IN THE LAST year I’ve been called a lot of names by feminists. I’ve been called a crank, a wing nut, a nutjob, crazy, horrendous, bitch, dumb, truther, fake feminist, anti-feminist, and quote-unquote “feminist.” My book, Sweetening the Pill, was published in October 2013. It is a cultural and philosophical critique of the over-use of hormonal birth control methods which argues against the dominant narrative of the Pill as a liberating feminist tool for empowerment. And within the first few pages I state that I am a pro-choice feminist.
It wasn’t a terrible surprise to me that this didn’t go over very well with some feminists, but that doesn’t mean the response was pleasant. Particularly when the book is as much personally honest as it is politically provocative. What struck hardest was the lack of compassion.
I came to feminism looking for a representation of my own experience and, at first, found none. My first encounter with what it means to be on the wrong side of the feminist consensus was guest blogging for Bitch magazine. I would come home from my job as a cashier at Target and tackle the comments on my posts, which were a crash course in contemporary feminist theory, to put it mildly. When my book came out I was often described as a “self-defined” feminist, because the writers didn’t want to take the responsibility for calling me a feminist themselves.
I didn’t realize that the perspective I’d developed would be considered quite so unacceptable. Calling me a quote-unquote “feminist” made the statement that I was not to be accepted into the club.
This month Roxane Gay’s new essay collection Bad Feminist was released in which she relates her reasons for feeling that she is a bad feminist – she likes the color pink, she wears dresses, she shaves her legs, she wants to have a baby someday. Gay argues against the idea that there is an “essential feminism” and that “there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist and there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.” At a launch event for the book at downtown Los Angeles’ The Last Bookstore, Gay chose a group of her favorite female writers to read alongside her and represent what she feels should be the pluralism and complexity of the movement.
I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Gay until I recently read a 2012 essay she wrote for The Rumpus, ‘The Alienable Rights of Women,’ where she writes, “Birth control can wreak havoc on your hormones, your state of mind, and your physical well being because depending on the method, there are side effects and the side effects can be ridiculous. If I told you my birth control method of choice, which I kind of swear by, you’d look at me like I was slightly insane.” I’d gotten used to being looked at in this way for talking about not using the Pill and it was nice to hear someone talk about the importance of access, without pretending that the options we are given are perfect.
When I was younger, like Gay, I didn’t associate with the feminist label. I attended all-girls liberal arts Mt. Holyoke for a year on an exchange and marveled, and laughed admittedly, at the students’ earnest politicizing. I also went to the Kanye West concert on campus with the rest of them. I didn’t even associate with the label of woman; I was just me. Then when I got interested in feminism I was immediately made an outsider. Again, like Gay, I wasn’t all that familiar with the “key feminist texts.” Now, I’m more likely to say, “I’m a feminist, but…” in the way that Gay says she’d rather be a “bad feminist than no feminist at all.” It’s hard to claim feminism for yourself when “Professional Feminists” (as Gay calls them) have told you that you do not have that right.
I think that is better than what we hear more often, “I’m not a feminist, but…,” usually from celebrities who, as Gay points out, know that “the label is rarely offered in kindness.” Being a feminist is not seen as “desirable” and young female celebrities tend to trade in their desirability. Other public figures that reject the feminist label are still looking for acceptance, for the easiest route through what is otherwise a man’s world. They’re looking to find a comfortable position and not change the status quo too much, because that status quo helped them some to get where they are now.
So what is a bad feminist?
In a recent interview I was asked what it means to be an empowered woman and first I thought of that Onion article – ‘Woman Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does.’ But in answer, I paraphrased an old male thinker: “Women make their own circumstances, but not under circumstances of their own making.”
Looking at it like that, how can we not have compassion for each other? I’d say, without it, we’re all bad feminists.