Thursday, May 17, 2007

Not For Ourselves Alone

Maia has a beautiful (albeit recycled) post at Alas in which she uses Jessica Valenti's new book as a jumping off point to discuss what it is that brought her to feminism.
I was once a middle-class girl who was too scared to call herself feminist, the audience of the book. But I didn’t change my mind because feminism seemed easy, but because I realised what how hard the women who had been before me had fought, and I wanted to honour that struggle.


My response to the stories of women’s lives, both fictional and real was: “I have to call myself a feminist, I owe it to all these women who went before me, who fought so hard and gained so much to become part of that struggle.”

And that was the beginning.

Maia contrasts her feminist click moment* with what Jessica is hoping will serve as young women's click moments. (Full disclosure, Maia admits that she has only read the excerpts from Amazon. In addition, I have not read Jessica's book -- so I am not trying to write any sort of review -- condemning or approving -- of the book, only what some of the discussions of the book have brought up in my mind.)

I think that for most women, especially young women, there has to be some balance between what Maia is talking about and what [people say] Jessica is talking about. For most people, there does have to be a personal investment in the issue for them to have any interest in joining up with a social justice movement. They have to see that it relates to them, that the injustices are harming them, that the movement will help them in some way.

However, I think this line of thinking can be taken too far. One commenter in Maia's thread wrote this:
Well, Jessica (and I, for that matter) choose to be feminist because it’s a good and needful choice for us. Oh, it’s nice to honor the feminists that have busted butt before. But that’s not the big reason for me, nor, I suspect, for a lot of people. Because we’re in this for ourselves, as opposed to being selfless and all that. That’s reality.

This kind of thinking is dangerous. Yes, people need to recognize how feminism (or any other social justice movement) relates to them. But I would hope that that recognition would lead to recognizing how we are inter-connected, and how what harms others directly can harm you indirectly. If your "big" reason is what you, personally, will gain from it, you are either not seeing or can't see that inter-connectedness. And it is precisely this sort of thinking that leads to the racism, classism, ableism , etc. that is so often lodged against feminism. If you're "in it for [y]ourselves," you are playing the exact same power-over games that patriarchy beneficiaries are playing.

Feminism is not about making things better for ourselves alone,** it's about making things better for all women. Yes, recognizing that we are a part of that group "women" and we will benefit as well is a great starting point. But it can never be the end all and be all of feminism. If it is, feminism will fail.

*that moment when you realize, "I am a feminist."
**Yeah, I guess that's why the title of the PBS Special on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony is so apt.

1 comment:

kateg said...

Good post. Feminism=collective struggle, not (just or even always) individual empowerment.