If you, like me, came late to feminism, then you probably remember what it was like on the ‘other side’. I once laughed along as a room of grown men spoke about the variety of ways they could fuck my friend because she was ‘so small’ and ‘easy to throw around’. I understood my boyfriend punching in a metal lift door next to my head as him ‘having a bad day’. There was a limit to my tolerance, but it was pressed often and without reprieve. The shields I had up, the ones my mother handed me along with my Ninja Turtles lunch box—ignore them, I love you—were pulled further out of my reach every day.
I remember cold conversations with women about music made by men, gigs played by men, women fucked by men, rivalries contingent on men, break-ups, hook-ups, dick-sucks, would he show up and when? I was a real-life Bechdel test failure. I hadn’t grown past the sense that men were important, that their opinions mattered, that their attention was more vital, all of it, more essential than my own.
I was dragged into feminism by my ankles, nails bending in the dirt. Men are the same as me, I shrieked equality. Women shriek, scream, cry. Men shout. Men call for help. But we’re the same, he and I.
‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.’
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
A major tenet of feminism—perhaps the main one—is that women have agency. Not a right to agency, not a desire for or a need of it. We are agents, we act upon the world, it’s just that this world—our world—discourages us from doing so. Be patient, be quiet, be small, laugh at his jokes. Make him feel comfortable, after all, this is his house, his town, his country, his world.
‘No more little white gloves!’
—The Hairy Bird (1998)
My brutal experiences with men—and, let’s be clear, they were brutal—were assuaged by the act of seeing these experiences through their eyes rather than my own. I listened, I was attentive, I cared. Women are nurturing, we find it easier to empathise, to bend, to wither, to be crushed. When people say power isn’t an innate quality of women, feminism draws a gun. Bang. Power is transient.
‘People have the right to call themselves whatever they like. That doesn’t bother me. It’s other people doing the calling that bothers me.’
—Octavia E. Butler
It was a man who called me a feminist first, and I will never forgive him for it. I was called ‘feminist’ when feminism was abstract to me—I didn’t fully comprehend its utility. I was taught feminism the same way I was taught postcolonialism or Marxism—as a way to read through a text, through a history, through an experience apart from my own. No matter how much Buffy I consumed, I missed the politics.
Feminism might be a noun—it could be a theory, an ideology, a political stance, a tool, a weapon, but it is the wielding of it that makes it worthwhile. I was as much a feminist then as anyone who tries their best to be a good person. But goodness is not feminist; what is right and what is good are not always the same thing.
‘Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.’
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
The long legacy of feminism is to combat the silencing of women. There is a woman emperor of China whose tomb was desecrated and on which the etchings made of her legacy were scratched out. Holy towers built in her reign were flattened. As much as possible, she was reduced. There is no overestimating how much men have hated us. There is no vessel that can contain, let alone measure, that amount of rage.
‘… talking always feels like defending and I’m tired of asking for permission to exist.’
—Brie Spangler, Beast
By throwing rocks through shop windows, by shouting in the streets, by telling Gary he’s fired for cat-calling his colleague, feminism has changed things. It has grown from an outcry for civil rights into an incomparable resource for humankind.
The feminist archive heaves its weight from side to side, shifting from foot to foot, slowly, a drunken caterpillar teetering precariously on the edge of a leaf, towards a safe place to wrap itself in a cocoon. It carries in it all the literature and actions of people who thought they knew what feminism was and whom it should benefit. The debates, the conflicts, the lack of class awareness, the Westernisation, the subjugation of women of colour, the exclusion and debasement of trans women. It vomits occasionally. It spoils the grass below.
It burps in the face of ‘womanhood’. It carries as many definitions of what it is to be ‘woman’ as it do Ani DiFranco mix tapes. Feminism is not for defining who we are, it tells us, but it might be for discovering it. It might be for embracing it.
‘It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away.’
—Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist
I came to feminism in anger. I’d been raped. I’d been abused. I’d been contorted by the expectations of society and men. I found my shields were ripped away and my tolerance disappeared. It was the women around me, those who taught me to read in a new way, who transformed my anger into determination. Growing up, my bookshelf was the holy trinity of De Beauvoir, Woolf and Plath, but I’d never read them for what they could give me, for the shields and swords they could provide. I’d never sought to gain anything more from them than the pleasant feeling of knowing and being known.
I found in these books, and the hundreds of books and articles I’ve read since, the utility of feminism. It was in its language, in its community, in its fight. It was in its resolve to push past decorum, tradition and kindness and into justice and equity. It was in its ability to learn, to grow beyond the white cis woman experience—however fucking difficult this seems to be for some—and slowly to cultivate a recognition of privilege and the nuances of hierarchies.
It was in myself, knowing more, understanding more, thinking more, doing more. I saw through my own eyes and I charged.