feminist values: calling on people to have some thoughts

Cross-posted at Feministing Community.

Hanna and I have been talking lately about feminism and feminist politics, comparing our very different experiences with various incarnations of feminist theory and feminism as a political movement. One of the things that we've been talking about is the question of hypocrisy: if someone (a feminist in this case) critiques a certain behavior, beauty ritual, book/song/movie, word/phrase, cultural belief, etc. and yet still engages in (possibly even takes pleasure in) said behavior/ritual/belief, does that make the person hypocritical? Or are they just being pragmatic or realistic? And if so, does that mean that there's no point to engaging in critical feminist analysis, if in the end we all end up pragmatists: does that mean that the status quo wins out in the end anyway?

There was a time in my life when I would have answered with an unqualified "yes, absolutely." I will always remember the conversation I had about shaving my first year taking college classes (I was seventeen) when I had just discovered theoretical and political feminism as something that -- rather than being of historical interest -- was of living, breathing political relevance. I had this Creative Nonfiction professor (whom in retrospect I would say I had a huge crush on) whom I met with to discuss an essay I was working on, and in the course of the conversation I said something to the effect of:

"Anyone who shaves their legs is supporting the patriarchy."

Yes, I did. I really did.

And my professor, bless her heart, gently suggested that given that we live in a complicated, messy, real world in which actions have multiple meanings and sometimes you do a thing for complicated, messy, personal reasons -- given all that maybe, just maybe, it was possible to shave your legs because it made you feel less self-conscious about your body, or shave your legs because you enjoy the ritual of shaving, or shave your legs because it makes it easier to lotion your dry skin and none of these things makes you less of a feminist. I was skeptical.

But I didn't forget what she said. And, over time, I've learned to live with the dissonance that is a fucked up world that -- try as hard as we might to improve -- is never going to be perfectible (and we should probably be grateful for that!). And living "within and against the rules" of that imperfect world (to borrow a phrase from theorist Sidonie Smith) is hard. Because we're at one and the same time unique individuals and products of our culture; our desires, our like and dislikes, or comforts and discomforts, they are often a confusing jumble of "me" and "society." Figuring out when Society is worth resisting, because it compromises my Self too much to be borne -- that's practically a full-time job. An important one, but an endless struggle. Sometimes even more difficult are those times when my Self and Society appear to be in accord: do I just think they're in accord? Do I want that because I've been encouraged to want it? Or do I want that because that luminescent Self at the center of my Being desires it?

Or is it a combination of both? And when, oh when, does it matter -- discerning one way or another?

(See, for example, my reflections on the sex and gender roles in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series)

I'm pretty sure all of you thoughtful people out there on the internets have examples of these difficulties in your daily lives. And I'm curious how y'all manage to navigate the perilous waters of Self and Society, to make a meaningful life for yourself "within and against" the rules of to culture as-is, while you're striving to live as if the world was the place you wanted it to be. Is living "as if" even practical? Is compromise always hypocritical? How do you have compassion for yourself (as a human being) who sometimes has to make the best of an imperfect situation? How do you hold on to your vision of a better world while slogging through the everyday? How do you make sense of the desires you have, or the actions you take that are, on some level, counter to your core values?

Please consider this an open thread for discussing any of these questions. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you've brought together feminist values with life in the world.


  1. I remember my frustration, years ago, trying to work with a group of activists who insisted on a radical purity in thought, word, and deed. Shave your legs? You're not a feminist. Want kids? You're a servant to the patriarchy. Anything less than adherence to an abstract ideal was called hypocritical. The result -- surprise! -- was paralysis. Nobody could even get along.

    I'm less trustful of blueprints for a better world than I once was. I'm much more interested in cultural mutations and niche habitats. That's one reason why I like the idea of living "as if." It feels more like nature's "let's try this" approach.

    You ask so many good questions in this post. Much food for thought. Thank you.

  2. I have to admit, your shaving idea caught me - I'd wondered the same thing a couple days ago. I think, like ps pirro, that it's less about adherence to a sweeping worldview and more about little steps.

    It's gotta be left open to encompass a variety of lifestyles, a variety of feminisms, otherwise the whole idea runs the risk of becoming a rigid prescription for behavior. Once it's rigid, it becomes unrealistic and out of touch.

    Really, I think the bottom line is that if you are living as true to yourself as you can get, it's not a matter of hypocrisy. If that treads a little in patriarchy, a little in feminism, a little in communism...well, people aren't ideologies.

  3. I've come to a point where I almost think it's more important to think about the issues, than it is what specific thing you decide. Which is possibly a cop-out, but...

    Shave? Don't shave? Cool, as long as you're aware of the context in which you make the choice and don't try to pretend there's nothing to think about. (I don't know, does that make sense?)

    It's like, just don't deny that there's an issue, and however you choose to handle that issue in your own life is up to you -- I can't tell you what's the best way for you to deal with it.

    For me, "change name after (heterosexual) marriage or not" was an example of one of those classic questions I thought a lot about.

    I decided I didn't want to, so I didn't. But if someone else wants to, I don't think it makes them a 'bad feminist.' There's a lot more to being a feminist than any specific action, and we all do some things that don't actively advance the cause of justice.

    Just don't pretend there's not an issue there (in whatever issue is being raised). If people who seem to know what they're talking about and to be speaking in good faith think there's something going on, think about it.

    And there are things that I've thought about and said "OK, there's an issue there, and I need to change something about my behavior/language/whatever," and there are things that I've thought about and said "OK, there's an issue there, and at this point I'm not going to make a change because [xyz in my own life], but I recognize that this is, as they say, problematic."

    I dunno. Again, probably a cop-out.