I'm a feminist.
It may not seem like a secret: after all, I post it on my Facebook page, on my Twitter account, and on my website. I comment on feminist sites, am part of moderation teams for feminist sites, and almost all of the writings on my blog are feminist in nature. To the online community and my online friends, the fact that I am a feminist should be no shocker.
But in real life, in what I like to call "facespace", I never say the F-word, I never call myself a feminist.
I'm not ashamed of what and who I am. But I live in a deeply conservative community where I don't feel safe being openly "out" about my social and political beliefs. I live and navigate in a world where being openly and vocally known as a feminist can result in serious pushback in my personal and professional life. So while I don't actively hide who I am in facespace, I am very careful never to advertise it. And because they don't ask, and because I don't tell, and because the bulk of people I live and work with are proud non-users of social media, I pass relatively painlessly through my conservative environment.
I live in a community where I have been brought up short by a female coworker -- a woman engineer like me, a divorcee and survivor of an abusive marriage also just like me -- stopping me in the middle of an otherwise perfectly banal conversation to ask me in an accusing voice, "You're not one of those feminists, are you?" Confused and alarmed by her obvious disapproval and unexpected insight, I could only stammer jokingly that I thought everyone was, to which she gravely informed me that no, she certainly was not. Only rarely did she speak to me again after that.
I live in a community where I have been shamed and scolded -- from both sides of the issue -- over the decision of whether to change my name when I married. Before I made my decision, several people in my private circle felt it was appropriate to vocally question whether or not I could really love my husband if I didn't take his name and how he could ever really trust me if I didn't. After I made my decision, I experienced more than one shaming session where men at work literally yelled at me for changing my name and making it more difficult to find me in the company email directory.
I live in a community where many of my male coworkers can go their entire work day without meaningfully interacting with a woman, and where I am regularly treated as an object of strangeness and mystery, available to shed light on the strange vagaries of woman-kind. What do I think about this whole birth control thing? Can I explain why abortion really needs to be legal when there's always adoption? Do I as a woman vote for Sarah Palin, who is a Woman Just Like Me, or do I vote for that Democrat party that supposedly all the women go for these days? (You know, the one with the black senator that everyone is always talking about in the news. Did I know that he's the abortioniest senator in the senate? Fox News said so.)
I live in a community where I have on more than one occasion been forced to haul out the words "because my husband doesn't like me to" in order to get out of situations where I was being bullied and pressured into doing things that I didn't feel comfortable doing. After saying firmly and repeatedly that I didn't want to do these things, that I wouldn't do these things, and that I didn't feel comfortable being repeatedly asked to do these things -- all to no avail -- I dragged out the magic words that I hate-hate-hate to use. "My husband doesn't like me to" is the mantra that evaporates every objection in my community; a protective cloak that I resent being forced to wear by a community that considers my own consent to be meaningless even as it values my husband's consent not for who he is but for what he represents. (And, for the record, my husband respects my consent even when our community does not. I have his consent to use him as an excuse when I am forced to navigate these social hurdles.)
And because I am a feminist and because I care about the social messages involved in this daily navigation and specifically because I have entrenched issues with being Hard On Myself, I frequently feel guilty for making the compromises I have to in order to navigate safely through a conservative patriarchal environment. And I feel cowardly for not being more vocal, more obvious, more "out" -- and professional and personal consequences be damned.
But then I remember how much I need my job and my health care just to survive and how strongly I require a robust social network in order to live with my disability, and I remember all over again all the reasons why I don't say the F-word, why I don't openly and vocally identify as a feminist in facespace: I can't afford to. It's too risky. It's too dangerous. And so I creep back undercover and long for the day when my online activism can meet my facespace movements without fear of reprisals.
I'm a feminist because, as Amadi wonderfully defines it, I conduct cultural critique and policy analysis while still understanding that my individual choices are choices that are made under a tremendous amount of social coercion. And I recognize that even though those patterns of coercion may not seem obvious to everyone, they nonetheless exist.
I would never call someone who felt forced to conceal a part of their identity for reasons of safety and survival a coward. I realize now that I need to stop internally calling myself that for my choice to conceal my social and political leanings from the people in my facespace in order to protect myself.
The fact that I don't feel safe saying the F-word doesn't make me a C-word. Coward, that is.