In my experience, using the feminist label is an asset only when preaching to the feminist choir. My ambivalence disappears in those contexts; I feel as though we are all speaking the same language, so we can relax and high-five each other in our feminist t-shirts, because, yes, we get it. But when I step beyond that insular crowd, the term has a consistently alienating effect. In conversations with non-feminists—which are arguably the most important—using the word "feminism" rarely opens doors to deeper dialogue. Instead, it often acts as a barrier to the very ideas that word represents. This is a serious problem, one that I wish more feminists were talking candidly about.
If I'm honest with myself, I realize the feminist conversation does not feel productive anymore. The revolution seems to have stalled out. Despite the massive gains we've made, thanks to our feminist foremothers, we've barely dented the veneer of sexism on our culture. And it's the most insidious inequality that remains, the misogyny that is coded into our words and behavior, that fuels rape culture, and the sex trafficking pandemic, and the mainstream "pornification" of sexuality. Some forms of sexism have actually worsened since the second wave. There is more pressure than ever on women to starve and despise their bodies in mimicry of a false, fantasized ideal. There is much work to be done, which is why I am concerned that feminists are too preoccupied with making our brand more palatable. Perhaps that energy could be better spent forging partnerships with potential allies in the struggle toward equality, whether they feel an affinity with the label or not.
And yet, when I get to the point of ditching the word "feminism" entirely, something holds me back. I think of myself as that college student again, just waking up to the pervasiveness of sexism. My world was cracking open and in that tumult, feminism, as both word and ideal, became a life raft for me. I clung to it.
Every semester, young women come into my office in tears. Much as I did, they are first becoming conscious of how terribly the world views and treats women. In this vital, fragile stage of life when they are just beginning to craft a self and envision a future, these students are simultaneously bombarded with damaging cultural myths about gender. They feel silenced, unheard, diminished.
In moments like these, feminism feels like a gift than I can offer, a word that represents the antidote to what wounds them. A word that can open new ways of thinking and living, not to mention a vault of incredible writers, philosophers, activists, and ideas. I can still remember those initial flashes of discovery, and the way the label used to feel before I became exhausted trying to defend it, how it was strong and new and whispered a promise of change. Yet, as life-giving as it has been for me, the word "feminism" comes with a lot of baggage, and I know that if these young women and men choose to embrace the label, they will also inherit its stigma and the burden of trying to maneuver around it to improve our world.
I wish I had more to give them, more than a galvanizing but hopelessly divisive word for them to cling to, but, for the moment, it's the only word I have. So until I have something better for them—and I want something better—I will hold onto my t-shirt and keep using the label.