There are some things that I objectively am — traits that I was born with or into and that, regardless of my life circumstances, will never change. I am white. I am female. I am a sister. There are other things that I objectively am currently, but that maybe weren’t always true, like being vegan or a registered Independent voter. And then there are the things I believe, the labels that I adopted over time as my perspectives on politics, religion, and ideologies have shifted. I was raised Christian, but today I am more of an agnostic atheist. I used to call myself a socialist, then a communist, and then an anarcho-communist.
Today, I’ve stopped calling myself any of those things (although I still hold very leftist political stances). Although I now describe myself as bisexual, I used to call myself “queer.” Although I don’t believe my sexual orientation has changed over time, the words I use to describe it have — reflecting an underlying change in my belief system.
My personal beliefs have shifted many times on many issues, even on issues I once thought I cared strongly about. I like to think this means I’m open-minded and an independent thinker, but maybe I’m just indecisive. Or, maybe, those are also all just labels.
For women, whether or not to call yourself a “feminist” has been a hotly-debated issue. Men have long pushed back against progress by branding any woman who resists patriarchy as a feminist — a word hurled often like a slur from the mouths of misogynists. For many of us, proudly embracing the feminist label meant refusing to see the fight for women’s rights as anything to be ashamed of. For others, eschewing the label was part of a subconscious (or maybe conscious) attempt to please men. Women who have resisted or ditched the feminist brand since then have faced backlash from other women for caving to the pressures of patriarchy.
I don’t remember when I first started calling myself a feminist, although it must have been some time in college. I remember arguing in the parking lot of a theater with my abusive ex-boyfriend about the feminist label. He insisted he believed in equality of the sexes and human rights and dignity for all — that was why, he insisted, he could not call himself a feminist. Feminism, he argued, put women above men, which was not equality. Although, I must say he didn’t seem particularly concerned with equality when he was raping me.
Later, I started seeing a man who proudly proclaimed his feminism. Having fully embraced my own feminism, I was eager to finally enjoy a relationship with a man who would treat me well — after all, he was a feminist. But he, too, sexually assaulted me one night, shattering the illusion that what men call themselves has anything to do with their propensity towards male violence.
During this time period, I was beginning to discover radical feminism. Realizing the cycle of violence that I was in, I set out to break it. I swore off men and, inspired by many second-wave feminists, I briefly (and, in hindsight, regrettably) identified as a “political lesbian” and began focusing my attention on women. This didn’t last long, though, as I quickly realized that ditching my attraction towards men was much easier said than done. Another label down.
Feminism, defined by Merriam-Webster, is the “belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” By this, and nearly any other widely accepted mainstream definition of the word, I have been a feminist since my late teens when I was first exposed to organized feminism through volunteering at my local rape crisis center. While, prior to this experience, I saw sexual violence as something that happened to individuals by individuals, my summer internship with the all-women organization helped me see how patriarchal systems and male violence worked together to oppress women and girls the world over.
But feminism itself was in the midst of an identity crisis. As feminism became more and more accepted in the mainstream, no longer a dirty word or used as a vitriolic slur, it also became watered-down. So-called “feminists” started advocating for the sex industry, pandering to violent male sexuality, and encouraging young women to embrace gender norms and femininity as “empowering,” and started denying systems of oppression on the basis of sex. Everyone and everything became “feminist,” to the point that the word has become all but meaningless.
As feminism changed, those of us who called ourselves feminists faced a choice. We could choose to go along with modern neo-liberal feminism, or we could get out and find a new label if “feminist” no longer fit.
Women who support equality for the sexes but who, for any reason, don’t feel included in the current driving faction of the movement have long opted for alternative labels. In 1979, Alice Walker coined the term “womanist” to describe the pro-female identity of black women who felt excluded from mainstream feminism. She described “womanism” as a broad category of which feminism was a subtype. More recently, Kellie-Jay Keen (also known as Posie Parker) has begun calling herself a “femalist,” which she defines as “defending the rights of biological females.”
Then, of course, there are all the feminist sub-factions. Liberal feminists don’t typically identify themselves as such, but normally just call themselves “feminists.” There’s the radical feminists, gender-critical feminists, socialist and marxist feminists, lesbian feminists, anarcho-feminists, and certainly loads more.
Choosing the label which best describes your current beliefs can be useful for helping others identify you are part of their in-group by signalling with as few words as possible your stances on various issues. I tend to best align with radical feminism, and so I often use this identity as a short-cut to saying, “I am for the liberation of women and girls from male violence and oppression on the basis of our sex. I do not believe men can become women. I am against the exploitation of the sex industry and do not support the push to normalize violent male sexuality. I put women first.”
This is useful. It helps me find my people quickly. On the flip side, it can also quickly push away those who feel they are not a part of your audience, limiting the reach of your message. However, many people have found that in the hyper-niched internet age, having a clear and defined audience for your message helps it avoid getting lost in the noise, especially while still building a platform.
But identity with a niche group comes with expectations, and radical feminism is no exception. Once you stake out an ideological stance, it can become a weapon to be used against you by your in-group. Suddenly, all of your ideas, actions, and life choices are evaluated through the lens of the label rather than on their individual merits. If you aren’t the perfect radical feminist (like me, with my long hair and live-in boyfriend), you may find yourself quickly on the outs with your own community. In this way, labels can keep you trapped and force you to adhere strictly to an ideology based on that label.
Meghan Murphy, founder of Feminist Current, put it well when she recently wrote:
“I have begun to distance myself from such labels, preferring free thought and to identify myself as someone who advocates for women's rights, so as to wrest myself from ideological conformity and limitations on my free speech and independent thought.”
Yet, I still see benefits to adopting a feminist identity.
Rather than giving in to the false dichotomy of being either in or out, I choose to call myself a feminist still despite the neo-liberal takeover and in-group fighting because I see value in pushing back against the notion that feminism must be these things.
I, by definition, am a feminist. As are Alice Walker, Meghan Murphy, and Kellie-Jay Keen. Many of us, despite being objectively feminist (and, even, leftists) are often labeled as “conservative” or any other number of objectively false identities in order to discredit our opinions on the left. While I am willing to work with conservatives when it suits my goals, I ultimately hope to see the American left steer away from neo-liberal feminism and accept, if not embrace, a more substantive women’s rights movement based on understanding of sex-based oppression and male violence. When I call myself a “feminist,” it is both a statement of fact and a defiance of the male-serving takeover of mainstream feminism. When I call myself a “radical feminist,” it is a most specific explanation of my ultimate goals.
None of this, I believe, forces me into any boxes beyond those I allow myself to be pushed into.
Neo-liberals will continue to call me a “fake feminist,” and I know I will continue to disappoint many radical feminists with my failures in completely rejecting gender norms around femininity or relationships. But, just like the rest of my identity, my feminism is not dependent on external validations. I know that in my heart and in my actions I support the advancement and liberation of women. Therefore, I am a feminist.
"Identity Crisis" is a weekly show developed in collaboration between Plebity and 4W by M. K. Fain and Sasha White. You can listen to "Identity Crisis" on Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe to updates on Identity Crisis here: identitycrisis.xyz/get-updates.
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