Ask a Feminist: What does it mean to “live a feminist life”?

Happy fall, y’all! We’ve added a new recommendation to our list of nonfiction feminist media: Sara Ahmed’s newest book, Living a Feminist Life. Anita can’t put it down, and my copy is here beside me as I type, sitting in a spot of honor on my bedside table.

As a long-time student of gender studies, I’ve been a fan of Ahmed’s work for years (I mentioned one of her other books in August in my discussion of late night TV’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville.) Perhaps more than any of her previous writing, Living a Feminist Life shows how feminist theory is bound up in our daily activities and experiences, and the book expertly moves into the realm of practical action. The title is a reflection, an aspiration, and a challenge all at once. It forces you to step back and think: what does “living a feminist life” actually mean? How can we do this, every day, regardless of where we live or work, who we date, and where we carouse?

Rather than taking on the task of reviewing the book or trying to answer these questions alone, I turned to a few fabulous, thoughtful feminists that I’m fortunate to know. Kristína and Kailey were flatmates for a few years, living in Central Europe and completing degrees in gender studies; Kristína is still living in Europe and Kailey is now back in the US. Maddie resides in the Midwest, and Deirdre is located in New York City. Each of these wonderful humans has already read Ahmed’s book, and they have a whole lot to say about what being feminist means to them, and how feminism has impacted – and continues to influence – the way they live their lives.


How did you learn about Ahmed’s new book? Where did you get it?

Kristína: I got the book from Kailey after a year of me quoting parts from Sara Ahmed’s blog [feminist killjoys] in our living room and sending her quotes as answers to almost every life situation.

Thinking about the title of Ahmed’s book, what does “living a feminist life” mean to you?

Kailey: For me, living as a feminist isn’t so much a checklist of things I have to do or conversation I have to have as it is a mindset that adapts to my own living circumstances. When I was getting my masters degree in gender studies, living with queer feminists, it was easy to push my feminism into every part of my life, and use what I was learning to push the boundaries of what I was comfortable with in my life.

Now, after my master’s degree, I’m living with my parents, and three of my five brothers. My feminism has taken a different shape inside me, for the sake of ‘keeping the peace’ with the rest of my family. I learned quite quickly after coming home that I wouldn’t be able to handle living here with my father unless I bit my tongue. Our relationship relies on me keeping my criticisms quiet, and just accepting my father’s because he won’t do the same for me. It’s become a kind of challenge: how can I speak to my family or my coworkers about the inequalities they are propagating? How can I make a point about the wrongs I see without alienating the people around me? As a result, I’ve become sort of alienated from my own values and beliefs, and have been making more and more compromises regarding them. It’s sad, and I often feel like a bit of a “sell out” for choosing the easier path, but I hope it’s not forever. I hope I can recapture my unapologetic feminism someday soon.

Kristína: Living a feminist life, for me, means a certain orientation in the world. It influences where I look and what I see. It means a personal project, to make myself a better person as a part of making a world more livable for everyone. I’m trying to guide everything I do along principles that I recognize as feminist: from negotiating housework in a shared flat, to romantic relationships, to taking up public space, to questioning authority.

It means seeing power everywhere and trying to figure out how it works. It also means further responsibility for sharing that knowledge with others.

It means reflexivity and the ability to recognize that my own behaviour can be problematic, and being flexible or willing to change. It means seeing the political dimension in everything.

It influences my relationships and the way I value people around me.

It taught me to question everything and it’s helping me to ask out loud.

Have you always considered yourself a feminist? Or, do you recall how, when or why you started using the term?

Deirdre: Although I may not have had the words for it at the time, I do think I was a feminist child growing up. I could not be otherwise. I was full of energy, never sat properly in chairs and always spoke out of turn in class. I was smart, and bold, which quickly taught me about my assigned gender, and I didn’t like it. Still don’t. So I guess it was a method of survival.

Maddie: I haven’t always considered myself a feminist. When I was in high school, I was one of those people who said they believed in equality but didn’t like the word feminist. I thought calling yourself a feminist meant you had to go to protests and be combative, which wasn’t something I identified with at the time. I came to realize this wasn’t necessarily true, and started calling myself a feminist after being assigned to read The Handmaid’s Tale during the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. I don’t remember consciously choosing to use the label, but it no longer felt alien to me to call myself a feminist just for having certain political opinions.

Ironically, my feminism and my research have become about reclaiming hostility. If only high school me could see me now.

Kristína: I don’t know if I always considered myself a feminist. But my relationship to it has definitely changed over time…

I find that sometimes the term is thrown around to describe everything and in some cases it’s become emptied of its potential to cause trouble (or, as I see it, of its radical critique) or to create a community. And I didn’t want to be associated with that.

What further complicated my relationship to the label feminist was the juxtaposition of everything I knew about feminism – which was mainly from books, the internet (um, Tumblr) or feminist media (Bitch Media, Guerrilla Girls and Feminist Frequency) – with the context I was growing up in. Everything was coming from the West, and mainly the US, but I was in a post-socialist country. I had to learn and recognize that the West is not a general example, not always “ahead”, and that it does not always provide the best analysis of my personal situation.

I also got more interested and involved in local feminist politics, which helped me more to formulate what feminism means here. I learned about the histories connected to the region and the tradition of feminism we have here. But, of course, I can see limits to a lot of feminist politics or actions, especially limited understandings of intersectionality, the struggle to formulate new left politics… Sometimes I just don’t know how to balance those positions and I don’t feel represented by any of them.

However, it feels uneasy to get rid of the label. Feminism has offered me a lot of helpful tools to understand my experiences and to see the political in the personal. A lot of the time it feels therapeutic to have the language to translate and understand how my personal experiences are influenced by structures, and how they’re shared with many others.

And I think Sara Ahmed’s book and blog helped me to feel a bit more comfortable with feminism. She connects everything that I find important together: feminism, anti-racism, queer politics and the need to de-centralize the West. Her book focuses on building communities, the importance of support, and speaking up but also recognizing when it’s not always possible.

As Ahmed says, “moments can become movement. Moments can build a movement.”

Deirdre: As a self-professed killjoy, I try to shine light on structures of inequality whenever I’m given the chance, especially when it will be disruptive, because this is when it is hardest to do. I consider disagreeing, and refusing to agree to be important tools of feminism.

I am willing to be difficult, to paraphrase part of Ahmed’s killjoy manifesto. Not being taken seriously is one of the many ways I was brought to feminism. In response or remembrance of this, I have developed a habit for taking quite seriously things that people say to me. I consider this part of a feminist practice, which often involves asking people to elaborate on statements, think of their implications, or clarify about the purpose of this statement.

This daily work of living a feminist life is where change begins to happen. As Ahmed says, “moments can become movement. Moments can build a movement.”

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