“Feminism is for everybody” bell hooks
It’s been a busy week for Marissa Mayer. This week, she was named as former internet behemoth, Yahoo’s new CEO. On Tuesday, news broke about Mayer’s appointment, and the feminist blogosphere was supportive, and, actually, kind of psyched. The very next day, further news broke that Mayer was pregnant – and that Yahoo knew about this when they appointed her. Once again the feminist community hailed this as a huge step: it is a big deal that, in Silicon Valley, a place renowned for its aggressive bro-culture, a pregnant woman is going to be one of the CEOs. Day 3 of the Mayer coverage unearthed a Makers interview she gave in which she explained why she doesn’t identify as a feminist. She says,
I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.
I watched the excerpt of the interview and (somewhat unaccountably, and maybe partly because I was having a bad day) was upset and saddened. I realize that Mayer’s characterization of feminism as negative, and as coming with a “militant drive” and a “chip on the shoulder” is contestable, and, frankly, not news. Many feminists will tell you of conversations they’ve had with people (men and women) who have never picked up a feminist text, or had any kind of interaction with feminism, but declare to know all about us, and how angry we are, and how much we hate men, bra-burning, blah blahblah. Yawn. My usual reaction is to move on: if you can’t be bothered to even try to understand the principles of feminism, I’m not gonna bother to try to defend them to you. I’d rather focus on my energies on defending them from you.
But my reaction to the Mayer interview – though it said nothing new, or more offensive than usual – was deep sadness. How is it that something I experience as an affirming, positive politics become something so wholly accepted as negative and angry? Partly, this mischaracterization of feminism is due to the fact that people don’t bother to look past the stereotypes they pick up from wherever feminists are still spoken of as man-hating monsters.
But, if I am totally honest with myself and with my beloved movement, I need to acknowledge that sometimes the movement perpetuates this idea of feminism as a negative political ethos. Hear me out, let me explain. Many feminists I know (personally, or via their works) come to feminism from a place of deep anger, pain and hurt. My brilliant friend Jen put it eloquently in a recent post on her blog:
I didn’t leave the womb with my fist in the air. Didn’t take my first steps onto a path of radicalism. I didn’t ask questions of power in preschool, didn’t notice the haze of injustice that coloured the structures of my childhood. I wasn’t born a feminist. I wasn’t born bearing arms, bearing a cross, bearing an anger and a passion that can feel like fire, which unwatched could consume me.
And yet, here I stand, observing the weight of reality, measuring the oppression that surrounds me. No, not that surrounds me, rather, that permeates me. That seeps into my being sometimes insidiously, sometimes with the force of a runaway train. I am taken over, territorialized.I wasn’t born a feminist. I was forced a feminist.
Most feminists I know come to this politics of resistance from a growing understanding that the world does not consider you, as a woman, fully human, worthy of respect, and deserving of unlimited space within which to make you identity an your own path. It is an understanding that hurts more than I can explain. That is what brings us to this politics. And what is this politics, exactly? For me, feminism is a politics of recognition that the world is unjust, that it calibrates the worth of human beings according to their gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and that that is a fundamental imbalance and distortion of the way things should be. Feminism is, for me, the promise that there is more, there is better, and it is attainable in my lifetime, for my generation and my children’s generation. It is a politics of resistance and of struggle, and of faith. This balance between resistance and faith is not an easy one. It is pretty damn difficult, in the face of the relentless, daily efforts to reduce and invalidate and disappear you because you have a vagina, to remember what is good about the world. It’s pretty near impossible to embrace the world you think is possible when you are sitting with a 14 year-old who has been gang raped, trying to tell her (or yourself?) that it is going to be ok. It’s a delicate, difficult space to inhabit this place of anger and resistance, and hope and faith. But what choice do we have? If you do not find the hope and faith in a better world, then what is the point of the anger and the resistance? Yes, feminism is an angry politics, rightly so, but its anger has a purpose. When women like Marissa Mayer, whose recent appointment would not be possible (yeah, I said it) without feminism and its principles, denounce feminism as pointlessly angry, I can’t help but wonder if we are doing enough to communicate the purpose and the urgent point of our anger.
Yes, Marissa Mayer should know better (you work in Silicon Valley, for crying out loud – Google, Yahoo or Bing feminism and you will see it’s more than just having a “chip on the shoulder”). But when we, as a movement, allow ourselves to become merely a contrary politics, an anti-, do we not contribute to the picture of ourselves and our beloved movement as a politics of the negative? The feminism I know is visionary – and the worlds it can make possible (I’m talking to you, too, Marissa Mayer) are worlds we should all be excited about. When did that get lost in the memo about who we are?
bell hooks has famously argued that the practice of love is the most powerful force against forces that dominate and oppress: approaching injustice from a vision of a just world, and working tirelessly, to realize that vision is practicing love. If feminism is to really truly be for everybody, then the movement has got to communicate both its resistance and anger, and the deep, unfailing love and vision that drives it.