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Feminspire | April 21, 2014

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I Can’t Turn Off My Feminism, and I’m Not Sorry About It

I Can’t Turn Off My Feminism, and I’m Not Sorry About It

There are some days that I wish I could just take off my Social Justice hat and not notice all the ills of the world.

I should probably clarify.

I’ve always been a fairly liberal-minded person, even as a child. When I was younger I went through a phase where I refused to wear dresses or jewelry — for my last birthday, my grandmother gave me a necklace she bought well over ten years ago because, at the time, I had proclaimed that I would not wear it. I also expressed a dislike for the color pink. I couldn’t describe the reasoning behind my sudden rejection of all things “traditionally feminine;” I was only about ten years old at the time. When I think back on my actions, I wonder if my sudden distaste of dresses and pink had to do with my rejection of how the patriarchy was represented in my life. I did not like being told, even indirectly, what to do, and the subtle ways in which our society reinforces what it means to be feminine were clearly making an impact. As a result, ten-year-old me decided that I did not like the things that are most often associated with being a female: dresses, jewelry, and the color pink. Not necessarily because I didn’t like them, but because I didn’t like being told that I had to like them in order to be a girl.

I often wonder what was the final straw that motivated me to make this decision. Even when I was too young to recognize something problematic within our society, I knew enough to dislike it. I might not have fully understood the idea of gender roles, but for some reason I felt compelled to battle against them. I did this in the only way a ten-year-old knows how: by rejecting them outright.

Now that I’m older, I understand that I don’t have to stop wearing dresses because society tells me that, as someone who has a vagina and identifies as a woman, I should like them. I now have a much fuller understanding of gender. I recognize the subtle ways in which society reinforces gendered ideas, such as girls always wearing dresses. Now I love wearing dresses, jewelry and makeup, although sometimes I still feel uneasy about doing so. And although I never questioned my gender identity as a child, only what being a girl really meant to me, I can’t help but wonder what children who are questioning their gender identity must go through when confronted with these patriarchal ideas. Our ideas about gender really aren’t doing anyone any good.

little girl tantrum

Looking back on my behavior as a child, it probably makes sense that I should become so focused on social justice and equality. I’m not saying I am perfect. I, like everyone else, held some problematic views because I didn’t know any better at the time. I still make mistakes today, as we all inevitably do, saying things I don’t necessarily mean because they made sense in my head. I was never actively seeking social change. I never thought I would become interested in politics. I didn’t expect that my views would shift so drastically as I came to better understand exactly why something problematic bothered me. That all just sort of happened.

It was the end of August 2010. I was 22-years-old and had moved away from home for the first time to finish my college degree. Up until that point, I had been working in retail and struggling through community college while living at home, taking a bunch of general education classes that had absolutely nothing to do with my intended major. When I went away for college I found myself in a new state, hours away from home. I had roommates and an off campus apartment. These were huge changes.

The first class I ever attended at my new school was called Feminist Reading of Culture. I signed up for the course not because I was interested in feminism; like others, I was initially turned off by the movement due to misconceptions about what being a feminist actually meant. I chose that course because it was one of the few English courses still open at the time. I was a little nervous going to that class. This was my first big test. It would determine whether or not I was really cut out for higher education, because at the time I was still unsure if I could really handle it.

The professor walked in and asked us to put our desks in a circle. The next fourteen weeks were sort of like a wake-up call, as though the knowledge had always been there but the light was turned off. Here are the hard truths about rape culture. Here’s why you feel so troubled by stereotypical views on gender and femininity. Here’s an introduction to body-shaming. Here’s how society thinks about race. It was like I was being introduced to everything that I didn’t know I already knew, but lacked the understanding of how to connect the dots. I needed someone else to show me how.

From then on, there was no turning back. I don’t think it was going away to school that necessarily changed me, but that class. Some changes occurred overnight. I started focusing more on Gender Studies, and I paid attention to politics. I would often slip into a rant about sexism over dinner with my friends.

Other changes happened slowly. One night, roughly eight months after I started at my college, I was being harassed by a group of my roommate’s boyfriend’s friends. They were repeatedly asking me to show them my tits, and had been doing so for a while. Originally I had smiled and brushed it off, politely declining their request because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. I didn’t want to come off as a bitch, and these were guys that I’d have to see again. I didn’t want to provoke them. Eventually the asking turned to pleading on bended knee, as one of the guys took my hand as though trying to propose to me. At that point I realized how many times I’d said no, and all my responses were being ignored. It occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to put up with their harassment, because I was not in the wrong. The curiosity over my tits did not mean that every guy I came in contact with had a right to them, because they did not own them. And if they were ignoring my polite decline without relenting, how far were they willing to take it?

Previously I might have stuck around despite feeling uncomfortable, because I thought I had to. Instead, I declared that I wasn’t going to sit there and be sexually harassed. They didn’t like that answer, so I told them to fuck off and locked myself in my room, where they continued to harass me through my locked door.

I would not have been able to walk away before, because before I had assumed that being a woman meant that I had to put up with some sexual harassment every once in a while.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore says, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” I’ve found this to be true in a lot of ways, but not so much in others. When calling out someone you dislike for making an inappropriate comment – be it sexist, racist, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, homophobic, transphobic, or anything else – you expect the response to be negative, so you don’t particularly care. It’s easy not to care when someone you dislike calls you a bitch for speaking your mind and not putting up with their patriarchal bullshit. In my experience, standing up to my friends is easier, as they are usually willing to listen, even if they don’t agree with your opinion. It’s somewhat simple in that way. You get to pick your friends, and most of the time they think similarly to you. I’m not afraid of alienating them with my feminist rants. But I can’t say the same thing about my family.

Where do you draw the line? Do you bring up every seemingly offhand comment that a family member makes about a woman’s outward appearance when it starts to make you uncomfortable? Do you devote your energy to convincing your brother that you’re not exaggerating the extent of rape culture and street harassment, even though you know repeatedly having the same argument frustrates him? When do you bite your tongue in the hopes of not alienating your family members that otherwise you love and get along with, and when do you speak up, even though you know your words will inevitably lead to an argument that you will be blamed for? Do you correct your twelve-year-old stepbrother every time he makes a sexist or racist comment because he does not yet understand why it’s wrong?

I recognize that my situation is pretty good if the worst thing I have to worry about is getting into fights with my family. The worst outcome so far came when I walked out of dinner after some inappropriate and vile comments were spoken to me as I explained why specific derogatory gendered words are offensive to me. And while I was furious at the time for having to put up with that sort of behavior within my own family, in hindsight it’s something manageable. Every family situation is different, and not everyone would be safe to act the way I do in their home environment. You might be thinking of coming out, you might be coming forward about a sexual assault and fear the reaction, you might be pregnant and fear being disowned, or you might just be the radical liberal in your old-fashioned, conservative family. I cannot tell you how to approach a given situation when you’re risking more than just an argument by speaking up. Your safety is more important than anything in the world. It’s up to you to determine whether or not being vocal is worth the risk when remaining silent will keep you safe.

But there is no taking off the Social Justice hat once you put it on. There’s no on/off switch; once your eyes are opened, you cannot close them again and pretend these things are not happening. I certainly don’t, even when I can’t or choose not to say anything. I can’t go into Target without noticing that the shelves holding the girls toys are pink, and I certainly can’t remain silent every time someone in my family makes an inadvertently offensive comment. And I don’t care particularly care about angering my enemies or my friends when I think they’re wrong, because to me, the risk is worth it. I have yet to determine whether or not it’s worth it to speak up and correct my family members every time I notice something problematic. I cannot decide when it’s okay to say something and when it’s not, when my time with my family is already so limited.

For now, I’m going to continue to voice my opinions. Change needs to begin somewhere, so why not amongst my family? It might mean getting into a few more arguments than usual, but for me personally biting my tongue isn’t always possible. I do sometimes wish that there was a way I could turn it all off and pretend I didn’t notice anything, if only because I do not wish to start arguments with my family when, before now, I wouldn’t have even cared.

The thing is, though, I do care. And if it means that I’m going to piss off my family sometimes, then so be it.

Written by Jackie Klein
Follow her on twitter and tumblr!

  • hayden

    this is one of the most relate-able pieces written on feminspire, in my opinion.

    when i hear someone in my family say something sexist/misogynistic/racist/etc they can easily tell that i’m pissed, as my expression really shows it. and most of the time i try to explain *why* i’m reacting this way, but i just can’t find the words, so i end up stuttering and rolling my eyes, and they just laugh…

    • Jackie Klein

      Thank you for your comment. I get so flustered all the time when I’m having these arguments with my family that I don’t really want to be having in the first place. It doesn’t help that I’m not the most eloquent speaker, and I get tongue tied while I try to explain myself.

      I think that you and I can hang in there. We can soldier on, despite what our family thinks of us. They might not take us seriously, they might think we’re exaggerating, they might look at us as the crazy-angry-bra burning-man hating feminist. But I think that for me, since it’s something I feel this passionately about and I am not too worried about the repercussions, it’s worth it in the long run. You and I just have to hang in there.

  • Sully

    I just can’t let things slide, either, but depending on the situation I’ll just make a quick comment that I don’t agree or have a longer conversation about it.

  • Kate

    “It was like I was being introduced to everything that I didn’t know I already knew, but lacked the understanding of how to connect the dots. I needed someone else to show me how.” This was sooo my experience as well.

    Thanks so much for writing this. It puts into words so many of the things I feel and struggle with and it’s nice to know that I’m not alone.

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  • Molly

    Thank you so much for this article. This spelled out my EXACT experience (minus college). This is exactly what I needed to hear, ever since I’ve been labeled a “crazy feminist” and “feminazi” at my high school for talking about lack of women in media. (Some of my friends even told me about groups of people at lunch having daily conversations about how “radical” and “irrational” I was for wanted more PoC in movies, especially in prominent roles.) My friends who call themselves feminists ended up calling me radical as well, and when I confronted them they said that they didn’t want to end up with such a bad representation as myself. Lately in class I have been attempting to remove the “hat of social justice”, but it’s difficult and painful to do so. I’ve been starting to wonder if I’m wrong for speaking out.

    This article made me feel so much better about myself, and I can’t thank you enough for that.

    • Jackie Klein

      You are SO WELCOME! I know how incredibly frustrating it can be when you’re told to just lighten up, that you’re choosing to focus on the negative things. Just know that you’re not crazy. You’re not radical. If your friends don’t want to be around you because you can’t take off your Social Justice hat, then you will find people who wear the same hat as you do. I promise you that they are out there.

    • sylvan_bob

      Molly, as an older (65) male, my experience might be a little different, but perhaps you can use it. If you think of the people you admire – not celebrities, but ‘characters’ – people who’ve really LIVED – regardless of what others thought of them – they are people like you. Check out Mary Wolstonecraft, Sonia Johnson, Joseph Campbell and Jean Shinoda Bolen and JJ Krishnamurti and there are lots more.

      When I was a boy, middle class, small town, I assumed I’d go to college, get married, get a job, buy a house, get old, and die. 95% of my classmates followed that pattern. In grade 11 I got interested in politics and environment and the whole world changed before my eyes in a matter of a few months. I got depressed, stopped doing schoolwork, quit school…

      There were some hard times. There was some dark depression. Over time I’ve found new friends.

      I still get hassled sometimes for being out of step with the mainstream, but I have no regrets. It’s lonely sometimes, but I would never want to have missed the lessons I’ve learned.

      The world has the potential to be a wonderful place, and people have the potential to be amazing and do amazing things. So much of that is lost when people are manipulated into acting in certain ways that limit their potential, whether it’s by race, gender, or whatever. If you are restricted by society, you lose out, and I lose out. When we start to break out of those prescribed patterns, we grow and change and you and I will recognize each other. Outsiders always do. We have to, because there aren’t nearly enough of us.

      It will be lonely at times, and depressing, and worse, but hang in there – you are one of the special people – you have stopped believing the lies.

      There’s magic loose in the world, and those of us who break out of the mainstream are given the opportunity to embrace it. Just as in the myths, it’s a tough road, but it’s worth it.

      I was going to tell you to hang in there, but the fact is, once you’ve taken those first few steps, there’s no turning back. And sites like this one will encourage and save so many people who might think there’s something wrong with them. I wish I knew some of you personally.
      Thank you all.

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  • Shegufta R.

    It’s like I was reading the story of my life, written in somebody else’s words. I come from a conservative family, where raising one’s opinion has possibilities of giving way to drama. And my parents, despite the freedom they’ve given me, tend to give in to the pressures of the society. I, too, refused to wear pink for a long time because I didn’t want to do things that were meant to be typical for me. I wore bandannas, and baggy jeans, and sneakers in place of all the frills and jewellery my mum would get me. I got pink and purple hair extensions because I wanted to defy the norm that girls with pink hair are boisterous and reckless by nature. I don’t want to rebel, I just didn’t want to be labelled. I simply want to get my point across. But it’s hard to do that when people don’t want to listen to the things inside my little head. I need feminism because it’s not right to treat a girl like a product that needs to be given away before it’s expiration date. My Bachelors degree is my license to get a job, and not to get married. I want to be heard because only when the society changes their views, can my parents be allowed to let me lead the life I want.
    Thank you for writing this article so beautifully! I know my day’s going to go well now :)

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  • TLP

    Yay, someone understands! I get so uncomfortable when I tell my teenage brother off for “subtle sexism” – the things that most people would not even think are related to feminism. It’s things like saying “My friend broke up with her bitch boyfriend because he was being the girl in the relationship,” and when I ask why that is a negative thing or what that even means, he tells me the guy was clingy and overly emotional. Because those are GIRL things. And when I speak my thoughts I’m told to “stop getting so defensive” when I’m actually just making a point. My family’s far from conservative, so I only come across subtle sexism with them, and every argument like this is seen as me overreacting to something that’s irrelevant. Sigh. I’m not going to stop though, so thanks for the solidarity.

  • Sarah

    I was lucky enough to be raised in a very liberal family where feminism is valued, but I live in Mississippi, where progressivism comes to die. So I’m the radical feminazi of my school, even though my views aren’t radical, just logical :P
    Points for the HP quote!

  • thankyouthankyou

    So. Relatable. I often get into arguments because I am a feminist, and my family (my mother included)- are all very sexist, and mock me. Thank you for sharing this piece.

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  • Lindsey Amethyst Hampton

    God, this. Every bit of it. It’s so FRUSTRATING, sometimes, trying to be a decent person in a world that makes it so easy to not be. And it’s so irritating to see all the badness when there used to be a time you couldn’t.