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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Five Ways to Practice Feminism - Guest Post

Kate Allen who blogs over at Corn Dog Mama has some great ways to practice feminism in your own way, and forward the movement while keeping your individuality.


I've seen a lot of conversation lately about what constitutes a feminist, or a "good" feminist.  As the mother of two young daughters, I have reason to spend a good deal of every day reflecting on what feminism looks like at its best.  I want my daughters to learn, from my example, what it means to embody equality, embrace compassion and diversity, and carry a prophetic voice--all the stuff of feminism, as I see it.  But how does one do all those things in an everyday sort of way?

I offer the following five suggestions as ways to "do" feminism:

1) Embrace diversity.

The tough fact is, not all feminists agree.  The ideal of homogenous thought is, in my experience, a patriarchal one, not a feminist one.  Case in point: I grew up Roman Catholic and studied theology as an undergraduate, a graduate student, and a doctoral student.  Both then and now, when my voice has diverged from that of the big guys (i.e. the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the priests, and even the deacons) on matters of faith, I've been looked on with suspicion.  I've been told that's not the way things are.  I've been told to shut my mouth, or else.  I've been threatened with everything from excommunication and damnation to poor grades and unsavory recommendations (and that's just my experience with my church--I've experienced patriarchy in many other contexts as well).  In other words, the difference of my thinking has been perceived as a threat, which has led to me being bullied.  Preview of #4: bullying and feminism are not compatible.  This segues naturally into the next way to do feminism:

2) Practice listening.

This is the toughest thing I do as a self-proclaimed feminist.  I expect and want people to listen if I take the risk of speaking. That being said, if it's someone else doing the speaking, and that someone is saying something that conflicts with a view or idea I hold as important or even non-negotiable, it's hard to listen.  It's hard not to shut out that person's voice to begin formulating my clever comeback.   But the moment I fail to listen is the moment I fail to do what I expect others to do--and then I'm simply a hypocrite.  I've failed to do practice listening over and over and over again, and those failures haunt the crap out of me.  For example, when I was in college, I remember writing a rant in the form of a letter to the editor of the college paper.  I was upset about something campus ministry was up to, so in my letter I made rude remarks about it.  I made a whole lot of people upset--students, staff, and faculty alike.  I remember meeting another student a few weeks later who shared my name, and she said, "Oh, you're the one who wrote that letter to the editor."  Her eyes were huge, like I might suddenly reveal my scaly wings and blow fire at her.  I managed to single-handedly create enormous offense across the campus because, in wholly rejecting the value of what campus ministry was doing, I also implicitly rejected the intelligence and wisdom of those who might have had the smallest morsel of interest in taking part in it.  In rapidly spouting off my own perceived wisdom, I failed to listen, and alienated dozens of people I knew and cared about (and probably hundreds more whom I'd never meet).  What did I gain from writing that letter?  Nothing.  Not a thing. If I had just listened first, rather than roaring my way into a written rant, I might have brought something worth reading into my letter the editor--balance, for example.  Kindness, for another.  The possibility of a genuine dialogue, even.  You know--the stuff that awesome feminists are totally savvy about.

3) Value your personal experience and dare to speak up.

One critical thing I've learned in the process of becoming a feminist is that my personal experience is as important as, if not more important than, my ability to bandy about ideas and objective facts.  I've learned the slow way that the most compelling voices I've heard are the ones that aren't afraid of honestly and non-threateningly sharing personal experiences.  I may not be able to relate to someone's political stance on abortion, for example, but I can relate to the desperate urges to protect and care for children and family (full disclosure: I am pro-choice).  I can relate to strongly felt emotions, even when I can't relate to being boxed in by emotionally-charged accusations.  If a person can make herself or himself just vulnerable enough to share her or his experience without attempting to claim that her or his experience is the only valid one, that person can get my ear.  Likewise, I've found that people listen to me most readily when I reveal myself not as someone hardened into in impermeable, unchanging boulder, but rather a flesh-and-blood person who fears, loves, gets angry, is joyful, and feels hurt.  Someone who can experience all those things is someone who can have her mind and heart transformed.  One of my professors from graduate school used to talk about being an openness rather than a closedness.  To be open to others, rather than closed to others, is a great way to practice feminism.  However-

4) Don't ever buy into the idea that bullies have a right to bully you--or that you have the right to bully others.

Yes, this is negative advice, but it is also, in my heartfelt opinion, absolutely crucial to practicing feminism.  As I wrote in a recent reflection, before I was a feminist, I didn't realize I had a right not to be trampled by others.  I was that shy kid in grade school who never knew how to say "no!" or "stop!" when someone mistreated me.  I've learned in my adult life that if you live and breathe, you deserve respect and love, and any person who tries to persuade you otherwise by word or deed does not deserve your attention.  Listening (#2) and becoming vulnerable enough to share your personal experiences (#3) are wonderful feminist things to do, but there's a fine line between listening/becoming vulnerable and allowing someone to pummel you verbally, physically, psychologically, sexually, or otherwise.  If someone's response to your vulnerability is to be cruel, demeaning, or vicious, that person's response lacks integrity and merit.  So what's a feminist way to respond to a person who acts/speaks without integrity or merit?  Well, for a start:

5) Value yourself.

Assume that you have not only self-worth but a right to be part of the world and the conversation.  It's no one's job to do that for you, and someone who doesn't value herself or himself isn't likely to value you the way you deserve.  It also means that you have a right to walk away from relationships with people who don't value you properly.  To answer the question posed in #4, if you encounter someone who acts/speaks to you without integrity or merit, one valid feminist response is to reject future communication/relationship with that person.  But isn't that the same as not listening?  This is where the waters go murky, the way life often does.  I speak from my own experience, which certainly isn't perfect ("perfection" is another patriarchal ideal, anyway, one which I reject as a personal ideal), but I've found that sometimes--just sometimes--the best option is not to listen, because to listen--in these rare cases--is to allow myself to be bullied, and thus not to value myself well.  If I'm in relationship with someone who doesn't value me properly, I'm in relationship with someone hierarchically.  Hierarchy doesn't work in heart-felt relationships--at least not for feminists--because it's antithetical to mutuality.  (St. Paul might disagree with me on that, but I'm not here to debate with a dead man.)  Some of the best--and most difficult--decisions I've ever made involved cutting a person out of my life whom I had previously valued a great deal.  Those decisions, agonizing as they were, empowered me.  Those decisions were tangible ways of affirming that, in relationships that could only be power-imbalanced, I deserved more value in my life than those bullies did.

These five ways aren't the five ways to do feminism, but they are some ways.  In my experience, feminism doesn't work well when it relies on hard and fast rules.  It does seem to work well (and work hard!) when it turns again and again to collective wisdom that's continuously built upon personal experiences.  What would you add to this list of ways to do feminism?  How would you modify the five ways I've presented?


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