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.