I am a feminist. I will (and frequently do) shout it proudly from the rooftops. Meanwhile, my family casts sideways glances, expecting me at any minute to burn my bras and run off to live in a commune, and my friends joke about me being a militant lesbian (I neither confirm nor deny any of these allegations). The fact of the matter is, until I got to college, I don’t think I would have called myself a feminist. My experience with the term up to then was hardly positive; yes, I knew feminists and feminism was about equal rights for women, but from what I had been told, feminists were angry, man-hating women, à la the SCUM Manifesto, and feminism was a thing of the past. Forgive me; I grew up watching Fox News. You know what that does to a person.
I can’t tell you when the light went on for me, when I began to come to understand what feminism really is and what it means to be a feminist. Regardless of when it happened, I know that a large part of how it happened was meeting people who shared my opinions and who thought of themselves as feminists; that was how I learned that feminism was not a thing of the past, and ‘feminist’ was not a dirty word. From that point on, my concept of feminism has continually evolved, though I had never given much detailed thought to it until my Feminist Theory class last semester, when our professor told us we had to write a paper on our own theory of feminism. Because after months of reading Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis, amongst others, that wasn’t an intimidating task at all.
After much thought, mulling over class discussions (and arguments) and conversations with friends, I came to the conclusion that for me, feminism isn’t a set of rules or guidelines for how one ought to behave, but rather it’s a lens through which one views the world. That is, the only way to be a true feminist is to be aware of why you act in a certain way, why certain systems of injustice are wrong, not just that they are wrong. Looking at the world through the lens of feminism involves being aware of the historical context of an institution, thinking critically about one’s actions and their potential ramifications, and actively working to combat oppressive institutions. In this way, people make informed, intellectual choices and are then in turn better able to educate other people about injustices. It’s like the ‘teach a man to fish’ saying – to think of feminism as a lens is to give yourself a way to navigate any situation in an informed, intelligent manner, instead of trying to rely on a book of set rules. Besides, isn’t that just what we’re trying to get away from? To that end, being a feminist isn’t just about women’s rights. Yes, that’s obviously a big part of it, but really it’s about reimagining the world without the patriarchy and fighting the injustices that exist because of patriarchal institutions, whether that is access to birth control, the rape culture, sweat shops, LGBT equality, or worker injustice here at home.
Now, I’m not saying it’s easy by any means. I’ll be the first to admit that it gets tiring always having to critique things, always having to double check your opinions because, oh wait, I have to check this-or-that privilege, or I only find this funny because the patriarchy has taught me to like it. Sometimes I just want to watch a soppy romantic film and daydream about my perfect wedding, dammit. And besides that, there are the conflicts in our lives where our feminism spidey-senses tell us one thing but another part of our brain tells us something different, and you know it’s the patriarchy talking but you just can’t help yourself. At the end of the day, though, you’ve made a conscious, informed decision, even if it is to go see that new rom-com chick-flick about a woman who desperately wants a husband so her life can be complete, because you have the power of knowledge, and when you’re up against the patriarchy, knowledge is everything.