On being an imperfect feminist: releasing definitions built in shame By Sara Frykenberg


A few weeks ago, a very interesting and in some places, tense discussion arose from John Erickson’s post, “Hands Off,” some of which related to the difference between what it means to be a liberal feminist and what it means to identify as radical.  Since then, I have been thinking a lot about what the identification “feminist” means to me, what it means to be an ally and how I am defining these categories.  Rather, I mean to say, against what kind of a standard am I applying this definition.

I think I have asked myself these questions many times in my life, in different ways, but perhaps most significantly I asked myself “am I a feminist?” when I started graduate school.  I was sitting in a classroom, set up like a circle, and all the women and two men in my… I think, “Gender and Education,” class were introducing themselves.  “Hello, I am so and so, and I have been a feminist for X number of years and I do this, etc.”  “Hello, I am so and so, and I am a feminist ally and I do such and such, etc.”—as I remember, some classmates identified more as allies.  When it came time for me to introduce myself, I said, “Hello, my name is Sara, and I am not sure if I am a feminist or not.  I thought I was, but I don’t know now.”

I remember that I desperately wanted to be a feminist.  I had learned about feminism in my undergraduate years, loved it, felt freed by it and empowered; and immediately following graduation, got involved with a man who became very emotionally abusive.  I thought I had all these ideals and then, I fell for a man who embodied everything I thought I’d freed myself from.  Over the course of a year (thank god/dess only one), I felt like I lost everything.  I lost my voice and couldn’t speak up about anything without an extreme physical reaction and sometimes, violent response.  I wrote about this a little in a previous post, “In my defense against an abusive God…” Looking back, I recognize that I was able to leave this man and that I still started the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont, despite chastisement and assurances that I’d lose my faith.  I found a way to act upon what I believed despite bad circumstances; so I now affirm that I was acting in faith to my new feminist values and survived.  However, what I felt at that point was that I’d failed as a feminist because I was unable to put into practice everything I’d learned.  I didn’t think that I had a right to call myself a feminist because of my perceived failure.

I know that I, like many people struggle with a perfectionist impulse.   For me, this impulse developed over a long relationship with conservative evangelical Christianity (a “need” to be the most Christ-like as possible while surrendering all limited parts of me to a perfect He-God who would make sure everything else was as it should be too) and specific social and cultural ideas of what makes someone worthwhile, successful or loveable.  Recently I read a very powerful book related to this topic by Brene’ Brown, Ph.D., called I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power.  In her book, Brown discusses the connection between the unrealistic expectations of perfectionism, shame and the way that shame disempowers us.  She also discusses several strategies we can do to achieve “shame resilience,” including naming shame and its perfectionist lies where we see them.

Brown defines shame complexly, but also simply suggests it is the idea that “I am bad,” as opposed to “I did something bad,” when defining shame in relationship to guilt (Pg. 13).  Further, she notes, “I often refer to shame as the fear of disconnection.” (Pg. xxv)   This second description really resonates with me.  I was so ashamed of my “failure,” ashamed because of abuse, ashamed for so many reasons, that I was afraid that I was not a connect-able person.  In my head, I was not just a “bad feminist” or a “not good enough feminist” but perhaps, not able to be a feminist at all.

I was wrong.  I was and am a feminist struggling everyday to make relationally lively choices in light of all of who I am; and that is how I make feminism my own.  What makes me a feminist is not that I have never or will never again fall into a patriarchal relational trap.  I know that I have and may still.  My shame over unconscious racism, unchecked heterosexual privilege and other past wrongs also does not make me a feminist.  Making the right choice every time (which I usually think must mean the more difficult choice) does not make me a feminist.  Rather, releasing shame and accepting my own humanity and inter-relatedness, assessing my actions and goals in light of my feminist and allied values and taking responsibility make me a feminist.  Listening and responding in love has made me a feminist.  Working towards justice-love and what Rosemary Radford Ruether shared as “willing the full humanity of all humankind” makes me a feminist.  And recognizing that my personal validation is not necessary in order to understand, respect and respond to important problems and oppressions that are different from my own has helped me glimpse what feminism can teach us.

I had to learn a lot to find my voice, reclaim my connect-ability and take back my feminist and allied identity.  I was also warned that having come from a place of abuse, I would always live with some inclination towards its recreation— it is a part of me that I have to love, teach and care for with patience.  I am not a perfect feminist; but as a process-oriented theo/alogian, if I can release god/dess from the unrealistic expectation of perfection, I can release myself as well.  Thank the god/dess.  Sat Nam.

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Categories: Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Identity Construction

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7 replies

  1. This was a fascinating article Sara. Being an old school radical lesbian feminist, I do find the heterosexual variety of the philosophy a bit hard to understand. There is a significant conflict between radical feminists and liberal ones, and you will find parallels in other philosophies as well.

    But to me, feminism is an activity as well as an idea. We have to know the world we are dealing with, and have a strategy to understand it, and also a strategy to advance our own interests as women. So if feminism doesn’t address the obscene power differential between women and men, it fails.

    It’s interesting to me that you would feel ambiguity about the greatest civil rights movement the world has ever known. No other movement encompasses half the human population.
    I don’t believe men can be feminists, and I find men who claim to be immediately suspect.

    But again, it depends on where you are placed socially. Since heterosexual norms irritate me constantly, it might be easy for me to view hetero women as giving aid and comfort to my sworn enemy, and I do consider men as a class, an enemy of women… AS A CLASS, and I define this as the sex class men assign women to at birth. It’s the old fish swimming in the water and not knowing what water is.

    I look at heterosexuality as a profound disadvantage in the world, and often feel sorry for straight women who get conned into it at such an early age. It is the propaganda machine that keeps the patriarchal fires burning. So I can see how one might end up at Claremont, after escaping an abusive man, and wondering… well just where do I fit?

    A lot of the issues women have in theology is about the recovery from evangelical or conservative christianity to begin with. And the distinctions are greater now, then they were in my youth. Perhaps the confusion in churches for women today is the ideal of christianity, but the reality that it is another branch of patriarchy. At least I know, that even though I work with men, in a very male dominated industry, I am aware that like Mary Daly, I am a pirate plundering knowledge to bring back to women. But I don’t delude myself into thinking these males of the business world are my allies, because they aren’t. They’re very conservative married with wife at home patriarchs. And they are a little afraid of me, because I really am the only out lesbian in our corporate environment that they are likely to meet.

    Yes, there will be a huge cultural divide between radical lesbians like me, and ambivilent grad students who aren’t sure if they are feminists or not. Because, again, I’d say radical feminism is my dominant worldview, I do feel I am in a war that men are waging against women. At least I know for sure that the men I work for definitely are not on my side, but women who go to churches might not be aware of this. Men tend to be on better behavior at church, than they are in the corporate world. Their wives have no idea what their husbands do day in and day out…plausable deniability might be the life of a married hetero woman.

    As for perfection, I think my ideals as “the perfect feminist never contaminated by men” could be an issue. If I were a “real” feminist, I would refuse to ever associate with men at all.
    So I try to think of that as a way to understand the dilemma of hetero women today, who remain in the church… content with liberalism, while I long for an end to patriarchy.

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    • Hi Turtle Woman,
      I’m sorry that you interpreted what I wrote as my being ambiguous towards feminism. I am not. I am a feminist and like you, believe it is an action as well as a philosophy– that is why I tried to emphasize that taking responsibility and responding to oppression are critical pieces of my understanding of feminism; as well as working towards justice.
      I agree that feminism needs to address abusive and oppressive power imbalances. I do not agree, however, with your assessment of men.
      The “not knowing” I speak of in the above post actually stemmed from a deep desire to be feminist but, as I express, feeling I had failed to become one despite what I had learned. I thought, at that point in my life, I should just be able to shed all of the oppression I had discovered without realizing how much was still unconscious and was still deeply effecting me. I had to learn how to stop recreating abusive patterns in my life; which I have done and continue to do– feminism has helped me to do this.
      I was never, however, ambivalent. It saddens me that you read it in that way actually, because it wasn’t about trying to “fit in,” at all… — my confusion stemmed from a real battle to reclaim worth and be a part of something of great worth, after being in a relationship that taught me I had no worth and that my voice was a liability. Now that I am no longer in this place, no longer a grad student just coming out of an abusive relationship, I recognize that I didn’t have to “have it all together” or “be a perfect feminist” to still be a feminist; even if I was a feminist that had a lot to learn (and still do). I was (and am) continually in the act of becoming… by choosing and acting in accordance with the feminism I tried to describe above and the loving force i choose to call god/dess.

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  2. It would be an interesting thing to address the conflicts between liberal feminism and radical feminism. Is radical feminism even taught seriously at Claremont?
    I’ve been thinking of radical feminism because of many liberal feminists’ utter perplexity at seeing women’s deteriorating economic situation in the U.S. Elizabeth Warren’s 2003 masterpiece “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke” is fascinating. Should be required reading for every young woman in America.

    Bottom line, Warren talks at length after exhaustive statistical analysis at her perplexity over why all the “reforms” of feminism, which seemingly were achieved, actually led to things being worse for women.

    She has a compassionate and gentle scholarly manner which I really love, but it never occurs to her to even contemplate the most obvious answer…. her feminism is liberal feminism, and the system of patriarchy is a master at adapting, so that women remain controlled. Never once in the book does this idea occur to her.

    A warning to the wise about liberalism, whether it be in theology schools, churches or books on middle class life in this economy.

    And after 40 some years of this desire for women’s freedom, it still disturbs me that women are confused about whether they are feminists or not? After all this work, would a black man say “I’m confused about whether I’m in favor of civil rights or not.”

    I believe that the mystification of patriarchy and male supremacy… this deluding deceptive exploitative force that actually has women LIVING with the oppressors is at the heart of it.
    And to face that head on, and to know that liberalism does not get at the root… the radical answer… I’ll just put that out here.

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    • Turtle woman, I don’t think radical feminism is truly taught at any mainline school. Even when texts like Mary Daly’s are engaged, they are only minimally engaged. My own connection with radical feminism came when I encounter Mary Daly’s text in class (only one chapter was assigned) that resonated so much with me that I continued my study of her work on my own. Then I got to work with in person and of course that deepened my connection further. But I think it’s rare for women of younger generations to really ‘get’ radical feminism the way it was possible in the 60s and 70s. I think there was a different collective experience that occurred in those decades that was unique and serendipitous…I sometimes say I was meant to be raised in those decades myself! Nonetheless, radical feminists are alive and well – as you surely know! :-) perhaps fewer and far between, but powerful indeed. But I also think that that is why our connection among *all* feminist is so much more important, so that together, with all of our diversity, we continue to contribute toward a creative new biophilic world. Change, true and deep change, takes root deeply and grows from within, and sometimes that takes time…

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  3. Sara, good for you for claiming your feminism and claiming your voice within it. I think it’s totally understandable that one would struggle to know whether or not one can rightly claim feminism and whether one actually wants to…on the one hand our direct encounter with feminism is totally empowering and liberating, but on the other hand there is so much diversity in feminist understandings and they are so often vilified by most of culture.

    But I think one of the most important things we can do is affirm our own experience and process within it as fully valuable, valid, and liberating – that is what empowers us, our own voice and deep participation in be-ing (in that which is Divine and life-giving).

    So may your voice continue to strengthen and shine Sara! Thank you for sharing it with us :)

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    • Thanks Xochitl :)
      I really appreciate your comment. The way that shame and abuse, tied to perfectionist ideals, can prevent us from claiming empowerment is a really important issue to me. While I have come a long way from sitting in that classroom so many years ago, I have thought a lot lately about what it means to heal who I was as a part of reclaiming more of who I am now. Some of that healing comes through forgiveness, some through affirmation. I have also been playing in my head a lot with some yogic ideas about existing in time and out of time all at once– I’m not sure I believe this, but I do like the idea that maybe part of me can heal who I was, literally love the me of the past now and heal her in the present. On the other hand, I also love the process idea that god/dess could also be moving through time and yet holds all of what came before– Melissa Raphael indicates this power and its significance in her book, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: “And yet nothing is lost when its inmates are eternally known and present in the act of eternally seeing.” This is such an amazing thing to me and something I have thought a lot about!
      Sorry if that was a bit of tangent, Thank you again for your post and your encouragement!
      -Sara

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  4. Thanks for your honesty Sara. Patriarchy and domination and the acceptance of it are not only outside of us but also within us. It would be nice to think that lesbian feminism could be an easy answer to the problem, but since patriarchy and domination are within us as women, we can also dominate other women and allow ourselves to be dominated by other women. This was brought home to me when I learned that one member of a lesbian feminist couple who were both students of mine had left the other and was hiding from her former partner in a battered women’s shelter. There is no pure space to live in and very few of us are pure either, much as we wish we were. One of my friends once said, “I am a Greek woman trying to be free.” I think she spoke for all of us.

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