I’m not generally a very introspective person. When I was younger I really wanted to keep a journal – I thought that was what all the great writers did – but I always gave up after a week or so. I spent last summer cleaning out my room and found half a dozen journals half-filled with entries that skipped days, weeks and months. For this paper I would like to take some time away from critically observing the world around me, and just spend some time critically observing me. I never use to think of myself as a feminist, but as I’ve grown into my feminism, I can’t imagine describing myself any other way. It feels like feminism is integral to the kind of person I see myself as. But as I sit down to write this paper I’m surprised to find I’m still not sure what that means. What kind of feminist am I? What does it mean to be feminist? Griffin and Chavez write, “Conversations about what our feminisms are, how we define them, and how they move us forward in the world are among the most important conversations we could have.”1 For this final think piece assignment I would like to focus on my definition of feminism, and how that translates into my personal and professional life.
At the beginning of the semester I started out with a very hazy idea of what feminism was, and what it meant to me. I knew it had something to do with the fact that women faced challenges because of their gender that men didn’t, and that I definitely didn’t agree with that! The problem with my thinking on feminism was that it didn’t extend much beyond the idea of women being oppressed. This class really opened up my eyes to the depth and breadth of oppression that feminism is fighting. At first glance this seems kind of depressing, and it was for most of the semester. I left class thinking that nothing I did would ever make any real or significant impact. But the idea of power feminism reinvigorated my sense of agency. I liked the idea of focusing not on the oppression of women, but on the power of women. The Foss sisters put it well when they defined feminism as: “the effort to make conscious, deliberate choices to create the kind of world in which we want to live by using all of the creativity, resilience, and resources available to us.”2
I am not unaware of the problems of power feminism though. It doesn’t really take into account the lives of underprivileged women, or women in abusive relationships, or any other situation than that of a white, middle-class, heterosexual, educated woman. Aimee Carrillo Rowe so eloquently pointed out that Western notions of autonomy, often re-inscribed by First World feminists, deny the coalitional subjectivity that characterizes many women’s experience, that is “some women face a more circumscribed set of options through which to assert their power,” but also that “the conditions that give rise to some women’s power/agency are the same conditions that constrain the options of other women.”3 In my second think piece I outlined the two aspects of power feminism that I identified with. First, if one chooses to support power feminism as a personal philosophy, it seems like a healthy, positive choice. I see power feminism as more of a personal philosophy, rather than a unified political/theoretical stance. Second, I agree that feminists should indeed focus on the celebratory resistant practices in addition to looking at ways of oppression. As Karma Chavez writes, “championing women’s achievements is also an important part of feminist theory and action. Thus, power feminism as a tactic provides a healthy checkpoint for those who focus on the ugly realities of women’s lives.”4 I cannot forget how much work is left to women, the oppression and ignorance that still exists in the world, but that doesn’t have to be the only aspect of feminism I focus on.
So how does this impact my life? One of the ways the class came up with to combat feminism is to call out the patriarchy. While I agree that this is a great way for me to live out my feminism it has proven…difficult to say the least. Calling out the patriarchy is basically calling out ignorance, which is not a popular thing to do. I’m still struggling to balance interpersonal relationships and the need to be rhetorically sensitive with my genuine sense of outrage. It’s hard to be invitational and inviting when I’m so pissed. I mean it. I am ANGRY. I am ANGRY I get paid less, I am ANGRY that I can’t go to the grocery store at 1 am without worrying about being attacked or raped, I am ANGRY that people try and tell me how to deal with my body, my family, and my religion, all because I have a vagina. I am equally ANGRY that my privilege silences others, I am ANGRY that my skin, my gender, my education, my parent’s money, all mean that without even trying, I take away someone’s voice, or agency or opportunity.
One way to I hope to try and fight the patriarchy, and my role in it, is through my scholarship. We’ve spent time talking about the right way to do that, to continually ask why I’m writing about what I’m writing about. Am I using my privilege to advance the feminist cause? Am I helping or hindering? Am I writing about other women? With other women? For other women? I’m going to have to keep asking myself that question, but I know it will always be a question worth asking. I also know that getting my feminist scholarship published is going to be a challenge. The Academy is still run by old white guys, and they rarely want to hear what feminists have to say, but this course gives me some hope. We’ve read a number of articles that would never have made it into a journal even thirty years ago. The Blair, Baxter and Brown article I think is a great example – the whole article is about how stupid the system is, and yes, they had trouble getting it published, but they did get published. It’s a sign that even though things are bad, they can get better, especially with amazing women already working in the field to pave the way for the next wave of feminist scholars.
Besides personally calling out the patriarchy I am privileged enough to have an outlet for change that has the potential to impact thousands over my lifetime who can also work to call out the patriarchy. I get to be a teacher. I get to not only impact my students, but other scholar’s students. I get to talk with other teachers, who talk to other teachers, who talk to their students, who talk to their friends, their parents, neighbors etc. I’m not naïve enough to think I’ll get to see the results of my work in my lifetime, or make every student I get a feminist, but I get the honor of touching other people’s lives and minds. Hopefully I get through to some of them, make a few of them stop and think before calling someone a bitch, or get them to question the structures around them.
As a teacher I also get the opportunity to hang out and work with some really smart people. I continually get to have conversations, and yes, arguments and debates, with other people who think critically about the world, and constantly ask “why?” This class has been an amazing chance to think about what feminism means to me, but also to hear about what feminism means to others. For example, I never really thought that veganism or environmental issues are also feminist issues, or thought about the role of men in feminism and how the patriarchy can hurt them as much as it hurts women. There are so many ways to define feminism and enact it, and I’m lucky to be in a place where I get to explore those questions with people who are just as interested in trying to find some answers.
When I think about feminism, and the issue of the patriarchy, the problems are so massive and overwhelming that sometimes I can hardly comprehend how my calling out the patriarchy could possibly make any difference, but Ghandi said (and I am aware of how cheesy this is) that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. So this is me, trying to be the change.
2 Sonja K. Foss and Karen A. Foss, “Our Journey to Repowered Feminism: Expanding the feminist Toolbox.” Women Studies in Communication 32 (2009): p.54.
3 Aimee Carrillo Rowe, “Subject to Power: Feminism Without Victims.” Women Studies in Communication 32 (2009): p. 24.
4 Karma Chavez, “Power Feminism in Communication: An Invitation to Consider the Stakes.” Conference Papers — International Communication Association (2007 Annual Meeting 2007): 1. Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 25, 2010).
Emily Sauter completed her masters degree at Colorado State University and is now attending University of Wisconsin-Madison,pursuing her PhD. Inspired by her background as a classical rhetorical scholar and her newfound feminism (thank you Cindy Griffin!) Emily hopes to spend her academic career continually searching out new and interesting women’s voices to add to the field of rhetorical criticism. Her primary area of interest is international feminist scholarship, and she continues to try and do her work sensitively, thoughtfully, and respectfully.