Femfest: The Odyssey

As I mentioned, I was in Oregon at Southern Oregon University to speak at the SOU Women's Resource Center at their inaugural Femfest. I gave a workshop on the Rape Culture, and then I delivered the keynote address, the text of which is below the fold, for anyone who is interested in reading it.

My profound thanks to the university for hosting me, to everyone who attended, and especially to Molly Harris, who organized and coordinated the event, and who invited me to be a speaker. Molly is the greatest.

It was my first time in Oregon, and I loved getting the opportunity to visit the beautiful Rogue Valley.

I am completely knackered, as the travel was way more intense than anticipated, because I left on Sunday, during the major storms and tornadoes in the Chicagoland area. When I left my house for the airport shuttle, we were under a tornado watch, and it was a pretty hairy ride to the airport. O'Hare was utter mayhem; with so many delayed and canceled flights and people stuck and desperate, it was just a nightmare of super angry and frustrated folks.

I felt terribly bad for the people working at the airport, who were getting the brunt of all this angst, even though they were working their asses off. Bonnie at Alaska Air and Carl at United Airlines were total champions, trying to help me get to Portland in time to make my connecting flight to Medford. They were AMAZING. In the end, the best option was grounded for awhile, too, so I just hunkered down on the dirtiest carpet in the world and made the best of it with a similarly sanguine older man, who chatted away the time with me. There's no controlling the weather!

Anyway. Travel was rough, and all the running all over airports in between sitting in awkward places and getting no sleep for days thanks was hard on my body. By the time I arrived back at O'Hare yesterday, just having missed a shuttle back home so with another hour of waiting in a bad chair, I was wrecked and not in the best mood.

But then, through one of THE WEIRDEST stranger interactions I've ever experienced, about which I'm not going to tell you because it may become a guest post at some point, ha, I ended up meeting a woman named Ariane, who was taking the same shuttle I was, and we just chatted like old friends for the next couple of hours, not even the slightest bit bothered by the rush hour traffic that was, inexplicably, even worse than usual.

It was just a weird trip. So many people being the worst, and so many people being the best.

I was glad to be with the great people at SOU, and the great people I met along the journey, and now I'm glad to be home.

[Content Note: Policing; auditing; privilege; oppression; transphobia; racism; fat hatred; disablism.]

Pro-Choice Feminism: Beyond Reproductive Rights

I am pro-choice. When I say those words, mostly what people of good faith quite reasonably imagine I mean, particularly in this day and age of an unprecedented assault on reproductive rights, is that I support giving women and other people with uteri unfettered access to a spectrum of reproductive options.

And I do. I do mean that.

But I also mean this: I am pro-choice beyond reproductive rights. I am pro-choices. I am pro people being given and having choices and the right of consent in all things. I am pro respecting a diversity of choices, in all aspects of life. I am pro getting down with the reality that your choices might not look like mine, and mine not like yours, because we are different people.

That might sound like the most self-evident observation in the world—that we are different people, you and I. But, as easy as it is for anyone to say, practicing an acknowledgement of that simple principle can be an extraordinarily difficult thing for us humans.

From very early in our lives, we are told, for example, to treat others as we want to be treated. The Golden Rule, it's called. But it's a shitty rule. Because not everyone wants to be treated like I do. And yet it's regarded as the infallible roadmap to kindness to presume that one's own preferences are universal, and that imposing one's own needs and desires onto everyone else is better than listening to individual people about how they would like to be treated, and then treating them that way.

The universalizing of one's own experience is further encouraged by each level of privilege one has. Maleness, whiteness, straightness, cisgenderedness, able-bodiedness, thinness, wealth—every layer comes embedded with the reassurance, care of systemic oppression, that a privileged view of the world is right, that privileged people know best, better than marginalized people know what is best for them- or ourselves.

We are exhorted by whatever privileges we have to view ourselves as the norm—and, by extension, believe that our lives are normal. That they are the normal human experience. That our choices are the right and the logical choices—something of which we are assured by the lie that privilege makes us objective.

This dynamic fosters an individual-level colonialism, in which we are tasked with being "saviors" for people whose choices don't look like our own, and thus are the "wrong" choices.

Privilege not only allows but encourages us to ignore that our lives are fundamentally different because of that privilege, that our options are broader, that privileged people have access to a spectrum of choice that marginalized people don't even have.

"Intersectionality" is an important concept in feminism these days—and for good reason. It is only by embracing an intersectional approach, viewing the world through a lens that deconstructs intersecting oppressions, that we begin to find a path away from the urge to audit choice and instead toward a view that is pro-choice in all things.

Recognizing that people are different, that their circumstances and lived experiences and needs are different, is crucial to being expansively pro-choice.

So is understanding, and acknowledging, that many women don't have meaningful choices at all, sometimes in multiple areas of their lives.

Thus, here's the question I keep coming back to: How is it feminist to judge a woman's choices when she doesn't have any good ones?

Feminism that is not expansively pro-choice is neither relevant nor accessible for women with limited choices. And I don't know that there are any women who have the freedom to live undilutedly feminist lives, who never have to compromise on their ideals in order to survive or avoid harm. If a failure to perfectly exemplify and embody some very specific definition of privileged feminism at all times is a disqualifying act, then I imagine none of us are feminists.

It is extraordinarily easy to fall into the habit of judgment. We live in a culture of judgment. It permeates every aspect of our culture—this demand that we appraise and audit each other's lives. We are urged to value our own lives via comparison with others, whether we're doing better or worse, according to some arbitrary definitions of achievement and success. We are urged to dissect each other for flaws and failures. We are urged to critique each other's bodies, style, jobs, homes, family structures, decisions.

We are urged to read tabloids and watch infotainment television that makes its money exclusively in the trade of judgment of celebrities. We are urged to use social media to engage in unspoken competition with our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. We are urged to gossip, and scrutinize, and sneer.

And it always comes down to this: We are urged to audit other people's choices, and find them wanting.

Participating in this culture of judgment is tremendously destructive, both culturally and personally.

Judgment is, at its roots, projection—evaluating other people's deviations from a standard we endorse. We are thus quick to see our own "flaws" in others. Judgment reinforces our own shortcomings, reflects our perceived failures back to us, makes it difficult to love ourselves when we see our own supposed defects everywhere we look.

And makes it difficult to feel confident in our own choices.

Respecting a diversity of choices is an integral part of dismantling the rigid tyranny of the culture of judgment, because, by embracing the idea that there is no One True Choice, we refute the obligation to conform to standards that are toxic to our own well-being, and uphold the idea that no one else should be obliged to such harmful conformance, either.

It's funny how much easier it is to grant the right of nonjudgment to everyone else having once gifted it to yourself.

Letting go of the culturally-imposed compulsion to judge everyone is hugely freeing—a gift to ourselves that makes self-acceptance a helluva lot easier, and a gift to everyone else who steps into our gazes, to whom we can extend the same generosity and esteem.

One of the most important things I have ever done for my own sense of value, one of the most profound kindnesses I have ever offered to myself, is to take a long look at the deeply unreasonable, inherently condemnatory, nakedly cruel, worth-subverting, oppression-entrenching, target-moving, can't-bloody-win culture of judgment in its impossibly merciless face and tell it to fuck off.

I am not pro-judgment. I am pro-choice.

This idea is central to my feminism. For me, feminism is about legitimizing a variety of choices for women, and I've never believed that only those choices that were deemed empowering or otherwise feminist-approved were deserving of my defense.

I would like to be able to stand here in front of you and say that mainstream feminism and its most visible advocates are in sublime agreement about being pro-choice in all things. But we all know that is not the case.

We are all, I imagine, keenly aware that there is a feminist yardstick against which women's choices are measured—a yardstick whose increments of acceptable choice vary depending upon in whose hands it's held.

The mainstream feminist movement is compromised by privilege—and unexamined privilege has created a space in which the pernicious culture of judgment can proliferate. Sometimes in the form of overt hostility, as in the case of trans*-exclusive radical feminists who actively seek to deny trans* women a seat at the table. And sometimes in the form of the simple but harmful failure to understand the diversity of demands on the lives of women.

Unexamined privilege makes it terrifically easy to elide that marginalized women are compelled to enact multiple levels of performance and conformance to attain access. For example, the obligation to "turn off" different and/or more parts of our- or themselves in the workplace, in order to be considered "professional," in ways that have nothing to do with basic vocational competency.

Did you make the wise feminist choice to be born with what Corporate America deems professional hair? Or do you need to make a choice to "do something" with your hair that someone else might deem an unfeminist choice?

Earlier this year, there was a big discussion in the feminist blogosphere after Feministe's Jill Filipovic wrote a piece for the Guardian in which she argued against women changing their last names after marrying.

"Excuse me while I play the cranky feminist for a minute," she began, "but I'm disheartened every time I sign into Facebook and see a list of female names I don't recognize. You got married, congratulations! But why, in 2013, does getting married mean giving up the most basic marker of your identity?"

Well. Leaving aside that there are many women who don't consider our names the most basic markers of our identities, and noting that there are women who marry women, there are a whole lot of reasons why a woman might change her name upon getting married to a man in the year of our lord Jesus Jones two thousand and thirteen.

In a piece I originally published in November 2010, titled, not coincidentally, "Pro-Choice," I suggested a variety reasons that a feminist woman might change her last name.

Maybe she was not a feminist or womanist when she got married.

Maybe a name change made it more difficult for her to be found by a violent ex, a stalker or rapist, or anyone else by whom a woman might not want to be found—and a marriage-related name change is easy and doesn't create a public court record.

Maybe her choice was about leaving an abusive family behind her, or about joining a sort of family she never had. Or about picking battles with her family or in-laws. Or about convincing the immigration division of a government still steeped in patriarchal traditions that her relationship is "real." Or about an important ethnic or religious tradition. Or about a new identity. Or about living in a place or working for an employer where not changing her name risks revealing an ideological leaning that could result in harm or exile.

Maybe, despite knowing it comes from a weird, messed-up patriarchal tradition, there's still some weird, messed-up place inside her that likes the idea of taking her husband's name—and no feminist lives a life free of compliance, consciously or not, with weird, messed-up patriarchal narratives and expectations. But unlike secretly doing all the housework in her own home, the name thing is there for everyone to see and question, every day of her life.

This is hardly a definitive list. In fact, during the ensuing debate in the feminist blogosphere after Filipovic's piece was published, Jessica Luther and T.F. Charlton ran an amazing series on naming—keeping one's name; changing one's name; what one's name means—that ran at Flyover Feminism and Grace Is Human. I encourage you to read the whole series, which includes entries from so many diverse women and is just brilliant.

Of course, not everyone who encounters any collections of reasons why a woman might change her name upon marriage will consider each—or any—item a legitimate reason for a woman to opt to take her husband's name. Still, few of us would feel inclined to directly tell a woman who's survived and escaped a profoundly abusive family of origin and found a wonderful partner whose family she adores, and who adore her right back, that her desire to take their name is a betrayal of The Sisterhood.

Few of us would directly tell a rape survivor, whose attacker the justice system declined to prosecute thus allowing him to continue to stalk and harass her, that she's a traitor to feminist kind if she opts for a quick and quiet name change upon getting married.

Et cetera.

Yet that is most assuredly what we're doing every time we publicly castigate or question women who have taken their husbands' last names—because there are reasons, not always evident and none of our business, for that choice which can and sometimes do trump political statements on a personal, individual level.

Naming is, naturally, only one of many women's choices we are exhorted to audit. Also earlier this year, there was much debate after Ms. magazine featured Beyoncé on its cover, inviting a conversation about whether the pop icon is a really a feminist.

Beyoncé is hardly the only prominent female artist to be subjected to this sort of public scrutiny against the feminist yardstick, as if there is a pass/fail assessment quiz that determines one's feminist credentials.

You're in or out of the club, never mind whether you want to be part of the club in the first place, based on the choices you make—and whether they are determined by self-appointed auditors to be sufficiently feminist.

There are billions of women on the planet who live their lives making choices every day, and very few, if any, of us have lives so privileged that we can make them in a consequence-free vacuum where the only criteria can be whether they conform to a narrowly-defined version of feminism, the architects of which often casually ignore meaningful disparities in available options among women.

The truth we must recognize is that adherence to a privileged version of feminism is a luxury.

And putting women's choices up for debate ignores that truth.

Which is not to suggest I don't believe there shouldn't be public conversations about the choices women make. It's great that there are women who are willing to publicly discuss decisions about topics like name-changing! I love so much when women speak and write about the choices they make through the specific and unique prism of their individual circumstances!

That's pretty much what I do for a living.

BUT. No one is obliged to do that. And none of us are entitled to reasons that we find compelling, that come out registered as "acceptable" once we've filtered them through the prism of our very specific and individual experience. None of us are entitled to forthright answers about complex personal decisions on demand.

If we can acknowledge that asking women to publicly comment on and justify their reproductive decisions and circumstances is wrong, then we need to similarly be able to acknowledge that asking women to publicly comment on and justify other personal, intimate decisions is wrong.

Especially when we acknowledge there are women whose choices, which may look unfeminist to the casual observer, are made for immensely personal reasons, including her own personal safety or survival. No woman should be expected to disclose a history of abuse or being trans* or offer proof of her poverty in order to be deemed A Good Feminist Who Made a Choice for an Acceptable Reason.

There is a deep tension surrounding the way we set off as fair game the very personal everyday decisions women make, in a way we do not for women's reproductive choices.

I am hard-pressed to see why I should be obliged to make that distinction. I do not publicly audit women's reproductive choices, and I do not publicly audit the other personal choices women make, either.

Let me be clear I am not arguing that, to use the aforementioned example, taking one's husband's name is inherently a feminist choice (although I'm not sure it's inherently not a feminist choice, either, depending on the circumstances). It is merely to say that we cannot (and should not) axiomatically assume anything about a woman who has taken her partner's name, rendering this yet another subject on which the casual passing of judgment is a pernicious affair indeed.

Quite evidently, we each have a responsibility to think critically about our individual decisions, and not pretend they happen in a void even when we make choices for no one's pleasure or security but our own. Just because one is doing something for herself doesn't magically turn it into a choice without cultural implications.

But it's eminently possible to critique the culture in which individual choices are made, and the cultural narratives that may affect our decision-making processes, without condemning those individual choices—or the women making them.

I say once more: For me, feminism is about legitimizing a variety of choices for women. I don't view my role as a feminist to impose my choices on women who are making different ones, but to contribute to the creation of a society where both of us can coexist, and neither of us feel compelled to compromise, because we have access to equal opportunities irrespective of our individual philosophies.

The problem is not that there are women who conform to the cultural expectation of "perfect womanhood" imposed on women, but that a cultural expectation of a singular "perfect womanhood" exists in the first place, rendering other expressions of womanhood "less than."

There are those who argue that as long as women conform to a traditional expectation, it will inevitably be perpetuated, but I'm not so sure this is true. If women who consciously design themselves for men have to become extinct for women who don't to be conferred legitimacy, the accomplishment is rooted not in changing dominant cultural paradigms, but in having simply removed the preferred option. That's a success by default.

Equality is achieved when variations are considered just as legitimate as the original norm, thereby leaving no norm at all. For my choice to remain deliberately childless to be considered viable, all other women didn't need to stop having babies and being mothers; we simply needed to expand the definition of womanhood. Expanding a definition doesn't require the annihilation of the original, but instead making room for legitimate and respected alternatives.

It isn't the job of feminism to dictate to women how they should live their lives, but to create a culture that has room for alternatives to traditional definitions of womanhood, and then to engage women conforming to traditional definitions so that they don't have to, if they don't want to, because the culture no longer requires it nor gives it preference.

Creating such a culture will necessarily entail critiquing, and often criticizing, the venues through which the accoutrements of traditional definitions are marketed, but rightfully condemning a glamour magazine for purveying unrealistic beauty standards or giving women 101 Ways to Please Your Man doesn't mean we must simultaneously condemn women who pursue a beauty standard or try to please "her man."

Nor does it necessitate disappearing women—trans* women, fat women, women with disabilities—who may be obliged to adopt markers of traditional femininity in order to make themselves safe.

Among women who steadfastly embrace traditional definitions of womanhood, many of them don't reject alternatives, viewing my childless, tattooed, fat ass as just as perfect an expression of womanhood as is theirs. They make room for me; feminism ought to make room for them.

And it can. The measure of feminism's tolerance should not be how well one conforms to any particular aesthetic, but how willing one is to embrace a myriad of aesthetics. A woman who wants nothing more than to be a beautiful bride with 2.5 kids and a suburban estate worthy of Better Homes & Gardens, but also totally digs my personal groove, isn't my problem. A woman, whether she calls herself a Concerned Woman for America or a feminist, who thinks there's only one definition of womanhood and one correct way to express it, is.

There should always be room for other feminists to challenge the metrics that we use to make our choices and the context in which we make them—especially when they are a reflection of privilege. Suggesting that we expand our respect for choice is not an argument that every choice is equally decent or wise. It is simply to say that the moment we flatly refuse to champion a space for women whose choices differ from our own, we veer dangerously close to the inflexible dictates of the dominant culture we mean to change. I didn't become a feminist to assume the very role I despise.

Not every woman will make the same choices, nor should they be thus obliged in order to prove feminism's value. Feminism has sufficiently demonstrated its own worth by providing an ever-broadening spectrum of choice in the first place.

And even though not every one of those conceivable choices is implicitly feminist, having a choice is evidence of feminism's reach.

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