Asked two of my Year 12 students at the end of the lesson. Well, not quite in as many words, what they asked was what I think about feminism. I treat the “Are you a feminist?” question much like I treat the “Do you believe in God?” question. First, we need to clarify the terms. So, like “What do you mean by God?” we need to begin with “What do you mean by feminism?”
Let me paraphrase my response: “Are you asking, do I believe that all humans have innate dignity? Yes, I believe that. Do I think all people should be able to flourish, regardless of their gender (and sexuality, race, age, class, nationality, etc. – they are all bound up in the tangled web of our lives)? Yes, I do. Do I believe that it is unethical for some to hold power over others on the basis of gender (and the cultural structures, assumptions, and stereotypes that go with it)? Indeed. Do I believe that women (and everyone) have been restricted and harmed by patriarchal structures in society? I certainly do. Do you agree?” In my experience, most people agree to this point.
So what makes feminism such a touchy subject? There is a perceived threat to our privileges when others demand equal rights. There’s a lack of acknowledgement that the realities of others differ from our own. Many of the conversations I have about feminism (in the classroom and beyond) air some of the classic arguments against feminism: it’s hard to hear because they are so angry; if only they would put it in nicer terms we might be able to agree; why aren’t we campaigning for men’s rights?
Where it gets sticky is when you actually have to do something about it. It is easy enough to agree with the theoreticals above, and do nothing about it. It’s easy to stay comfortable in your privilege, and not even acknowledge it as privilege. Many a student has told me that they don’t have privilege. They don’t recognise it because privilege doesn’t feel like privilege, it feels like the norm. As Sara Ahmed says in Living a Feminist Life (181), “It is easy for me to forget to think about it, which is what makes a privilege a privilege: the experiences you are protected from having; the thoughts you do not have to think.” But your norm is not everyone’s norm. As much as we might try to acknowledge our own privileges, it is easy to forget to, because they pass unnoticed in our day-to-day lives.
In many ways, I’m glad that it’s not surprising to me that two senior students would sit and discuss the merits and difficulties of feminism in my classroom, nor that they would then seek my perspective. We need to create supportive environments in which young people can ask such questions and examine their own (immediate knee-jerk and longer term more reflective) responses to the issues at stake.
So… are you a feminist?*
*If the answer is not (yet) a resounding yes, read (some of) these books (or others, these are just a few recent ones I’ve read, or listen to some feminist podcasts etc.):
- Sara Ahmed – Living a Feminist Life
- Clementine Ford – Fight Like A Girl and Boys Will Be Boys
- Peggy Orenstein – Boys & Sex and Girls & Sex
- Brene Brown – I Thought It Was Just Me
- Judith Butler – Gender Trouble
Or on the theology:
- Michelle Voss Roberts – Body Parts
- Elizabeth Johnson – She Who Is and Truly Our Sister
- Gail Ramshaw – God Beyond Gender