My complicated relationship with feminism began early on. I’ve never felt “feminist” was quite the word for me, but many have used it to describe me. My experience growing up in a faith-based home and community is different than many women I’ve met. I was never given the impression that being female was a deficit.>
Growing up, my dad’s idea of “fair” has often meant being equal — as in if my brother could do it, so could I. It meant that if he learned a new chore at 11 (like the laundry) it meant I started doing mine, too — even if I was three years younger. But it also meant when he got all his independence at 18, so did I, at 15.
Now this isn’t a conversation about equity/equality, so I’m not going into that (because treating us that way clearly wasn’t equitable), but the effects of this meant I didn’t think I was “less than.” I was never “limited” because I was female. I internalized this treatment as knowledge that I was able to do anything my brother could, that I was equally whole, smart and capable.
My faith community was a similar environment. I grew up right outside Miami, Florida, in a small, but incredibly diverse church. We were “multiethnic” long before it was a buzz word and there were metrics about diversity. Growing up in a immigrant community meant that many of my friends and friends’ parents worked multiple jobs. Because as we know, Immigrants — (We Get the Job Done). This meant there was less consistent adult leadership then some other churches had.
During middle and high school, our youth group lead the programming for the elementary-aged students at church. I was leading the teaching sessions in the summer and making meals for the kids. I ran the soundbooth and helped in the nursery. Leadership didn’t just look like one role, one color or one gender. We got the job done with an “all hands on deck” approach, everyone contributed what they could. I wasn’t told I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because I was a girl.
#WonderWoman and My Struggle with Feminism
After a cross-country move, I went to college in Minnesota at a mid-sized state school—one that’s historically known as an educators college, and for LGBT activism and rioting in the ‘70s. At 17, I enrolled in a Gender and Communication course and was dropped into a world of feminism and activism. We watched things movies like Iron Jawed Angels, and I was introduced to Julia T. Wood, Lois Gould and learned about the several waves of feminism.
These courses were enlightening, but the subject matter never seemed to click. My friends seemed much more passionate about women’s rights than I was. I read and heard narratives about those fighting for equal pay, women who wanted to be promoted and succeed in business—to be viewed the same way men were viewed. I understood gender equity was a thing, but I couldn’t find myself in it.
My value should not be measured against the way I can navigate and fit into patterns of patriarchy. My value is in who I am, not how easily I can conform to a traditionally male path.
Feminism traditionally has held up the image of a woman against that of a man. It asks to be heralded in value, but evaluates egalitarianism by function. It’s a small, but important distinction to say you’re evaluating who I am rather than what I can do.
This is where I see lot of feminism (and activism) confuse equity with equality. My value should not be measured against the way I can navigate and fit into patterns of patriarchy. My value is in who I am, not how easily I can conform to a traditionally male path. I want to be seen as whole and human and equally valued in my feminine state. Unfortunately, this ideology of form and function is still upheld.
Let me give a modern example. The new Wonder Woman movie was released to a lot of applause and praise for being breakthrough cinema for women. However, I found the movie unsatisfying. I just didn’t leave the theater with the same gusto and sense of empowerment that many of my friends expressed.
The way Wonder Woman/Diana (actress Gal Gadot) was depicted came across as a cheapened version of feminism. First, the time period in which the movie was set (during WW I) made it easy for the character to have moments of “breakthrough,” as she was often the only woman in a room or area. Secondly, with a few exceptions, Diana was positioned in a “male” role and as a “male” figure (war hero), but fueled by love/empathy. (Also, she didn’t “need” to have a love interest).
It’s too easy to mold a female lead into a traditional male archtype and call it feminism. Not only does this enable the false message that “equity” is likeness, but it cheapens the imagination. It limits the ability to celebrate and empower how women are made distinct and unique from men.
It gets back to those distinctions of who and what. Can we imagine a woman who is powerful, heroic and brave without needing to follow a traditional male narrative? Can we view heroism and courage in ways that aren’t rooted in the paternalistic overtones of a war hero?
Femininity isn’t a negative thing to overcome. It should not have to be shaped into the likeness of a male to be accepted and recognized. Femininity isn’t a hindrance, something that limits my strength, power or intellect. Rather, femininity sets them apart, showing a different type of strength, power and intellect. How do we imagine an empowered femininity that isn’t set against the male image? Can we free femininity from the confines of patriarchy?
Imagining a Truer Definition of Feminism
Reimagining femininity brings me to my second challenge with feminism—who it empowers. What I now recognize is that the narratives and depictions of feminism I was given were still predominantly White. White women, advocating to be seen as equal to their male counterparts, were by far the traditional interpretation of feminism. With that came a push against patriarchy that was too narrow for me to fit into. It left me, as a woman of color, out of the vision of what it meant for women to have equity. Like Wonder Woman, it depicted one role, one narrative and one story—the war hero who saves the day. It didn’t stop to ask who was missing.
It wasn’t until much later — in graduate school—that I was introduced to Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw & bell hooks, who connected the dissonance I felt in not seeing my brownness reflected in feminist literature. And now, a few years past my masters and into diversity work, I still struggle with the word “feminist.”
I have a hard time fitting faith into the traditional forms of feminism and activism I see. Even in modern movements of activism, my bicultural identity doesn’t fit neatly into the narratives of specific ethnic groups. I long for a fuller inclusion of feminism that does not continue to pit our struggles against one another, but creates space to learn from each other.
The empowerment that my femininity gives me should not be at the cost of someone else’s dignity and value—including my brother. Empowerment does not mean suppressing another for our own gain, otherwise we are just reorganizing and perpetuating oppression.
Yes, there will be a dismantling of power—patriarchy is real. But true empowerment becomes the mutual recognition of value. It means that we deconstruct power without deconstructing people. It means we speak truth about privilege, opportunity and access to dismantle corruption and injustice. I imagine a feminism that leads to solidarity — uniting our struggles to amplify justice. True solidarity and activism works to identify and heal our needs—recognizing they are all interconnected. It also works to dismantle oppression.
This requires an ongoing shifting of systems, speaking out and reordering of power. It requires humility, engagement and resilience. I wish that simply loving or having empathy automatically shifted the power balances at play, but this is not true. Dismantling and rebuilding must be centered on solidarity, mutuality and recognition that equity is not cheap. It means acknowledging that empowerment requires sacrifice and forgiveness.
A reimagined feminism asks: Do I see my brothers and sisters of color along with me? My friends in the LGBTQ community? Am I hearing new voices that I haven’t recognized before? Solidarity creates space to speak up. It makes a place at the table for someone who wasn’t there before. Elevating the other may feel like the lessening of one, but it’s really about stabilizing the balance of power. A truer definition of feminism recognizes that if our activism isn’t intersectional, our solidarity won’t be either.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published at Medium.
Ruthie Johnson has a Master’s in Communication Studies with a focus on critical race theory & identity. Her work is regularly published at Missio Alliance (missioalliance.org) and occasionally on her blog, hybridtales.wordpress.com. In her spare time, Ruthie likes to write, read, cook ,and design pretty things. Say hello to her on Twitter: @aquietstrength.