By Mona Harris
I think I read my first feminist literature at about age ten or so, when my mother gifted me The Feminine Mystique. From that point on I never had an issue identifying myself as a feminist.
In the past, I have even experienced great frustration towards women who refused to identify themselves as feminists, because to me, being a feminist just meant that you were a person who actively believed that women were equal to men. To me, being a feminist was as natural as experiencing the most basic values of human compassion.
Eventually I went to college, the requisite small liberal school that my social standing would allow, and a very strange thing began to happen. Suddenly I was in classes with women (and men) who were preaching something called “choice feminism”.
According to them, a woman should be able to make any choices she wanted without fear of recrimination or assumptions about her gender politics. It confused me, because the way we all present ourselves in life affects the way that people see us, and how could it not? How was it possible to spend $50 on lipstick, read Cosmo, and still be a feminist? Suddenly, I was viewed as part of the problem by many of my classmates, so I began to reassess my belief system.
I started reading more current feminist blogs and magazines. Perhaps, I thought, my ideas were just outdated. I religiously consumed everything from xojane to Bitch Magazine. I learned terms like “size politics” and “rape culture,” I learned about just how oppressed I really was, and just how discriminated against I always would be. And I got angry. I embraced the anger of feminism. I reveled in it as a source of righteous power.
The outrage that women were consistently treated as second class citizens around the world filled me with rage that felt so true and justified, I was part of something. I became active in several feminist forums online, and I sought out misogynists on Reddit to call them out on their behavior.
I continued down the rabbit hole of Internet feminism, consuming as much as I could: I read that many women of color felt slighted by both old school and modern feminism, which made me feel defeated and incredibly sad. I read about BDSM enthusiasts who insisted that wanting to be beaten could be a feminist action.
I read about the concept of acknowledging and checking your privilege, which to me seemed like a very positive exercise, but then I read impassioned counter arguments that said acknowledging privilege was a cop out to actually doing something. I read that many western feminists were perceived as being consumed with “first world problems;” I read enraged counter articles that argued that “first world problems” were still problems.
I read about conservative feminists who were pro-life and more traditional in their views of gender. I watched them get slaughtered online by liberal feminists who disagreed. I was deeply saddened by the female-female (or more accurately human-human) bashing that I saw on so many feminist blogs. No one seemed interested in exchanging points of view, only in espousing their own belief systems and tearing down anyone who opposed them.
At one point I commented on a piece about conservative feminists, I asked if anyone at the magazine had actually reached out to these women to speak with them about why they believe what they do and how it had impacted their lives. I was immediately called a troll, and (to pull a quote), “a shitty pro-life sympathizer, fuck off.”
Feminism used to make me feel empowered, like I was standing with my fellow human beings and speaking up for our basic civil rights. Suddenly feminism had become a dark cloud hanging over me. I saw an endless wave of new questions on the horizon, but no real answers of what I could actually do to change anything. It seemed to me that there was no place for compassion in this new wave of Internet feminism; no compassion, but lots and lots of judgment.
I was angry all the time, passing by billboards with scantily clad women infuriated me. Even as I was infuriated about the objectifying images, I was simultaneously infuriated that all of the models were white, that no transgender or plus sized people were represented, that fashion (and the world) was so behind the times.
Then I would get angry at myself for focusing on such a trivial part of feminism, what about the women in Saudi Arabia who couldn’t even leave their homes without being accompanied by a man? Didn’t their problems trump anything that I ever dealt with?
Shouldn’t they have the right to take off their clothes and be on a billboard if they wanted to? Every feminist sword that I bent to pick up seemed to be double-edged.
It was around this same time that I began to stumble on some other ideologies, those of a more optimistic and spiritual nature, with a focus on personal responsibility rather than external blame.
I began to slowly decrease my reading of feminist materials, and replace it with articles about forgiveness, compassion, and resilience. I started thinking about the people who most influenced me in my life, and I came to a startling (at the time) conclusion: I have never in my life been persuaded to or away from an idea by an angry voice.
In fact, the reason I began to seek out Buddhism and meditative writing in the first place was not because someone shouted at me to do it. It was because for a period of time I worked for a Buddhist family, and I found their overall positive attitude towards life to be absolutely infectious. I wanted to know more about what made them view and interact with the world in the way that they did. I wanted to emulate them.
I began to have rapid-fire realization after realization. In all my hours spent reading about feminist and social and racial issues, how much had I actually helped the situation improve? As difficult as it was to admit, as embarrassing as it was, I would have to estimate that I personally budged society exactly zero percent.
Perhaps other people have different experiences of this, and I’m certainly not telling anyone to sit down and be quiet, I believe all people have the right to be heard if they so desire. For me though, the experience became infuriating: I raged and I raged, but the machine continued to churn without ever missing a beat. I worried about letting go of my anger towards the world; I was concerned that a lack of anger would result in ignorance, apathy, and complacency.
Anger had become my safety net, without it I didn’t know who I would be. But even more than that, anger had become an excuse. Anger is easy; being compassionate towards someone who believes that you are less than (for any reason), is extremely difficult.
I began to assess issues in my life and in the world in a different way. I would ask myself when encountering an inequity: Is there anything that I personally can do to change this? And I gave myself permission to not worry about things that I couldn’t change.
That doesn’t mean that I can’t change anything, it just means that I altered the focus of my energy. Rather than point out inequalities and tear down ideas, I decided to become what I admired- to lead by example instead of exposition.
As a woman working in a STEM related job, I can change the minds of some people who may think that a woman can’t do what I do, and I’ve had comments to that effect. As a woman with disposable income I can decide not to give my money to companies that I personally disagree with, I don’t have to worry if other people are supporting them, because I’m doing all that I can- and my conscience can rest easy.
I can also choose to give certain amounts of money to charities that I believe do make a difference. As a person with free time, I can decide how I spend it- I can use my time to build a better community, to brighten someone’s day, or to relax so that I’m able to continue to be patient and compassionate to the world around me.
I practice open-mindedness with my co-workers (many of whom are devoutly religious and conservative), I ignore our differences and try to see through to our similarities. I think this kind of optimistic thinking is usually laughed at or seen as naiveté, but I’ve found it to be effective in several surprising ways.
By focusing on my own actions, and what I can do to make a difference (rather than blaming institutions or practices or politics), I am using my energy much more efficiently- and with a greater immediate effect.
For one thing, I no longer feel hopeless, I feel empowered again- because I know that every day I’m doing the best that I can (not that I’m perfect at this by any means, I still get angry from time to time, but I’m working on it).
People have started mentioning how positive I am all the time, and asking why I’m always in a good mood. Co-workers mention that they really look forward to dealing with me, which never happened before- I used to get comments that I seemed intimidating and aloof.
I’ve had several clients mention that they like to call me with their problems rather than other I.T. consultants, because they never feel judged for asking questions. Of course some people write me off as a bit of an eccentric weirdo (they aren’t totally wrong), or express envy that I seem happy, or predict the downfall of my looks, relationship, financial situation, etc.
But that doesn’t bother me either, because I realize it’s all coming from a place of pain, and a lack of personal responsibility. I hear a lot of “just you wait” type of talk, but all it makes me feel is empathetic towards the speaker, I tend to reply with something like, “Well maybe you’re right! We’ll just have to see!”
When you decide to live in a way that is counter to most of society, it is perhaps the most effective way of inspiring dialogue. People frequently ask me why I’m not married but have been with my significant other for five years, I explain that marriage to me has several legal benefits, but few emotional, and that I want to wait so as not to mess up his financial aid in school.
But they also see how happy we are together, the nice things we do for one another, the way we share household tasks equally, and it challenges their previously held ideas about “people like us” or male-female relationships in general.
When co-workers ask if I want kids, I explain why I don’t- but I don’t tear down their decision to be parents either. When I do eventually get married, I don’t plan on changing my name, and I’m sure certain people will ask about that as well, and I will give them my honest reasons, but in a way that doesn’t threaten their own choices.
Maybe they will think about it, maybe they will think it’s stupid, maybe they won’t even care. But by living as the example of who you feel like you should be, you begin informing the people around you almost accidentally, or at least, that has been my experience.
Watching as the realization of an alternative choice or lifestyle dawns on the face of someone who never previously considered it is thrilling. Naturally, there will always be those who look at you as if you’re a bit out of your mind, but you know what? I don’t have to worry about that.
Mona Harris currently lives in Queens, NY with one man and one cat. She graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and is currently working on an epic fantasy trilogy. She also enjoys writing corny joke poetry, cooking, general positivity, and practicing aerial arts. If you’re interested in basic A/B/A/B rhyme schemes, poetry about window treatments and shameless puns you may be interested to read more on her blog.