When I was but a small high school student, just beginning my journey into feminism, I made a ton of feminist faux pas, if you could call them that. Not that there’s necessarily one right way to be a feminist, but I was still learning, and I was overwhelmingly problematic. I still am, of course, and I’m still working my way through it. But I like to think I’ve overcome a lot of gross things that I used to do, like trying to distance myself from the “man-hating lesbians,” or a “small group of radical feminists that don’t represent the movement.”
If you want to get technical, then this kind of action is totally understandable. Technically, every feminist isn’t a radical feminist. And I wouldn’t want someone to say that I’m a radical feminist, if their idea of a “radical feminist” is Femen, or if they use radical feminist to specifically discuss trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs. Distancing yourself from problematic feminists (and there are problematic feminists, both historically and currently) isn’t what’s wrong with this sentence.
The main problem is that this clause almost always is attached to “Not all feminists are hairy butch women or man-hating lesbians.” If you’re into technicalities, this sentence isn’t wrong, either; it’s completely true.
Of course, that doesn’t make it any less gross. By saying this sentence, the speaker (whether it’s you, a relative, a friend, whatever) is essentially saying, “Fuck butch women, as long as we can get more people to identify as feminists.”
But what’s wrong with butch women? Hairy women? Man-hating lesbian women? What’s the purpose behind saying that hairy lesbians are “just a small minority” of feminists?
It’s literally throwing “hairy lesbians” (or whatever other group of women people consider a “small minority” of feminists) under the bus. Feminism, at least for me, is about women and other marginalized groups. I want there to be a safe space for people who need it–not people who reinforce an oppressive power structure. To say that not all feminists are hairy lesbians sounds like feminism isn’t a space for them–“Oh, they’re not one of us” or something like that. It’s horrible, it’s problematic, and it’s not a feminism that I want to be a part of.
It makes feminism comfortable and easy to digest, in a way that doesn’t push for social change at all. It ties into the idea that anyone can be a feminist, which is true. As bell hooks has said, feminism is for everybody, but that doesn’t mean that feminism is easy. Being a feminist isn’t a passive state of being; I’m not a feminist in the same way I’m an American, or the way I’m Chinese. But it’s like being a student–I’m constantly pushing to improve, to learn, and to understand more about myself and the world.
When feminism is easy, it doesn’t feel right for me. We haven’t come to a point where everyone wholeheartedly embraces the idea of being a feminist, or where the world no longer needs feminism. There literally is a patriarchy that privileges the white, cis, straight, able-bodied, masculine, non mentally-ill man. It’s important for these men to understand feminism because they hold so much power collectively, but not at the cost of alienating other women.
As a feminist, women come first. Women will always come first for me until my dad doesn’t scold me for taking the bus home at night, even with a friend; until my mom doesn’t have to tell me to be scared when I’m walking in a crowded public space in the middle of the fucking day; and until trans women of color don’t have to constantly fear for their lives.
I don’t mean to say that women should be immune from criticism. Women can definitely be problematic, whether that means being transphobic, or thinking that women of color need to be “saved” from their own cultures. What I do mean is that women are important; and if getting people interested in feminism comes at the cost of alienating women who need it, then fuck that bullshit.