I do consider myself a feminist, because I know what the term actually means. But I’ve never been an outspoken one. Yes, I vehemently support reproductive rights and equal pay. I fight against rape culture and objectification. I understand the culture that exists that silences women everywhere.
But feminism has never been my thing. Gender equality has never been as important to me as racial equality, or queer activism, or fighting class hierarchy, or the freedom of the media. Feminism is there for me, sure, but it’s never quite hit home.
I’ve distanced myself a bit from feminist activism in the past, in part because I find upper class white cis feminism blind and insufferable. Like, yes, Hillary Clinton is a woman. She’s also a corporate warmongering neoliberal drone of establishment politics. The fact that she’s a woman is pretty much irrelevant to me, and being told I should have supported her is, to me, what rings so hollow about so much of feminism. I find mainstream feminism’s ignorance about issues affecting trans women, poor women and women of color intolerable.
But the main reason I don’t engage much with strictly-feminist activism is that I’ve always considered my life far more shaped by the privileges I do have than the ones I don’t. Being white and rich and cis, that’s shaped my life far more than being a woman has.
Or so I thought.
I’ve been reframing my relationship to my gender recently, through a lot of unsettling realizations.
I wonder, how many more people would read this if I were a man?
I wonder, does that make me arrogant? Am I playing the woman card? Are my insecurities and outrages and struggles just an attempt to hold onto an antiquated feeling of oppression?
I wonder, does the fact that I even have those thoughts about my life not prove in some small way that the woman card still does exist?
Being, on the whole, cis and comfortable in my sex, my gender has never been something I’ve especially struggled with. I’m not equating the trans/nonbinary struggle and the female struggle here, but I do want to acknowledge that gender hierarchy affects both.
They’re linked strongly in my mind because I think being cis has shaped the fact that womanhood has never been a thing for me. I’ve hardly noticed it. I’ve always discounted feminist struggles in my own mind. “If you play the game hard enough, you’ll win” was my mentality. Being outgoing, intelligent, argumentative and confident, I’ve never had a problem feeling respected by my male peers. The moments in my life I’ve felt genuinely oppressed by my womanhood are few and far between.
The first major time I felt female oppression was in Port-au-Prince, at a hotel bar, with an Australian man. I found him attractive, I was flirting. I was wearing a long skirt. I told him I did yoga. He felt this gave him the right to grab my leg and lift it up as far as it could go. When I complained, he told me I was being dramatic, obnoxious, a mood-dampener. When I complained to someone else in the group, all men, saying “Does anyone else notice what the fuck just happened?” I was told to leave and was no longer wanted there. Bear in mind that this was a bar I frequented, a 2-minute walk from my house, and these guys had just arrived in Haiti that morning. I was the one who needed to leave. I was the one who’d fucked up by asking that my body not be grabbed and pulled around by a complete stranger simply because he found the prospect of my flexibility enticing.
The second was a few months after that, a story I’ve already written about. It was the time I was raped, by a guy named Ricky, in my apartment in New York.
The third was the writing of that story for the first time. It was a night in Galway, when a man rolled his eyes at me and ridiculed my discomfort when I told him I’d been raped. It was realizing how uncomfortably that word sits on my skin, simply because for years I felt the rape wasn’t traumatic enough to count as rape. It was realizing that, for years, I’d believed being raped was my own fault.
If I’d just said Yes instead of No. If I’d just played the part right. If I’d just done what a man wanted me to.
I feel it in the fact that I’m flattered when someone slaps my ass or grabs my tits. Flattered. I win, I think. I’m hot enough. I’m desirable. Even though I didn’t want this. Even though it’s objectifying and unconsensual and signifying of a culture of male dominance and female worthlessness beyond male sexual fantasy.
But if I talk about that? I’m playing the woman card. I’m being dramatic. It was just a joke. I should take it as a compliment. It’s my fault. My fault. My fault.
I’ve realized, since traveling, that people don’t listen to me. When traveling with my male partner, I can’t count the number of men who have listened with rapt attention when he says exactly the same thing I’m saying, while interrupting and ignoring me. Perhaps it’s simply because he’s relatable to them – if they admire a quality in me, it can’t be present in themselves, because I am a woman and they are not.
But I think it runs deeper than that.
We are trained to discount women’s stories, especially non-white and non-cis women.
Anyone with an oppressed identity is playing a card when they speak about the reality of their oppression. Or, worse, they’re dramatic. Emotional.
Looking back, I see my own oppression. I see it in the day I was arguing with a male fuck buddy about anarchism, making the same point I’d made a hundred times before. When a friend of mine (who was in fact a trans woman, but appeared male) made the exact same point and suddenly, said male fuck buddy listened.
I see it in the fact that I heard male friends in London praised so often for their intelligence, but hardly ever a female friend. We had to fight for the recognition of our intelligence, and whatever evidence to the contrary, we were still never deemed the smartest in the group.
I see it in the films about finding love beneath the societal ideals of beauty. How many films are there about a beautiful woman falling for an unattractive man because of who he is, not what he looks like? And how many films about a beautiful man falling for an unattractive woman?
I see it when I see men talk over me constantly, or wait for a man to say the exact same thing I just said in order for it to be worthy of consideration.
I see it in the way men idolize other men, but hardly ever women.
I see it in the way I’m treated traveling alone, in the way people look at me like a filet with tits, in the way they discount me or discount my pain or discount my thoughts and feelings.
And I see how much this hierarchy screws with everyone, across the gender binary and in the space between. The way men aren’t allowed to express emotions. The way in which they’re expected to be sexual constantly. The way in which men’s ideas of consent, or men’s need for support, or men’s emotions are taboo and irrelevant to society.
I’ll play the fucking woman card now, because I feel it weighing in my pocket daily in a way I never used to. I feel it.
The critiques I have of mainstream feminism still exist, but I’m relating to the struggle of feminism in a way I never used to before. I still shave my legs, I’m still sexually submissive, I still like wearing short skirts and flirting and sometimes, I like being sexually objectified.
But even now, it’s starting to ring hollow. I’m feeling, for the first time, how much of this is conditioning. How many of my desires were handed to me by a culture of female submission. I really, really see the mansplaining thing. It’s real.
It isn’t just fighting for your right to be heard. It’s fighting for your right to be heard when you are a woman. They are fundamentally different fights.
And I’m tired of fighting.
I am worth listening to. And the gender hierarchy is worth destroying.