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Redefining feminism fosters campus conversation about broader inequalities

Hillary Smith

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Illustration by Tyle Schuh.

Recently I watched an interview that MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry conducted with Roxane Gay, author of a book entitled “Bad Feminist.” It struck me as an interesting concept, since I personally don’t believe in the idea of a “good feminist.”

Some of the “bad feminist” actions Gay mentions in her book include enjoying music that she “knows is terrible for women” and “[playing] dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.” I’m sure I do these types of things, but I have never questioned my identity as a feminist. I must have subconsciously come to the same conclusion that Gay did about that exhausting perch on the “moral high ground”: Sometimes, taking the easier route is what keeps us sane.

Ironically, it may also be what preserves our personal freedom; doing things that supposedly fly in the face of feminist principles often means making the choices we truly wish to make, which I consider an inherently feminist principle. This goes along with Gay’s ultimate point, which is that feminism is not confined to a universal list of dos and don’ts; it is what each individual makes it. I personally view the term broadly as expressing support and desire for gender equality. However, as Gay points out, we often consider the concept of feminism too rigidly, with many of us assuming it is only for radical women. In doing so, we fail to recognize the role the individual plays in his or her own definition.

In her recent United Nations speech, Emma Watson touched on feminism’s perception as radical by pointing out that it is often equated to “man-hating,” with many women choosing not to identify with the term. I get the sense from non-feminist-identifying women that they think it is better if everyone moves on and stops making women’s issues such a big deal. But part of the point that Gay and Harris-Perry made was that we have to keep talking about these issues and making them a big deal, because girls and women need us to. We must keep the conversation going so that we can reshape the image of feminism to fit everyone and to bring us all together in a unified force for equality.

Here at Whitman, student activist groups have done fairly well spurring conversations on racial and, most recently, economic inequality. The on-campus organization Feminists Advocating Change and Empowerment (FACE) has kept the gender equality conversation going, particularly by bringing amazing female speakers and artists to Whitman. It is important that these groups work together in the overarching cause for social justice, because all issues of inequality are connected; this brings us back to why feminism must have individualized definitions.

In her interview with Harris-Perry, Gay mentions that as a black woman, she always felt disillusioned with the feminist movement, which she saw as something for white women. Re-branding feminism as something malleable will eliminate rigid preconceptions, allowing us to synthesize the parts of ourselves that fit into multiple groups and movements and to acknowledge our connections among all issues of inequality. If all of us, not only feminists, acknowledge these connections and perform activism as a unified body, we will be an even stronger force for change. This mindset will help activists on campus and at large maintain conversations about and a collective passion for social issues and hopefully bring about change for everyone.

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Redefining feminism fosters campus conversation about broader inequalities