I haven’t always been a feminist. I don’t think I mean that in the ‘I’m not a feminist, but [insert feminist belief here]’ way. Yes, people called me a feminist long before I called myself one but they didn’t know the reason I knew the word ‘feminist’ didn’t apply to me. I haven’t always been a feminist because I haven’t always been pro-choice.
I’ve written about how I went from being pro-life to becoming a pro-choice activist. What I didn’t mention because I didn’t know how to explore it properly, is that I knew instinctively that I couldn’t be pro-life and a feminist. Whatever else I thought about making the world a more equal place for women and girls something in the back of my mind kept saying, ‘how does this tie in with your views on abortion?’ I never said my thought process made sense, but listening to and learning from other people helped me realise that my beliefs didn’t work as a cohesive system. Contradiction and ill-thought out were my middle names.
At its most basic level feminism is the belief that “men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” In reality this means addressing political, economic and social structures to ensure that women and girls have the same rights and opportunities as men and boys.
Sounds easy, right? If only it were so. So, you’re a feminist. You are, right? Good. What are you doing to bring about the changes that mean women and girls will have the same rights and opportunities as men and boys? What are you doing to smash the patriarchy? Saying you’re a feminist doesn’t seem so easy now, does it? Saying you’re a feminist comes with the knowledge that you should be doing something about the political, economic and social structures that mean women and girls are seen as less than. Feminism is about more than catchy slogans on clothes, it’s about action.
Back to me being a mass of contradictions. I used to think being fiscally conservative and socially liberal was a realistic approach to life. Yes, I know how naive that makes me sound. I was a member of Fine Gael (for those not in Ireland, Fine Gael are a centre right politic party), but as has become a theme of this essay and, well, my life; listening to others helped me realise that once again my thought process wasn’t holding up to scrutiny.
Changing the economic and social structures that lead to inequality takes money. Investment in education and healthcare that is accessible to all isn’t going to happen without taxes being diverted to these areas or government enforced regulation, or both. Ending the cycle of poverty cannot be done under a tax system that negatively and disproportionally impacts those who don’t have a lot to begin with.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American professor of law and a critical race theorist, coined the term intersectionality. In her paper ‘Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine and Feminist Theory, And Antiracist Politics’, Crenshaw spoke about the intersections of race and gender. Namely that Black women’s experience of gender inequality cannot be disconnected from their experience of racism.
While Crenshaw’s focus is rightfully on the intersection of gender inequality and race, later works define intersectionality as “the view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degree of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.” Crenshaw has also spoken about intersectionality as a broader concept.
I’m a woman, so experiencing sexism is a common occurrence. I am white and cisgender, which means racism and transmisogyny are things I will never personally experience. I’m bisexual, but I’m married to a cisgender man who is straight. Some people see this as ‘passing privilege’, while others see ‘passing privilege’ as bi erasure. Yes, I can be romantic with my partner in public without fearing verbal or physical violence but the assumption that I am straight is based on the fact that we live in a heteronormative society. I’m working class and have multiple chronic illnesses, including bipolar disorder. All of this shapes the way I interact with the world and how the world interacts with me. Intersectionality means taking these things into account. For me this means understanding my privilege in some areas while acknowledging my lack of privilege in others.
Feminism isn’t supposed to make you comfortable. It’s supposed to make you question things. It’s supposed to make you learn. These things often come after you’ve been called out for something problematic you’ve said or done, but these lessons can help you grow and become a better feminist. And better feminism is something we should all strive for.