurate) apology from women’s rights activists for not having invited them to the table sooner. They were also careful to point out how Watson’s fame, popularity and bravery in the face of grotesque internet harassment, while a great credit to her, do not make her a “game-changer” for feminism. Through these and other critiques, I was able to affirm and deepen my own understanding of the campaign and its launch.

READ MORE: How Men Can Aid Feminism (Hint: It's Not Taking The #HeForShe Pledge)

However, as these critiques made their rounds among the self-identified feminists I know, what I also started to see was disappointment, even anger, that Watson's moment of feminist glory had been brought down to earth in this way. Numerous acquaintances took to social media in defense of Watson, dismissing these criticisms as a classic example of the woman-on-woman hate that is eating away at feminist solidarity. There is an inherent panic in this backlash, a panic I have witnessed in student leaders embarrassed to be called out in public for making a statement that offended an assault survivor, or rushing to delete Facebook posts that criticize a so-called feminist event for perpetuating gender stereotypes. It is a panic I have myself experienced, more than once. The worry is that criticisms, particularly those by women who also identify as feminists, weaken the movement, as well as the potential impact of Watson's speech.

Watson has gift-wrapped feminism and offered it to the world with a velvet bow on top; one utterance of dissent and the picture-perfect package might burst into flame and, fueled by feminist in-fighting, burn the entire women’s movement to the ground.

I get it. In this world where the estimated number of women victims of sexual and gender-based violence is approximately equal to the population of China, feminism feels fragile. We want to do whatever we can to keep the movement together, and to get more people on board.

And thus, in the name of unity, we select one ideology, one issue, one spokeswoman to represent us all; and what is more, we ensure that all of it is easy listening for the global public who have never thought very hard about gender equality, and thus now will never have to. We share Watson’s speech with everyone we know, but in doing so, we overlook the story of Zahara Green, a young trans woman forced to serve time in a men’s prison, where guards allowed another inmate to rape her repeatedly. We hail #HeForShe as a feminist miracle, even though it literally still puts "He" first. We place Watson on a pedestal in juxtaposition to Beyoncé, as an example of what a “real” feminist role model should be - but it was Beyoncé who sampled Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in her music and brought the work of a non-white, non-Western feminist to the fore, something UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador did not do once in her eleven-minute speech to all humanity.

READ MORE: Westernization: A Women's Rights Paradox

Above all, we forget that the women we choose not to represent make up the majority of the women on this planet. And that is precisely why many of the dreaded feminist-on-feminist critiques are not a matter of the unity the movement stands to lose, but of the cohesion it is refusing to gain. If every so often, a self-identified feminist appears to “break rank” to say that we really owe the rest of the world’s women a little more than this, it’s nothing compared to the numbers of women who were never involved in the movement in the first place. UN Women’s latest campaign unfortunately doesn’t do anything to rectify this: #HeForShe is a conversation between Western feminism, embodied in Emma Watson, and the world’s men.

Such exlusion is unfortunately deeply embedded in our understanding of how the women's movement has evolved over time. Western feminist discourse identifies three waves: the first wave, which was the struggle to define women as persons and citizens under the law; the second wave, which was the movement for broader social equality for women in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement; and the third wave, which brought intersectionality into the mix and united all feminists together as one big, happy, non-nuclear family. In this third wave, feminists no longer look exclusively at the privilege gap between men and women, but how that gap intersects with other spectrums of privilege, such as race, socioeconomic status, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, mental health and religion.

"Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking." - Wangari Maathai (Isaac Mao, Creative Commons)
"Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking." - Wangari Maathai (Isaac Mao, Creative Commons)
What this model fails to explain, of course, is what all of the women of color, single moms, trans persons and, especially, women everywhere else on the planet were doing while feminism supposedly was a movement by and for white, Western women from the upper-middle-class. Were these “other” women not feminists too? Did they not fight for equality, recognition and an end to violence in their communities? Do they not have their own history, hallmarks and heroines to contribute to the feminist narrative, outside of the doctrine handed down to us by the first and second wave? Where are Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva, Calpernia AddamsMalala Yousafzai, Zainab Bangura, Yuri Kochiyama and so many more of the world's heroines supposed to fit into a story that finds the exclusive origins of feminism (as we can see on the #HeForShe website) with the American suffragettes?

READ MORE: 7 Famous Women Who Have Turned Their Backs On Feminism

Perhaps one of the reasons so many of today’s self-identified feminists chafe at internal criticism is the false notion that the so-called “third wave” actually exists, as if now that inclusivity is officially part of the feminist ideology, people who still see exclusion don’t have the right to say so. Similar to denying the existence of racism on the grounds that we live in a “post-racial society,” or claiming that sexual harassment has been eradicated simply because your company has a sexual harassment policy, this is both oppressive and a total crock of sh**.

Movements, I believe, are much like people: fundamentally flawed, but able to develop and move forward through the realistic acknowledgement of both their achievements and their failures. But amid the panic over “in-fighting,” it sometimes feels that self-identified activists are taking cues from America’s jacked-up political system, where cooperation between camps has all but evaporated and admitting you were wrong is considered a professional death sentence.

Feminism is a movement that by its very nature calls upon individuals to examine their own consciousness and change their behavior. Feminists are not excluded from this practice. And however challenging it may be, both institutionally and personally, we have to open ourselves up to criticism, sometimes in order to even know what it is we have to change.

In respectful dissent of the #HeForShe campaign, I have decided to take my own pledge: #MeForWe. I pledge to own up to my responsibility not just to preach feminism, but to practice it too; to acknowledge my own limits, as well as the wisdom and power I may find in others to help me surpass them; to remember that feminism does not draw its strength from impregnable ideology, but its ability to grow and change and incorporate the voices of those who may not have found their voice yet.

When they do, I want to be listening.


Contact Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here; follow her here.



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