Friday, December 1, 2017

On becoming a feminist

I started Feminist Legal Theory with little more than the tentative knowledge that I was in fact a feminist. I believed in equality of the sexes, yet I was blissfully unaware of the nuances behind such a broad-brush belief. I stoked my belief with an immature and uncritical motivation; entering into the legal profession I didn’t want my salary or job security to fluctuate or fade away due to the apparent ‘misfortune’ of not being born male. I realize now how sheltered and inward-looking my motivations for being a feminist were. How they had been propagated by my privilege that I was blithely unaware and unappreciative of.

I never made the mythical correlation between feminism and ‘man hating’, but I was aware that many others had. I never viewed feminism as an ongoing feud between men and women, but I was also aware that many others had. Speaking frankly these societal biases against feminism and many more hindered me in exploring and expanding my sense of the movement and the identity. In many ways I was scared to outwardly establish myself as a feminist, so I hid in silence behind these stereotypes. So, answering “yes, I am a feminist” to the corresponding question we were asked on the very first day was an important moment for me. It was probably the first time I had uttered the words “I am a feminist” to a group of people and not be met with sniggers, eye rolls or ignorant comments. It was the first time I felt it was ok to be a feminist.

We started off the semester with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie telling us ‘We should all be feminists’. From her I learned that I don’t have to be apologetic for my femininity, and that many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up can actually be unlearned. I learned that we must also raise our sons and daughters differently because we currently confine boys to the hard, small cage of masculinity while simultaneously teaching girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. Although I was unfamiliar with her work, when I watched Roxanne Gay’s ‘Confessions of a bad feminist’ it really resonated with me. I can relate to her journey through feminism and see logic in her simplistic yet powerful proposals for a more functional and co-operative society. That there is also an onus on men – especially straight white men – to say no, to protest and speak up against inequality “until more of us are invited through the glass ceiling and we are tokens no more”.

From Judith Baer I learned what role the law can play in the sameness/difference debate; that both gender-neutral and gender-specific laws can promote sexual equality, but also that “sexual equality does not lie in women’s valorization of care but in women’s breaking up the male monopoly on justice and giving up the female monopoly on care”. Adding to this, Catherine MacKinnon taught me that sex equality is something of an oxymoron and that considering gender as a matter of sameness and difference covers up the reality of gender as a system of social hierarchy, as an inequality.

Anti-essentialism taught me that there is no generic woman, or feminist for that matter. It taught me to look outside of myself and my own experiences and contextualize them, as well as appreciate and be respectful of the experiences of others. It taught me perspective. That there’s more to feminism than simply possessing a uterus. As a straight, well-off, white woman from a country that’s not exactly teeming with diversity, I had a lot to learn from studying race, class and sexuality under the feminist lens. Although I admit, I may have been reticent during some of these classes, I can only excuse this as a form of respect for others, because in reality I cannot assume to know the struggle of being marginalized because of my colour, class or sexuality on top of already being marginalized for my gender. It imparted on me a consciousness of inclusivity while also reminding me that I need to use what privileges I’ve been given in life to the benefit of others in any way that I can.

Discussing sexual assault, although deeply distressing, highlighted the ominous almost tangible presence that these transgressions command in all of our lives; from our college campuses, to our workplaces, to our homes, to our schools and churches, even to Hollywood. We witnessed a barrage of sexual assault claims made against some of America’s most loved household names, and as a corollary to that, we witnessed the predictable victim blaming and the pointing of fingers in the wrong directions. The only silver lining I could glean out of this was a hope, that movements such as the #MeToo campaign would act as landmark moments in the demonstration of societal misogyny and really encourage other women to speak up from the shadows they have been relegated to and to share their stories. This is so that in years to come, we won’t need to have a hashtag on twitter to make people sit up and listen to what’s already being said.

My blog posts, although random.. sometimes maybe even abstract, were nevertheless periods of self reflection. Having little to no knowledge of feminist theory itself, I decided to write about what I knew. That ended up being gender quotas in politics, ballet, corsets (weirdly enough), the Magdalene laundries of Ireland and fashion. I wanted to try and highlight the sexism that often pervades in areas you’d never think of, while also expanding my knowledge in areas I thought I already knew a lot about.

I have to say that Feminist Legal Theory is the first class I’ve taken in law school where I’ve actually learned something about myself. I started off with little more than a notion that I was a feminist, not really knowing what it entails, and have had my mind significantly broadened. I’m by no means the finished article, yet I’ve been given the tools to be reflective, engaged in and analytical of modern day feminism. Like Roxanne Gay, I started off as a very very bad feminist, and I may still be a bad one now, but I’m going to try my best to be a better one if that’s any consolation.


Omar de la Cruz said...


Thank you for such a personal and honest post! It seems like you really learned a great deal about yourself through this course. I was particularly struck by the beginning of your post. You describe how saying that words, "I am a feminist" in class was a transcendent moment because you had never said the words aloud without being ridiculed. I think your experience of being criticized for announcing yourself as a feminist is shared by many, which only stifles any opportunity for meaningful and important conversation. I felt a similar sort of internal conflict when I first started to ask myself whether I considered myself a feminist. The default point of view tends to be overly negative when it comes to what it means to be a feminist but any sort of deeper thought shows that the negativity surrounding feminism is the product of misconception. Like you, I learned quite a bit from this course and had some of my preconceived notions challenged. I'll always be grateful for learning opportunities such as these.

Joterias! said...

Great post Suzanne! I appreciate your sincerity, and I share your sentiment. I’m glad I took Feminist Legal Theory (FLT) this semester because it was a grounding experience, and a nice reminder that the law doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The latter is especially easy to forget during 1L year, when discussions of rules, rather than policy considerations, consume most class time. [I would love to hear if this is also true of legal education in Ireland.]

Further, I appreciated the content of your blog posts and your contributions during class discussions. Your comments on how the Protestant-Catholic divide colors feminism, masculinity, and gender issues in Ireland were particularly interesting, and led me to examine how religion in Mexico does the same.

I’m also glad that taking FLT “woke” you [] to how multiple axes of oppression simultaneously intersect and operate to disadvantage groups of people in the States. I, too, became “woke” this semester to how spatiality (e.g., rurality) operates to disadvantage people. Hopefully, you will stay “woke” and continue to write on how class, sex/gender, sexuality, spatiality, etc., intersect with Protestantism and Catholicism to disadvantage folks in Ireland.

Moreover, like you, FLT is the one law course where I’ve learned something personal about myself. But that isn’t surprising given how self-reflexive a theory, method and movement feminism is. Indeed, I think feminism depends on persons being self-reflexive about their personal his/herstories and being willing to “own their s***”—own their privilege(s). I’m delighted to read that FLT raised your awareness of personal privilege that you plan on using to advocate for others less fortunate than yourself.