Idealize This | Feminism

by Guest Contributor Catherine Traywick, originally published at Hyphen and Femmalia

For most of my life, I’ve acted the part of the fiery feminist activist. At age 10 (before I even knew “feminist” as a word) my surprisingly cogent defense of biblical Eve moved my evangelical father into surrendering his argument that women are the root of all evil. At age 16 (when I only knew “feminist” as a term of derision) I scandalized my Filipino teachers by conducting an (albeit amateurish) study charting gender discrimination within Republic Central high schools. And by age 19 (when I proudly donned my first signature “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt) my transformation seemed complete. In those enlightened times, I was fond of telling people, “You’re probably a feminist — you just don’t know it yet.”

So thrilled was I to have found a word — an ideology, a movement! — which embodied my long-standing belief system that I didn’t realize until much later the foolishness of such a proclamation; feminism isn’t, after all, defined by one’s inherent, unarticulated views on gender (however progressive those may be), but is rather a conscious, political choice one makes after considering and asserting those views.

These days, a much more educated, experienced, and cynical Me teeters on the fence. Some days, I hear feminism derided by an ignoramus with a beer and the beast inside rears its rosy head in indignation. Other days, my oft-broken heart smarts at the memory of old friends and activists whose feminist ideals didn’t stand in the way of their marginalizing a person of color, or objectifying another woman, or even downplaying the sexual assault of a friend. Most of the time, my commitment to social justice advocacy doesn’t feel as though it requires a label so I have the room to vacillate.

However, my indecision piques about every six months.

Every six months, you see — almost by the minute hand — a media storm about “the death of feminism” inexplicably erupts. Ten months out of the year, feminism is a dormant issue, old hat, a moot point, insignificant in both the grand scheme of world news and the narrow sights of newsmakers. But every six months, respectable news magazines and mainstream newspapers alike dedicate valuable column inches to 1) redundant and irrelevant assertions that feminism is, in fact, dead and 2) rebuttals that, in 2000 pretty words, re-tell the “forgotten” history of feminism while claiming that feminism is still thriving — if nowhere else than online. Sometimes the catalyst is a particularly well-timed article, while other times it’s a Hillary Clinton sound byte. This month, it’s a combination of Sarah Palin fever and the recent release of women-themed books by Gail Collins, and Leslie Sanchez.

The agitators are different each round, but the debate is always the same and so, accordingly, is my response: mild enthusiasm at a subject that interests me, with a zesty pinch of irritation at the tediousness of this cycle. But both sentiments are quickly overshadowed by disappointment, because, in almost every case, this tiresome debate about the death of feminism is a debate between white women (and the occasional white man) who are defining feminism according to their own experience. I suppose there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with writing about one’s own experience (I do it all the time), but the problem is that when these circular debates roll around, that unacknowledged white feminist experience becomes the only visible feminist experience.

Among these dozens of mediocre articles, a few have stood out because of their beautiful composition and thoughtful arguments…but even those few leave me wanting something more, prolonging my indecision rather than resolving it. Last spring, my favorite “Is feminism dead?” piece was an American Prospect article called “The End of the Women’s Movement” which argued very eloquently that there will not, and ought not, be a singular women’s movement in this country today because such a movement could not adequately represent the growing diversity of communities, beliefs, and women in this country. Great point. Except that the point is built on the notion that a time actually existed when a singular women’s movement did adequately represent the diversity of women in this country — and that’s simply not true.

One of American feminism’s greatest failures is the exclusion of women of color, of poor women, of women without privilege. To paraphrase bell hooks, who do you think took care of the middle class white woman’s children when she became too empowered to just be a housewife? 2009 isn’t the first time our country has entertained a vast diversity of communities, beliefs, and women — there has always been diversity here, though the smiling white faces at the forefront of the last U.S. women’s movement might have us believe otherwise. Asserting the present need for diversity within feminism without recalling the marked exclusion of women of color from past feminist waves isn’t a step forward so much as a whitewashing of feminist history. And that makes me wonder where I fit within this paradigm.

Fast-forward to this month, and I’m both fawning over and wincing at the beautifully-composed New Yorker piece written by Ariel Levy (of whom I am a huge fan), which argues that identity politics gets in the way of real progress because it is primarily concerned with representation:

[Identity politics are] a version of the old spoils system: align yourself with other members of a group — Irish, Italian, women, or whatever — and try to get a bigger slice of the resources that are being allocated.

Such a narrow view of “identity politics” fails to consider the critical role they play in engaging people of color in feminist (or any other kind of) activism, and assumes that “representation” is a relatively straight-forward idea. For many second and third generation citizens, for example, representation isn’t as simple as sex and skin color, but entails the confrontation of colonial histories and racial and cultural hierarchies that have followed us across generations.

I know many second and third generation Filipina Americans who retain a colonial mentality with regard to our mother country that prevents them from undertaking Filipina-specific feminist work — despite the admittedly profound need for such work. Melinda L. De Jesus addresses this in the preface to her book, Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Theory, discussing the ways in which “a heritage of dual colonization…coupled with American cultural imperialism, has left an indelible mark on the Filipino American psyche,” causing them to regard their cultural heritage as inherently inferior to that of the United States. She reflects on some of the experiences that informed her own colonization experience as a second generation Filipina American:

The arrogant white feminist professor chiding me that I shouldn’t “ghettoize” myself and my academic training by “just doing Asian American Studies.” My parents telling me that “Filipinos had no culture before the Spanish came.” […] I learn to forget that my parents have accents, that they speak a language I don’t know — a language they did not teach me. I learn than it’s better to be “here” than “back home,” that bad stuff happened during “the war.” And because my parents have so many dreams for my American future, I learn to distance myself from my history. When asked, I say, “My parents are from the Philippines, but I was born here.” So this is the American dream — living in the perpetual present, moving through life without a past, swallowed whole, invisible, but unable to deny the lingering ache of absence…

De Jesus’s experience is not unique among second and third generation Filipina Americans in the Diaspora; many of the contributors to Pinay Power describe similar feelings of inferiority, alienation, and invisibility, which prevented them from connecting to, and activating around, their heritage. One contributor argues that the only antidote to the “alienation of the colonized self” is a reclamation of the ethnic self, while another asserts that “the project of decolonization hinges on identity politics.”

Diasporic Filipinas with their erased histories and dual alienation, ought to engage in identity politics to the extent that doing so can help them place themselves within a social, political, historical, and cultural context that reconnects them with their heritage while attuning them to the oppression they experience as a marginalized community in the United States.

….But where is that in the mainstream feminism represented in the media — or even in our women’s studies classes where we learn about women in popular culture and body image while remaining ignorant of the transnational issues that are shaping the whole wide world? Southeast Asia is chock full of feminist scholars and activists who are still agitating at the front lines even as the articles we read in our favorite publications tell us that contemporary feminist work=blogging.

And so I remain on the fence — heartened, definitely, by the work of those transnational activists who call themselves feminists even in the face of their under-representation — but daunted, nevertheless, by the feminism I read about here, in U.S. papers and see on the American screen.