Originally published on GBF.
I’ve never really understood street cred, probably because it’s not about understanding but more about having…and I’ve certainly never had any. Or any kind of cred for that matter, probably because I worry so much about fitting in and being accepted that I’m just left standing there with my mouth open. Sometimes I feel this way about feminism – as soon as I talk about being a feminist I wonder if I’m being checked out for my ‘feminist cred’. I wonder if I’m ‘feminist enough’, what aspects of my life might be scrutinised or dismissed because it doesn’t quite match up to the ‘feminist gold standard’ that I have created in my head. For the most part, I think this is internal control; I monitor my own credentials for belonging to any movement or group as I always wonder if I’m good enough to be there, to wear the badge. At the same time I think it is because like other feminists or pro-feminists, I’m working on what feminism means in my own context, how it relates to my other beliefs and actions, and how to relate to other people who own that name for themselves.
Feminism is a wonderfully varied movement, not just in the historical progression of first, second and third wave feminism, but also in the ways that people have different ways of understanding what feminism means to them. Being aware of the diversity of feminism has, I hope, lessened some of the feelings about judging whether other people are really truly feminist or not. There will always be ways in which this is questioned: can you be a feminist and be married, religious, right-wing, or male? I struggle a lot when feminism becomes an excluding discourse, or when there is a sense of needing to prove that you are worthy of the title, that your brand is as powerful as the rest.
However, I’m also aware of where feminism can be an overly including discourse. I’ve been in plenty of conversations where a woman has said she isn’t a feminist, only to be asked if she supports equal pay and if she does, she’s informed that she is, in fact, a feminist. I struggle with this just as much – I don’t want feminism to be about the lowest common denominator; I don’t believe feminism is reducible to just a single issue or to the experiences of being female in today’s society. We cannot confuse a part with the whole. I also don’t want to call others feminist who don’t want the label just because they happen to be pro-feminist on certain issues as I think this can be a way that criticisms and concerns about areas of feminism and feminist ethics are sometimes avoided or dismissed.
I want feminism to be personal – I want to recognise that people have a different way of relating to feminism, different understandings of what it means to them and different ways of carrying out those practices. But I do also want it to be about some kind of safe, bounded community with a sense of belonging where questions can be well asked about what is important. I don’t want feminism to become so general that the term verges into meaninglessness. I also don’t want to see feminism being so individualised that it no longer connects to systematic and social issues; we risk diminishing connection to the world by making feminism a purely therapeutic, private exercise. I don’t know…perhaps I’m just being contrary for wanting this kind of balance, for wanting a deeply personal and radically political feminism, one that is inclusive and has distinct identity, one that has strong theoretical roots and a practical outworking?
I think there’s also a huge amount to be said for understanding that feminism is not a monolithic thing, particularly when it comes to a sense of feminist consciousness. It’s interesting to see the reaction to writers, artists or celebrities who have been thought of as feminist when they produce work that is judged as potentially demeaning, or less-than-feminist in some way. Professing feminism doesn’t mean that we all agree all the time, or that all of the things we say have reached some ideal standard – especially the standards that we set for ourselves.
Jean Vanier – the founder of the L’Arche community – talks about how even the most loving and accepting of people can have unloving or even negative reactions to people who are different to them – noting the number of people he’d met whose caring or accepting consciousness did not extend to his friends with developmental disabilities. In this way, any one may have blind spots in their consciousness – whether in responding to people who are different to them, or areas of speech, language and action that a sense of feminist/liberative consciousness has not reached. Ultimately, I think you probably can’t figure this out until you say or do something that brings light to these kinds of reactions. But we should never be so afraid of judgement that we fail to act or to open our mouths. Yes, we should think through what we are saying first, but the fear of not being feminist or radical or caring enough should not keep anyone from speaking up or acting out.
I realised the other day that I’m likely to say ‘female minister’ about a clergyperson who identifies as a woman, yet I’d be less likely to do the equivalent and say ‘male minister’ – showing that I probably still see certain roles as male and women as the exception. And yes, there have been numerous moments in which I’ve judged someone else for their comments or actions when they claim to be feminist/pro-feminist. And I’m sure there will be many more moments like this too.
I’m also aware that sometimes I tend to see feminism as an overarching system that can incorporate other gender, sexuality or race based movements rather than recognising something like womanism, queer theory or mujerista theology as standing on their own terms. I am the white, middle classed woman who got into feminism as academic theory, and, yes, the criticisms of feminism ignoring the oppressions of race, class and sexuality hit home, even if I’m pushing my practice, creating change in the communities I work in, and dialoguing with people who have a different take on feminism. And my blind spots do come up as I meet people different to me – it’s something I’m working on.
What I’m saying is that my critical consciousness – like other people’s – is still a work in progress when it comes to gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, class and poverty.
I really don’t think that I’m aiming for perfect gold standard of ‘complete feminist attainment’ namely because, as I’ve said above, feminism is a wonderfully broad and diverse set of ideas and practices. Rather, I think open dialogue and self-awareness set us in good stead for both finding our blind spots and for figuring out our own perceptions of the boundaries of what we mean when we are talking about being a feminist. I think we must be continuously engaged in these practices of consciousness-raising – in ourselves and kindly with others – or else we risk resting on our feminist cred.
I think this is a rather long winded way of inviting feminists, pro-feminists and questioning-feminists to join in a conversation about what all of this means. Its my hope that we find safe spaces that are also open enough to ask questions and to get things wrong in the knowledge that our critical consciousness isn’t quite there yet. I want spaces that are diverse enough for ‘my feminism!’ to matter as much as ‘your feminism!’ without loosing sight of a movement that is bigger than our individual views and experiences.
Please join me in this work, discussion and dialogue aren’t much fun on your own.