‘How to be a Feminist’ Panel at All About Women – Feminist Frequency

‘How to be a Feminist’ Panel at All About Women

March 24, 2015

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Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

I was invited to speak on several panels about feminism and the impacts of online harassment at the 2015 All About Women conference taking place annually at the Sydney Opera House. Here is a video excerpt of my short opening speech on the panel, “How to be a feminist”.

The full panel with Clementine Ford, Roxane Gay, Germaine Greer, Celeste Liddle, and Tara Moss is available here.

You can also see my speech on the “What I Couldn’t Say” panel.

Read the full article…

I was invited to speak on several panels about feminism and the impacts of online harassment at the 2015 All About Women conference taking place annually at the Sydney Opera House. Here is a video excerpt of my short opening speech on the panel, “How to be a feminist”.

The full panel with Clementine Ford, Roxane Gay, Germaine Greer, Celeste Liddle, and Tara Moss is available here.

You can also see my speech on the “What I Couldn’t Say” panel.

Transcript

I had to learn how to be a feminist. Throughout high-school and college I was involved with clubs organizing against wars in the Middle East, raising awareness about climate change, and demanding gay and lesbian rights — so I was heavily involved with social justice causes but I still didn’t call myself a feminist, at the time, I may have even uttered the dreaded phrase, “I believe in equal rights but I’m not a feminist”.

Like most people who grew up immersed in the neoliberal ideology of the West, I saw the world largely as a series of individuals making their own personal individual choices. And here I was, a young woman making my own personal choices about what to wear, what to buy, what to study and what I wanted to do every day. Within that narrow individualist framework feminism seemed like a relic of the distant past. Back then, I thought sexism basically boil down to a few bad apples with misguided personal beliefs born out of ignorance or overt hatred.

It wasn’t until I was in my early to mid 20s that I began to realize my impression of feminism had been completely wrong. With the help of some amazing mentors and by reading a lot of feminist writing, especially the words of women of color and queer women from around the world, I learned to see through a sociological lens and understand the world as it really exists, as a series of intersecting social systems. Once you have a systemic and institutional framework, you see how oppression manifests in many subtle ways under the systems of what bell hooks calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.

So not only did I have to learn how to be a feminist, I also had to learn how to be a feminist who understands systems. I had to learn how systems of oppression are maintained by our participation in them, but are also self-perpetuating via paths of least resistance. And as such systems are larger than any one person’s choices.

Ok, so here is the part where I say things that may ruffle some feathers, but I think it’s a critical discussion to have. Over the past few years I have become increasingly worried about the direction mainstream internet feminism appears to be heading in the west.

Unfortunately many contemporary discourses in and around feminism tend to emphasize a form of hyper individualism (informed by the neoliberal worldview). More and more, I hear variations on this idea that anything that any woman personally chooses to do is a feminist act, this attitude is often referred to as “choice feminism”. Choice feminism posits that each individual woman determines what is empowering for herself, which might sound good on the surface but this concept risks obscuring the bigger picture and larger, fundamental goals of the movement by focusing on individual women and a very narrow, individual notion of “empowerment”. It erases the reality that some choices that women make have an enormous negative impact on other women’s lives.

It is not enough to feel personally empowered or be personally successful within the oppressive framework of the current system. Even if an individual woman can make patriarchy work for her, it’s still a losing game for the rest of the women on this planet. The fact of the matter is that some choices have ramifications beyond ourselves and reinforce harmful patriarchal ideas about women as a group and about women’s bodies in our wider shared culture.

And because of how systems of oppression intersect and compound one another, it’s women of color, indigenous women, women living in the global south, women with disabilities, queer women, and transwomen who bare the brunt of those ramifications.

“Choice feminism” also obscures the fact that women don’t have a real choice. We have a very narrow set of predetermined choices within patriarchy. Women can choose from a pre-approved palette, but we cannot meaningfully choose liberation, we cannot choose a way out from our constraints, at least not without ending those oppressive systems that limit our options. So when we talk about free choice in today’s world, we’re really talking about a very narrow spectrum of choices that are amenable to patriarchy.

So when we talk about how to be a feminist, for me that means being committed to something much larger than ourselves. It’s understanding what role you play in our collective movements for liberation. It’s reexamining our desires and interests and understanding how those are often shaped by capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy. It’s understanding our own intersections of privilege and oppression and how that will fundamentally change our behaviours and attitudes and values. It’s realizing that being a feminist is a life long learning endeavour and that we will make some mistakes on the way and we should be compassionate to ourselves when that happens. It’s realizing that others will make mistakes and we should extend that compassion to them as well. Feminism is not about striving for perfection, its about striving for justice.

We are all connected, we are bond together under the oppression of patriarchy and as such our personal actions or inactions do have a harmful effect on other women, especially those from the most marginalized communities. I realize this is not a popular thing to say, but “feel good personal empowerment” is not how to be a feminist.

In order to be a feminist we have a responsibility beyond ourselves, we have a responsibility to each other, and we have a responsibility to work for the collective liberation of all women.

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