I didn’t attend the Women’s March last year, though many of my friends and colleagues did. I had an event for work. That was a convenient excuse. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have gone even if I didn’t have a work event. That sounds like a bad thing for a feminist to say, which makes sense because feminism and I have not always been on the best terms. To say that my relationship with feminism has been complicated would be an understatement, but that complexity compels me to create a better future for feminism.
I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian school and church. We didn’t speak about feminism that I can remember. Despite the silence on the topic, I somehow knew that I wasn’t supposed to be a feminist. I observed and experienced my fair share of sexism. Girls at my high school weren’t allowed to practice in sports bras because they might tempt the boys. Meanwhile, male athletes regularly practiced shirtless. In my church, women only held leadership roles in the areas of administration or children’s ministry. It didn’t seem wrong at the time. It just was. And to make things more confusing, there were strong, even independent, female role models in my life who refused to identify as feminist. They shrugged off the label as if it was something undesirable. So I did, too. I said that I believed in equality but was going to avoid the extremist association of feminism.
In college, I began to learn the basics of feminism. It really was about equality of the sexes, and there was no bra burning required. I hesitantly called myself a feminist. That seems like a logical ending for my journey. It wasn’t. Being a feminist was a step forward into a world that wasn’t built for me.
My college years overlapped with the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Equal wages just didn’t feel quite as important when I was worried about my then boyfriend and my nephews not making it home at night.
Many of the feminists in my life were silent on issues that were my reality. It started to rub me the wrong way.
And then the election happened. I voted for Hillary, but I felt sick to my stomach about it. She once used the term superpredators to describe youths who made bad decisions because they were caught up in the cycle of poverty. Her 2008 campaign was just as responsible for contributing to the birther movement as Donald Trump was.
The feminist in me was excited by the prospect of a woman president, but the black woman in me wished for another candidate. Other feminists didn’t seem to have those qualms. As a reluctant Hillary supporter, I joined the Pantsuit Nation group with the intention of watching from the sidelines.
Members proposed wearing “suffragette white” to the polls, and I began to wonder if they knew the full history of the suffragettes. Yes, these bold women fought for voting rights for women. They also bore prejudices of their own. After the 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote, suffragettes came forward with fiery remarks. “You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!” Those words from Anna Howard Shaw encapsulate the new strategy of the National Women’s Suffrage Association: secure the right for right white women to vote by framing it as an extension of white supremacy.
With this history in mind, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of voting in suffragette white. That history didn’t phase other feminists.
By this point, I was gritting my teeth just trying to get through the election season. As we all know, the election culminated in a win for Donald Trump. I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the win. I was disappointed, but not surprised, that 53% of white women voted for him despite his sexist and bigoted views. This was the America that I knew. It wasn’t all that different than the America that Sojourner Truth experienced as she fought for black women’s right to vote.
Feminists were shocked by the results. That shock was a privilege that I will never have. I have no choice but to look my country in the eye and to see the best and the worst of it every single day. Sometimes I feel like a little girl picking at petals. It loves me. It loves me not. The same went for feminism, it loved me as a woman but was willing to ignore my blackness. I was weary after a year of willing America to choose a better way, and I was increasingly leery of people who identified as feminist.
In the midst of this tired state of frustration, I finally had some words my for disenchantment with traditional feminism. I wanted it to be intersectional. I wanted all of my identities to have a seat at the table. I wanted all of my identities to have space to be fully expressed at the Women’s March. We’re not there yet. The #MeToo movement was created ten years ago by a black woman, but she isn’t getting the credit she deserves. We’re not there yet, but we’re inching forward. The movement started by focusing on white women with fame and power. Now those women are using their platform to spotlight the plight of the lower class women who literally cannot afford to speak out. I’ve seen this in my own life as so many of my feminist friends become champions for intersectionality. I’ve been challenged to be more inclusive in my own intersectionality. My friend Amelia Hruby, author of 50 Feminist Mantras, told me that true feminism is about interdependence over independence.
Feminism will never be perfect.
My interpretation of feminism will never be perfect, but we take baby steps when we share our experiences and we listen and we encourage and we constructively criticize in love. Those baby steps don’t have to happen at a march. In fact, they’re most effective when they are a part of our everyday. We will falter, but we will continue to inch forward as a collective. And after the year we’ve had, any forward movement is worth celebrating.