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Reflecting on the Values of Feminism in 2020

Troubled Beginnings

My first lesson about feminism came from Mean Girls. Tina Fey’s speech at the end of the movie — when Regina George, the Plastics, and Katie reckon with the chaos their in-fighting caused — was my first exposure to intentionally feminist discourse.

  • Ms. Norbury criticizes the girls, saying, ‘you call each other sl*ts and wh*res, but that makes it easier for guys to call you sl*ts and wh*res.’

This speech forced me to confront my anti-feminist behaviour at 11-years-old. This messaging was at the heart of the elite, girls-only private school that I intended.

The logic felt familiar to me; conflict and differences amongst women only perpetuate the patriarchy, I thought; divided womanhood is easier to conquer.

Yet, the protests against racism around the world expose a gaping hole in this logic.

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In Short: In some ways, women are profoundly divided. Intersecting oppressions mean that a Black woman will experience the world differently from an Indigenous woman, from a white woman. The idea of diverse womanhood has existed as long as this white brand of feminism has, even if some are only recognizing it now.

But just because women are inherently divided under different experiences, does not mean that we can’t unite under an umbrella of accountability and acceptance for these differences.

  • Now is as good as time as any to reflect upon how we practice feminism as we sit at home, reading the info dumps coursing through our social media feeds, and wondering whether we can have a tangible role in making a better world.

Intersectional Feminism:  Kimberlé Crenshaw, American legal scholar and civil rights activist, coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to explain how gender intersects with race to produce barriers for Black women. Now, intersectional feminism encompasses various overlapping impacts of discrimination based on gender, race, physical ability, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, socio-economic status, and more.

Difference, Conflict, and Group Think

The feminism taught in private institutions overwhelmingly echoes Ms. Norbury’s statement: That difference amongst women is overwhelmingly a bad thing that leads to conflict, which we must avoid.

  • Everything from the dress code to standardized academic expectations ensures that every young woman in the building achieves the same inoffensive level of excellence.
  • Each student’s success will look different based on natural ability, inclination, and access to resources gets swept under the rug, ignored.

The overwhelming emphasis on conformity means that difference becomes a deviation. This environment’s logic forbids us to be anything but a woman.

Here, we see the dangerous tendencies of white feminism that advocates only for the needs of the white, middle-class woman at the expense of women with other intersecting experiences. Because one truth must hold for everyone in this understanding of feminism, we erase and/or demonize difference in opinion or experience.

A Feminism of Conformity

In 2018, Bishop Strachan School (BSS) in Toronto put on an Anti-Semitic production of The Merchant of Venice. The school ultimately fired their principal over the affair, but the fault does not solely rest on the adults’ shoulders.

  • As much as it was the adults’ responsibility to recognize their Anti-Semitism, it was also the girls’ job to hold each other accountable and expect more.

This is not to imply the BSS girls were too afraid to stand up to each other lest their peers accuse
them of bullying. Instead, it created an environment where it was easier to support each others’ decisions than calling them in on their harmful consequences.

  • There were girls at the school, indeed, other young women in the world, who came to the table who were different than the Anglo-Saxon Christian norm, young women who would be hurt by such a production.

Anti-Semitism, like racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, thrives on assuming that everyone is the same. Difference, then, appears as transgression.

  • When this difference scares people, the blame gets put on the different person.
  • When women speak out against how another woman has hurt them or express a divergent opinion from their neighbour, this gets labelled as threatening to overall solidarity.

The woman trying to hold her neighbour accountable for her actions turns into a woman-hater under feminism of conformity.

Real-World Consequences

The feminism found in private educational institutions, one of conformity and conflict-avoidance, is reflected elsewhere and has real-world impacts. The assumption that all women come to the table with the same experience, even experiences united under the banner of universally definable womanhood, is damaging.

  • It perpetuates prejudice and discrimination in supposedly feminist spaces, as seen in the case of BSS.
  • It excludes women with different experiences from seats of power. Despite Fortune 100 executives being comprised of 25% women, only 5.8% are racialized women, and 16.2% are white, as of 2019.

Most damagingly, this feminism excludes women of colour from important conversations, and, ironically, discussions about their success and their well-being.

  • An example of this exclusion is people flocking to Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility (as of 19 July 2020, it is number three on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list), despite there being numerous books by Black women on the same subject.

When we assume that the only way to encourage feminism is to unite women under one cause, one identity, it erases difference. This erasure only ever leads to discrimination and exclusion in spaces that are supposed to be inclusive.

Conflating difference with transgression or as a de-facto site for conflict creates an environment where women are afraid to be different from the standard norm. Or, they are so scared or ashamed to be who they are authentically and express their experience honestly.

More damningly, opinion becomes entangled with experience:

  • Not only are we forbidden to be anything other than a standardized version of a woman, but we cannot think or act anything different, either.
  • Any stray from the norm in our thoughts and actions calls into question our supposed ‘loyalty’ to our gender.

A Return to Tina Fey: A Feminism of Accountability

I used to fixate on Fey’s message of solidarity rather than what she says what that solidarity should look like.

  • In reality, Ms. Norbury has a specific idea when she preaches that young women should stick together.
  • After the fight in the cafeteria, she has the girls express their anger in a healthy way, and hold each other accountable for their missteps against each other instead of telling them to love and support each other blindly.

In Short: Society assumes that a woman’s gender is far more important than any other aspect of her identity and as women, we often express that solidarity is a good thing regardless of cost.

  • Instead, feminism needs to look like calling each other out on our questionable decisions and holding each other responsible for our harm.
  • Difference will then become a site of liberation, not conflict; diversity is welcomed and not feared.

Then, and only then, can women help each other genuinely become their best selves.