On Being an Activist Even When You Don’t Like Yourself

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Activism, by its very nature, involves opening oneself up to scrutiny. In challenging dominant social structures and ideologies we, intentionally or unintentionally, invite criticism and debate from those who wish to maintain the status quo. Sometimes that criticism is fair and is an invitation to examine a piece of evidence that we overlooked or a flaw in our reasoning. Sometimes that criticism is loaded, reactionary, and even abusive. The prevailing wisdom is to just laugh it off, ignore it, and feel confident in the fact that we, at least, are creators of important content while the abuser is just a pathetic troll.

However, the call to activism often emerges from trauma. Within feminist circles, it is common for many women to identify not only as activists, but also as survivors of rape, intimate partner violence, and psychological abuse. Many of us mobilize for causes because of initial personal experiences that are later bolstered by statistics and academic theories. In sociology, we often refer to C. Wright Mills’ concept of “the sociological imagination”, a mechanism by which we explore the relationship between “private troubles” and “public issues.” A single act of sexual violence, for example, could be considered a private trouble that can be managed through therapy and other supportive services for a victim and an intervention of some kind for the perpetrator. The prevalence rate of sexual violence in the United States, wherein 1 in 5 women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, is clearly a public issue. It raises questions about the culture we live in, the perceived consequences of being a perpetrator, and the relative social value and roles of women and men. A woman is raped and applies the sociological imagination to see her individual trauma playing out on a broad scale for millions of other women in her country. She is angry, not only for herself, but for all of her fellow survivors, at the society that is complicit in allowing and advancing this collective gendered violence. This may be her call to feminism.

The world of feminist activism can be a hostile and emotionally dangerous place for a survivor of trauma. Rape and death threats are common, sometimes including brutal details. This is clearly egregious and generally the kneejerk thing that people react to when stories are written about online abuse. But there are more subtle, insidious discouragements as well. There will be people who question your right to speak at all, about anything. They will gaslight you and tell you that you’re crazy. That no one cares about the issue but you. They will calmly tell you that your voice doesn’t matter. That you don’t matter. For a person with a strong sense of self worth, these comments might not be a big problem. But for activists who struggle with depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health issues, sometimes these words matter a lot. Sometimes they will make you stare at your computer screen breathless and humiliated, or go home early from that rally, or hang up the phone and fight the urge to cry. Sometimes they will make you want to give up. Not because you don’t believe in your cause anymore, but because you don’t believe in yourself. Because you have borne witness to violence and abuse against your body and spirit before that left you feeling worthless and ashamed. And then what?

This isn’t just a problem in feminism. Any time we fight for marginalized identities, we are fighting against the current. This is true in anti-racist work. This is true in LGBTQ+ work. This is true in disability rights work. When we own the marginalized identities we are fighting for, many of us are vulnerable. We have lived in a culture that has told us, implicitly, explicitly, and violently, that we are subordinate. We’re all in different places as far as rejecting that message is concerned.

Of course, it’s important to push forward and keep doing the work. There are a lot of people who have had these struggles who keep going. I think that it’s important, however, for all of us who are engaged in social justice activism to be mindful of the residual poison that we and our comrades might carry in our psyches. We need to be open to various ways to participate and refrain from talking down about those among us who are hurt, or need to take breaks, or need accomodations for participation. For an activist with agoraphobia, attending rallies might be out of the question but social media could be a valid way to engage with and promote a cause. For an activist with social anxiety, making phone calls might be unthinkable, but tasks like data entry or painting banners could be a meaningful way to participate. We need to be kind to each other and to ourselves. We need to ditch the idea that there is only one right way to be a feminist or any other kind of activist. We need to accept that although we will not always feel confident and fearless, we are important to our movements. We need to check in and remind each other often that we are doing good work.

 

A Late Introduction

Despite my usual reluctance to discuss personal matters on the blog, it feels necessary to address the fact that I haven’t written a new post in 3 weeks. The reason is pretty straightforward: this blog is a labor of love and I was following a somewhat crushing schedule while trying to complete all of my final essays for the academic semester that just came to a close. Thankfully, everything went well enough that my lowest final course grade was an A- and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief and move on. This should also mark the end of my undergraduate career, which feels quite surreal, and unless some kind of grave error was made in the advising department, I will soon be the proud owner of a bachelor’s degree in sociology. UPDATE: no grave error was made, the diploma is now in my possession.

My second order of business is that I was recently approached by a staff member of the Bangor Daily News with the offer to have Feminist Nonfiction hosted on their site. This is still entirely non-profit on my end unless I get a very, very large number of monthly hits in which case I will receive a very small amount of money (I don’t recall the specifics, but it’s multiple tens of thousands of hits for something like $25. I’m not super worried about it). My intention is to continue cross-posting on WordPress because I enjoy the community here, so most posts will show up in both places. The BDN staffer has requested that I write an introductory post. Without further delay, here is that post:

Feminist Nonfiction is a blog about the role that feminism can play in the real lives of people in the US. It’s also a blog about what feminism is, what I want it to be, and what it just plain isn’t. Like a lot of people, while I was growing up I cobbled together a working knowledge of feminism in disparate, inaccurate images absorbed primarily through media. I knew about the Spice Girls and “girl power”; I knew that women had (historically speaking) only recently gained the right to vote; and I knew that some people were angry about beauty magazines allegedly causing eating disorders. In high school, I encountered young women who didn’t shave and referred to menses as “moon cycles”. I briefly considered joining their ranks, then brushed them off for the time being as quirky eccentrics. I didn’t call myself a feminist, because it seemed unnecessary and I had not yet realized how much gender was shaping my life or how much it shaped the lives of the people around me, other than to know that I felt alienated around other women and to be fairly sure that I preferred the company of men.

A few things happened in my early twenties. I fell in with a new social circle shortly after becoming pregnant with a baby girl. For the first time, I was exposed to meaningful ideas about gender inequality that made sense to me and were commensurate with my own experiences. This may or may not bode well for my feminist credibility, but those earliest messages came from men. Intelligent men whose friendship and opinions I valued. In a world where women and our voices are so often dismissed, men who are feminist allies can be a bridge that helps newcomers get over those first barriers to thinking critically about gender. It would be nice if things had been different and my feminist consciousness had blossomed naturally out of close friendships with other women and feelings of sisterly solidarity early in life. However, that’s just not my story. My path to discovering feminism began when a man said to me, “Of course I’m a feminist. You’re not? Why?”

Why, indeed? I had accepted a lot of regrettable cultural scripts that I had never bothered to stop and analyze. One of my university professors would later introduce the trope of the mythical feminist as an “angry, ugly dyke”. I had dated misogynistic guys who would blame my emotional responses to their bad behavior as my “being crazy” – and I believed them. I had befriended girls and young women who later disappointed me or were disappointed by me – and I rationalized these problems as being symptomatic of the inherent difficulty in maintaining relationships with women, rather than normal hiccups in maintaining healthy friendships. I had read articles in magazines about how annoying feminists are and had seen them caricatured on television. Honestly, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. Obviously, I was wrong. But a lot of people are in this spot. They hang out here, possibly indefinitely, until someone makes that bridge. I want this blog to be a bridge – or if it can’t be a bridge, I want it to be a board in that bridge. I want to challenge the way that the media represents feminism and also the way that it represents women. Finally, I want to challenge the way that feminism represents itself: especially the ways in which mainstream feminist outlets sometimes dismiss or outright slander women of color and people with non-conforming gender identities. There is a lot of good in feminism, but as it is a complicated movement with many strains, there is a lot of junk, too, that comes in  the form of ignorance and bigotry. It’s something that we need to talk about.

Finally, I wanted to distinguish this body of work as “nonfiction” because, while analysis of fictional narratives in books, televisions shows and movies is often useful, it’s not my focus. Other people are already doing that work and many are doing it quite well, so I don’t see a need for my voice in that arena. For that reason, my writing is fundamentally centered on the way that feminist theories apply and interact with real people, from the individual level all the way up to broader institutions, government, and society.

As a person who is flawed and does not have deep roots of longevity in the feminist movement, I’m still learning about it myself. I have read quite a lot of diverse feminist theory and am always looking to grow and see new ways that feminism is defined and interpreted by people of different backgrounds. I will happily share my reading list with all of you as it evolves. I welcome and encourage respectful dissent and sharing of ideas. However, I also want to make sure that when sensationalist and clearly false representations of feminism make their way through mainstream media outlets that there is a voice to answer back. As of right now, that voice is mine. Let’s see what happens.