Dear Katherine Fenton: You Are a Feminist
Dear Katherine Fenton:
Feminists everywhere cheered when you, a 24 year-old preschool teacher, got up at the October 16th town hall debate and asked the candidates about women’s pay inequity. Specifically, what they want to do to address the pay gap. It opened the door to discuss many women’s issues, including contraceptive access and women’s health–correctly described as an economic issue by President Obama. It also gave rise to the now-infamous “binders full of women” meme, which many are pointing out to show how out of touch Mitt Romney is that he thinks he gets a gold star just for hiring a woman. (Also, it wasn’t even true.)
Now you, and who you are as a person, is becoming a national issue. The Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing conservative site, published an article painting you as a party girl who likes to drink and who jokes about sex. The article–published, in a cowardly move, as written by the Washington Free Beacon staff–includes screenshots of your personal Twitter account. That account has now been deleted, in no doubt because of the harassment you are receiving.
You’ve also been called a Feminazi (that’s not okay) and a plant by the Democrats. In struggling to contain the fallout from the question, the right has attacked Obama’s White House for not paying women the same as men (in the Free Beacon piece) but has also tried to sell the persistent lie that there is no gender gap. (Well, which is it? Obama is no better than anyone else on the pay gap, or there is no inequality?) And while yes, the question did favor Obama, that’s only because Obama’s record on women’s rights is pretty good and Mitt Romney’s is abysmal and inconsistent. There were questions that favored Obama and questions that favored Romney and questions that favored neither.
You’re a 24 year-old woman who likes to drink and makes sexual jokes. Basically, you’re an average member of our generation. Nobody’s looking into the personal life of Jeremy Epstein, the college student who asked the first question of the debate (about the job market for college graduates). Many feminist sources are claiming that this is what happens to women who dare speak out in public discourse about women’s issues. It does seem somewhat similar to what happened to Sandra Fluke. You can argue this is pure sexism–sexism for sexism’s sake–or you can argue that this is sexism used for political gain, but you can’t pretend that misogyny doesn’t play a role. They’re using sexist ideas about what a woman should be to discredit her for her very valid question on a very important issue. These are angry, partisan people who want to destroy anyone who challenges the status quo. They are capitalizing on the sexist undercurrents of society–that a woman who drinks and is sexually active is less respectworthy than a woman who is not–to silence you. They would use racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and fatphobia to their advantage as well (just look at the way they’ve treated Candy Crowley.) Of course, this is not meant to excuse them. What they’re doing is despicable.
The sad thing is, they’re winning. They’re winning because their smear campaign against feminism has worked. They’ve made feminism into a dirty word. Women like you, Ms. Fenton, who describe themselves as passionate about workplace equality for women and about protecting reproductive rights, also vehemently reject the label. When asked if you considered yourself a feminist:
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m a 24-year-old woman that lives in the United States and feels like I should be treated the same as anyone else. That makes me a normal human being.”
And this is how these vitriolic people–the ones who freely use the term feminazi–are winning. Because, Ms. Fenton, you are a feminist. You are a feminist as defined by feminists, which is the only context that matters. There is a wide diversity in feminist thought, but by applying the broad, general definition, you are a feminist. You feel that you should be treated like anyone else. The fact that you think that believing you should be treated like everyone is a defining characteristic of a normal human being makes you a feminist. It’s only under the hateful, vitriolic definition–the one that believes that feminists want to oppress men–that you are not a feminist.
Ms. Fenton, you and I are a lot alike. You are 24, I’m 25. You are from Floral Park, I grew up in Port Washington, a mere twenty-minute drive away. As a young person, I volunteered for Democratic politicians in the Town of North Hempstead, some of whom may be your local politicians. (Floral Park is split between North Hempstead and Hempstead.) You are, presumably, educated formally, as you are a pre-school teacher. We have probably had very similar lives. I’m assuming you grew up in the area, I may be wrong about that. But if so, we may even have crossed paths. We both grew up to believe passionately in some of the same things. We both believe there is a problem in society that makes us value women’s work less, monetarily. We both believe in reproductive rights. We’ve both benefited from Obama’s health care reforms, which allowed both of us to stay on our parents’ insurance after graduating, which allowed you to get medical tests and allowed me to get treatment for a pancreatic tumor while it was still in Stage One. And yet, you reject feminism, and I embrace it. We could easily have been in opposite places. I want to know what drove you to be so against the word feminism when you are, in so many ways, a feminist, because I want to know how to reach young women who feel alienated.
You say it’s because you don’t just care about women. I don’t just care about women either. I care about men–many of whom have even less privilege than you or I do. (I’m talking about men of color, who are being incarcerated at astounding rates, gay men, trans men, and men who live in poverty.) I care about all people because I believe we are all human beings who should be given the same worth, value and dignity by society. This is the underlying assumption of feminism, and it’s what underlies your belief structure too.
It’s possible that you believe that feminism, as a movement, has too long been focused on the struggles of middle-class white women and has not let the voices of women of color speak out. Feminism is not perfect, and it’s not immune to criticism, and this is a very real problem. It saddens me that people have been driven away by a movement that should empower them to speak up. But I assume this is not your problem.
I assume that your problem is that you have been influenced deeply by the narrative that people like the staff of Washington Free Beacon are trying to push on us. They’ve created a straw (wo)man argument, and it’s working. In essence, what they’ve done is build a scarecrow out of straw and called her a feminist. They’ve made this straw-feminist something she’s not. They’ve propped her up and they drag her out any time feminism comes up. They fight against her, not the real flesh-and-blood feminists who they find it harder to tear down. This false image of feminism is so pervasive that maybe you’ve never even questioned whether that strawwoman represented real feminists. You are not alone. There are many women who reject the label of feminist even when they support feminist stances because they have been force-fed this fake narrative.
Feminism has done so much for you, Ms. Fenton. Feminism is why you went to school. Feminism is how you have access to contraception and abortion, and feminists are fighting to protect that right for you. Feminists are the ones who are going to defend you against the personal attacks, who are going to point out just how fucked up and unfair it is.
Or maybe you just are trying to be left alone. I understand that. But they are not going to let up simply if you disavow feminism. Remember, you are not going to stand alone. You did something huge for feminism. You put issues important to us on the national stage. You allowed President Obama to make the point that women’s issues are family issues, are economic issues. Reject us if you want, but I believe fully that it’s not your fault, that it’s because of the conservative discourse in our culture. Feminists will stand up for your rights.
If I am wrong about these assumptions, please. E-mail me at jessmary(at)feminspire.com. I would love to discuss this with you. I would love to know what drove you to say that. Maybe we can get a beer–because as two adult women, there is no reason why we can’t enjoy an alcoholic beverage, no matter what anyone on the Internet says.
Jess Mary Aloe
Senior editor, Feminspire.com
Written by Jess Mary Aloe
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