A while ago I came across a Buddhist quote, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way” and I couldn’t help but apply it to my feminism. Since officially “becoming” a feminist about three years ago and immersing myself in the world of feminist theory, I have been both liberated and disheartened. I whole-heartedly absorbed many of the theories and read books that made me laugh, cry and uncontrollably rant as I identified with every word on the page. Feminism has undoubtedly given me a means to express so much that I had previously not had the power to articulate. Yet I fear that if we aren’t careful, we may at times be limiting our ability to truly engage with each other thanks to limiting dogma and labels. Feminism is not a dictatorship nor should it ever be yet another system of ideas used to judge women and make them feel inadequate. Women have been battling overpowering value systems that render them “good enough” or “failures” for long enough. There is no such thing as a “perfect” feminist and we are not here to apologize to each other for our flaws and contradictions. Feminism should never be just another mechanism of guilt and comparison and there is no checklist of compulsory requirements.
Looking back on my upbringing it is no surprise that I have come to identify as a feminist. As soon as I was born my parents decided that they needed a plan to get my future sister and I out of South Africa and away from its hideous rates of gendered violence and inequality. My house was full of debate and we were taught to think critically and never accept the world on face value. My dad was never paternalistic and saw me as a wholly independent, thinking human and my mum harbored very feminist values despite lacking access to the label. All of the above meant that by the time I sat in my first feminist lecture at university I was completely ready to absorb the unfolding wisdom. Since then my feminism has definitely evolved, and will no doubt continue to do so, but I have come to realize that what I value most is the constant solidarity, strength and sisterhood. In my view, feminism’s number one internal priority must be to support and understand each other, because in a world of adversity that is what we need the most. We cannot be at war with one another as this simply distracts us from the real patriarchal barriers that we have to fight and breakdown. Each of us possesses unique desires, goals and perspectives and offer what we can to the wider feminist struggle we are part of.
I am not suggesting that there is no place for debate, challenge and disagreement, because that is both progressive and inevitable. Nor do I support simply pacifying women (and men) who appropriate feminism for particular political purposes, yet whose values are completely unaligned with the movement (I am looking at you Sarah Palin). I also don’t think that we should entertain or support opinions that are harmful to women such as victim-blaming and anti-choice arguments. However, I do believe that as hard as we try to incorporate feminism into our daily lives, we will at times slip and be hypocritical, simply because we are human. There are times when it feels easier to keep quiet rather than fight and moments when my own thoughts betray my values. Personally, body image has been my greatest challenge and attempting to see myself without the goggles of Western beauty standards has been incredibly difficult. Yet rather than pretending it is easy when we are suddenly “enlightened” I think we need to talk more honestly about how challenging it can be. These battles with yourself are perhaps even harder than the constant challenges and resistance that is thrown at us from the outside world and they are the ones that need to be won first. I don’t see feminists as super-human (although it may feel that way at protests) or immune from emotion, hurt and weakness. We do not develop some sort of infallible ability to ignore and defy pervasive social standards; we are simply more equipped with the tools to challenge them.
Therefore, rather than arguing about the true “way to feminism”, I think that feminism and what it means to you is the way. Every single time a woman somewhere stands up and confronts sexism or looks at her body with love and acceptance rather than hatred we are making progress. At any moment thousands of these mini-revolutions are occurring and combined create some pretty impressive revolutionary action. Rather than agonizing over how, where and with what you “be feminist”, I think it’s just incredibly important that we continue to do it. For me the most powerful feminist moments are those where we transcend difference and feel safe and supported enough to shamelessly share things that so many of us have experienced. In the wider world these experiences may be associated with shame, guilt or weakness but here they are understood and validated. It is this sense of inherent sisterhood and unconditional understanding that has empowered me above all and that I believe is the true power of feminism.
Note: After writing this I noticed the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag on Twitter and this prompted me to acknowledge that I may value feminist solidarity so much because of my white, middle-class privilege. I don’t feel like I know enough to comment any further but very much recognize that we have a great deal of work to do in becoming a more inclusive movement in regards to race and class.
Bronwyn Stange is a 22-year-old Melbourne University Law student who hopes to use her degree to smash the patriarchy, particularly in relation to sexual violence. She has completed her Bachelor of Arts majoring in Sociology & Anthropology, because of course Gender Studies wasn’t an option at the time, but managed to sneak in as much feminism as possible. She is a frequent ranter, passionate vegetarian and has a shameful obsession with reality TV. Watch out for more posts from Bronwyn as she takes on a regular authorship at feminaust.