Why I Failed Feminism 101: Gender, Sexuality, and the Power of Relationships


I was once told by my ardent feminist advisor in undergrad to “not put all my proverbial eggs in one man basket” after discussing my relationship with my boyfriend over a cup of coffee.  Thinking my relationship was different and that we were special, I heeded the warning but thought of it no further.  Now, looking back on it three in a half years later, I wish I would have.

Relationships are a powerful tool.  They help to make you feel special.  They help to bring you joy.  They help you discover the reason why a divine presence may have endowed us with the ability to love and most importantly they help you realize and discover things about yourself you may have never taken the time to notice.

Feminism 101 is more than just the pop culture stereotype of a bunch of women advising the younger generation of girls to be weary of men and the pain they can bring.  Feminism, specifically as what I now call Feminism 101, is the transformative ability to listen to your elders, trust yourself, and ultimately, if you happen to trust in the relationship you have built, knowing deep down that it is built on equality, love, and trust.

Recently, I have been told that hindsight is 20/20.  I should have been more aware when I realized that my former partner had no inclination towards anything having to do with feminism and more importantly the tenets it taught.  Refusing to see how feminism had even touched his life, he shrugged off my work but continued to “support me” and my noble cause.   I took for granted and fell victim to many of the same stories we all hear but refuse to ever accept as possibilities in our own lives. “We’re different,” “He loves me,” “We can make it through anything,” these thoughts haunt my mind as I sit back and think about the reality of my situation and the stories I told myself in order to feel better knowing deep down I should have trusted my gut.

As I continued to wonder down my blinded path, I forgot about the stories I had heard and read for years of men abusing their power and privilege and women being the ones who usually had to bare the brunt of whatever issue they were facing. I took the picture of a relationship I had concocted and forgot, that relationships, like feminism, are not easy, and that it is a conscious and continual effort of renewal to remind yourself everyday why you love the person you love and more importantly, in the case of feminism, why you fight, “the good fight.”

Although I feel like I have failed feminism, I sit back and look at the world around me and realize that everyday is a constant struggle to stay alive.  Everyday I have to find a reason to exist without my partner and best friend.  As my world crashed in around me and I felt like I had nothing else to live for, I remembered that maybe I didn’t fail feminism after all but rather had to rediscover it.  Through the pain and struggles of my sisters (and brothers) before me, I had to realize that the thing getting me up everyday was the community of individuals I had built around me who support and continue to show me love.  Although my former partner was no longer fighting for our relationship, it was the relationships with my peers that remained when everything else went dark.  Relationships are a powerful tool to help us realize why we are not alone and why in our darkest times life really does get better.  Feminism not only teaches us about ourselves but rather the power of relationships and the roles they have in constructing and shaping the individuals we hope to become.  Relationships are the backbone in which feminism is built upon because without our community of love, support, and equality we wouldn’t have anything or anyone worth fighting for.

Maybe I didn’t fail Feminism 101 after all, but rather I had to go through the hardest lesson by myself, with the help of my sisters and brothers, to finally be able to move onto the next and most important lesson of not only loving myself but finding someone to build a relationship based on mutuality, veneration, and equality with.  Although I may have lost something special and an important person in my life, I learned a valuable lesson in not only trusting someone else but also trusting and believing in the relationship I have with myself.

John Erickson is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.  His research interests involve an interdisciplinary approach and are influenced by his time as the director of a women’s center and active member in the GLBTQ and women’s rights movements.  His work is inspired by the intersectionality of  feminism, queer identity, and religious political and cultural rhetoric.  He is the author of the blog, From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter at@jerickson85.

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Categories: Community, Family, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Foremothers, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Identity Construction, LGBTQ, Men and Feminism, Power relations, Reform, Sexual Ethics, Social Justice

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7 replies

  1. Were we wrong to have trusted love, were we wrong to have trusted another? Who was there to teach us how to know when and how to trust and when and where not to trust? We all want to love and be loved, and many of us do not have good role models for loving and fully equal relationships. So don’t judge yourself harshly.

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  2. To me feminist is the very foundation of a relationship. While most hetero relationships completely fail in this department, because hetero is the default position, it isn’t forced to examine anything really. Two gay men don’t have to examine feminist anything either. For most gay men I know, feminism may be a window dressing but their lives don’t depend on it. They can be safe in the gay male ghetto world.

    But what if feminism was more than lip service to a gay man? What if that man really wanted the radical equality that could be the potential of a feminist inspired gay male partnership? Now don’t get me wrong, I hold that radical belief that NO MEN are feminists around me. But, they can use feminist insights to be feminist to each other. Don’t think I’m going soft in my radical feminist take no prisoners head here :-)

    I believe that there is some merit in saying that radical egalitarian commitment (not the “My husband let’s me” school, or Michelle is a strong woman even though her last name is Obama, and she takes care of the kids). With real radical feminism within the relationship, its greatest potential lies in same sex couples. Ancient Greek democracy was created out of homorelational sex between men, it had nothing to do with the male enslavement of women. Enslavement of women is default, but same sex love among men, and male bonding is a potential portal to feminist insight, or just the same old male supremacy women deal with every day.

    I don’t hold the gay male community up to anything special in the feminist department, I do respect men for NEVER enslaving a woman. So gay men who have never dominated women in the home, or never used women to pretend to be straight, have not committed the crime of subjugating women in their own homes. What would happen if gay men decided to be as radically advanced in their personal lives as lesbian feminists are in ours?

    If I were going to date women now, if I were at that stage of my life, the feminist aspect of this lesbian relationship would be essential. There are plenty of lesbians out there who don’t have this idea of equality or even of feminism. What our radical lesbian take no prisoners movement did was open the door for women who had no political commitment at all. For gosh sakes, lesbians are having babies in the suburbs, thus proving we are well on our way to becoming as dull as heteros… another horror story for another time.

    Feminism is essential, the world must become this or nothing at all will change. I hope men can be as feminist with each other, as lesbians like me are with each other. One can never really know this, because so much of home life is hidden or inaccessible. Women who achieve brilliant woman centered lives know things, but how to share this with the rest of the world?

    I would be at a loss how to advise a feminist gay man about a feminist relationship with another gay man. Gay men often make the mistake of believing lesbians are just like gay men; a dangerous assumption. Perhaps we can have a discussion about same sex partnerships and how we do feminism in daily life. Might actually be enlightening reading to heteros who still insist their lives are default everything.

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  3. john- i love this blog and yuo are very honest in it–feminism has not failed you and you have not failed feminism…the heartis a musle– it will heal

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  4. Yet again, you blow me away with your insight and willingness to open up about a very hard issue that anyone can resonate with; having to learn to pick up the pieces and moving on. You’re Fabulous!

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  5. Hi John —

    What I really appreciate about your post is your repeated statement that feminism is about relationship. I strongly believe this to be true. As a 65-year-old feminist who for over 15 years taught Women’s Studies, I have gone through several iterations of feminism in my life. At first I believed that it was just a matter of women’s opportunity that would bring equality to the world. But then I began to realize that the philosophy and common sense of my culture saw everything in black-and-white/up-and-down terms, i.e. hierarchical dualistic terms. What this means is that not only are women seen as inferior, but so are the qualities associated with women, including love, compassion, nurturance, and relationality. To be healthy in this society, we are supposed to be strong (I agree, but define this differently than many people), independent, and fiercely competitive, whether we are men or women, because of course health as well as everything else is defined in masculine terms.

    What we are learning more and more from science to psychology to economics to politics is that this understanding — based on Plato, Descartes, etc. — is false. Life is a co-creation. Relationality is the basis on which we experience the world and on which the world evolves. We are a part of the interrelated web of life, interacting continuously with nature, other humans, institutions, etc. Charlene Spretnak is the person who has done the best research in this area, most recently in a book called _Relational Reality_.

    My one critique of your post is your use of the word “tool.” Relationships are not tools. A tool is something that an individual uses to perform some function, a means to some end or purpose. The word tool implies that you were an independent agent, an autonomous individual, who used your relationship and, therefore, your partner to learn or obtain something. Maybe that conceptualization gives you some distance from your now-defunct relationship and, as a result, some solace. I wish for you all the solace and comfort you can get. But the term tool is antithetical to the rest of your post. It comes from a very different perspective, one I call instrumental rationality, where everyone and everything is seen as a tool.

    Love and light,
    Nancy

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