Becoming Feminist (Tentatively, Part One)

I started rereading Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (2017) last week with a group of friends and colleagues. We’ll all be working through it through July and August. During our very first discussion on the book’s introduction, a friend raised an issue that struck and stuck with me: namely, that the questions Ahmed asks her readers feel exciting and arresting. After all, they are not, typically, the kind of questions we might be used to asking when teaching students about feminism as a historical / political movement or feminism as an interpretive framework (i.e., as a “literary” theory).

Questions like, “where did we find feminism, or where did feminism find us? . . . From whom did I find feminism?” (4).

These questions, my friend stated, are hard questions. Really hard.

I’ve been thinking about my friend’s comment all week. A lot. For all the times I’ve thought, taught, and discussed Living a Feminist Life over these past two years, it never struck me that these are difficult questions. Why not?

It isn’t like I’ve ignored them. I’ve noted the questions as I read, and even rewrote them in the margins of my book. I clearly like them. I’m moved by them. I find them compelling. The questions also resonate with my interests in pedagogy and life-writing (in particular) and critical theory (in general).

But I’ve never actually felt myself addressed by these questions. Why not? And why haven’t I tried to answer them for myself?

Perhaps because I’ve always thought that I am not the primary audience of Ahmed’s book. The “you” she addresses on pg. 11 (“I address this book to feminist students. It is intended for you”) might include me. But in the context of her play with pronouns (where the “you” can be and should be read, sometimes, as an “I”; where it serves to place some distance between Ahmed and her experiences), it seems important that I learn to read the book from the position of secondary addressee—to imagine an ideal or primary reader who has lived a life that resonates with Ahmed’s life and not with my own. I assume an intended addressee who feels at home (but maybe also a bit tired or strained) when she invokes a “we” (“that hopeful signifier of feminist collectivity” [2]; “we learn from how the same things keep coming up” [9]; “we learn about worlds when they do not accommodate us” [10]).

It’s my intuition that I should hesitate to assume my belonging in this “you” or “we,” since the experiences Ahmed conveys with her pronouns do not line up with mine.

Sure, I too learn from how things keep coming up, but the “things” Ahmed describes pertain not to how I learned to fit in the world but how she (and other girls and women) learn “to reside as well as we [they?] can in the spaces that are not intended for us [them?]” (8). Here’s the thing: I’ve never really felt like a space had not been intended or shaped for me . . .

And yet.

I am a feminist. Feminism—as a word, as a framework, as a movement—has been important for me in developing ethical and political principles. It has helped me listen to and learn from women (in person and print) about the asymmetry between our (gendered) experiences of our social world(s). It has helped me, I hope, be a better partner and friend and colleague and citizen and person.

And I keep learning from feminism and feminists. And I’m committed to keep learning and listening and being open to changing attitudes and / or positions that I’ve left uninterrogated.

So: even if I don’t identify as the “you” or with the “we” whom Ahmed addresses, feminism has been important to me and my life. But back to my initial questions: if this is true, why don’t I feel myself addressed by her questions about feminism?

I don’t know.

(But, of course, I do know: because I’m a white man. And that’s the right answer. But there’s still more homework for me to do.)

Perhaps being a feminist in principle or feeling drawn to feminism as a  theoretical or conceptual framework is not enough to live a feminist life.

Ahmed tells us she became a feminist out of great need. She intuits that many other girls and women become feminists, too, because feminism is felt to meet a need, to articulate an experience, to frame a life lived in recognition of, resistance to, and (occasional yet calculated?) resignation to patriarchal expectation and (deprivation or refusal of) accommodation.

These features of a feminist life do not define my own.

I did not come to feminism out of the same kind of need. It did not necessarily articulate my experience. In Chapter 1, Ahmed uses the metaphor of an “on button” to describe feminist consciousness (which seems a pre-condition of living a feminist life). She writes:

Feminist consciousness can feel like a switch that is turned on. Turning off might be necessary to survive the world that we are in, which is not a feminist world. Feminist consciousness is when the on button is the default position. Unless you turn it off, you are on. Perhaps this is the reverse of the usual setting, where you have to be switched to be on. No wonder: it can be exhausting. (31)

As a primary beneficiary of patriarchal arrangements and orders, I don’t think I’ve reached “feminist consciousness.” I think I’ve developed a few feminist tendencies, but they’ve come to me later in life (6). Most days (all days?), it still feels like my feminism has to be turned on (rather than off).

If this is the case: can I live a feminist life? Will I?

These reflections have taken me away from the initial problem of Ahmed’s questions. But they’re not unrelated. Whether or not I can or will live a feminist life, in a few subsequent posts, I want to try to answer Ahmed’s questions. When did feminism find me? From whom? What experiences of mine (if any) does feminism articulate? I don’t know what I’ll discover, but I’m intuiting that this exploration is important. Even if just for me.

Reading on . . .

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