Debunking Professional Feminism

16 Jun

Thanks to the awesome women at Soapbox, I spent last week with a bunch of young feminists from across the US. We met with different feminist leaders, activists and organizations all over New York City. A major goal of a lot of the women in this program is to figure out exactly what to do with their women’s studies degrees, that is, how the hell to be a professional feminist. I’m not an expert on the subject by any means, but I want to dispel a few myths.

1. If you’re asking the question, you probably already live the answer. Being a professional feminist doesn’t mean you’re getting paid for it. Unfortunately, this is a reality for a lot of us. We have jobs that pay our bills and ALSO volunteer on the side as a clinic escort, on our abortion fund’s hotline, canvassing/phone banking for choice, you name it, we’re there and doing it for free. In a dream world, someone (who?) would fund this, but just because you’re working somewhere else to make ends meet doesn’t make you a traitor to the movement. We’d all love to get paid to do what we’re passionate about, but that’s not reality. Feminist orgs are hurting right now, and even in the center of the feminist world (NYC, in my opinion), they just can’t employ all of us with a strong head on our shoulders.

2. Living in a big city doesn’t mean feminist work is easier, living in a smaller town doesn’t necessarily make feminist work more difficult. I can see it in the eyes of all the women in this program – New York City! Feminist heaven! Feminist haven! In some ways, NYC is one of the best places to be a feminist – where else are you going to find so many amazing organizations in one place? Feminists flock to NYC, and with good reason, but that doesn’t make finding a feminist job here easier. In fact, despite the seemingly endless number of women-oriented organizations, there’s an equally endless amount of women who want the SAME jobs, who came to NYC for the same reasons as you, who also need to pay their rent and want feminist activism to be their bag. As much as I wish it was this way, moving to NYC doesn’t guarantee a life of feminist glamour.

But your small town! Your middle sized city! While perhaps not a bastion of feminist protests, maybe there is some work to be done there. Maybe you can start an abortion fund, a doula project, a service that helps women navigate the adoption process. I’m not discouraging anyone form moving, but maybe it’s time to look at your hometown with fresh (feminist!) eyes. What work can you do there to help women in your community access the reproductive health resources? What resources are difficult for poor women, women of color, trans folks, gender non-conforming folks, to access? How can you improve those resources, make it easier for everyone to get the services they need? Doing this work in your town or a smaller town may give you the ability to take a leadership role that wouldn’t have been possible in a city with all of those resources already.

3. Your college major doesn’t necessarily matter. I wish a degree in women’s studies automatically guaranteed that everyone viewed you as a feminist expert, but it doesn’t. There is so much work you can do outside whatever you studied at school; there’s no need to limit yourself based on what your degree is in, at least for undergrad.

I know I’m missing some other tips. What tips or advice do you have for feminists just starting out?

8 Responses to “Debunking Professional Feminism”

  1. Serena June 16, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    Great post. I know that it’s been a challenge for me to apply my Women’s Studies degree – not because there haven’t been jobs available, but because I get frustrated with “professional feminists” at times. Don’t get me wrong, professional feminists can be wonderful mentors, but that isn’t always the case. I have had several working environments where I have been surrounded by feminists, many of whom did not walk the walk when it came to their interpersonal interactions with people that they felt were “beneath them” in the organizational hierarchy. If feminism is to mean anything at all, it means that we are all equal, regardless of our rank or educational background.

    That being said, I think a valuable question would be “how can we bring our feminist selves to a job that isn’t obviously feminist?” For example, if I were a corrections officer, would there be a way to approach each work day from a feminist lens? Or if I were shelling coffee at the Buck, could I bring a feminist framework with me to the job? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about that. Because the reality is that many of us work in places that just pay the bills.

  2. catnmus June 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Thank you for this. I’ve been thinking/considering/planning to get involved with reproductive justice (possibly clinic escorting), but I haven’t yet gotten enough of a push to do it. Partially because I figured the “need” would be greater in a big city nearby (Oakland, CA), but I knew I would surely get burned out by the “commute”. Now I realize that my presence might actually be more necessary and appreciated in the more-conservative white-bread suburbs closer to where I live. For this, I thank you, and I promise to get involved!

  3. Lisa June 16, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

    I agree with the last one. I see a lot of feminist elitism within the college educated women in the movement. Which is one of my biggest annoyances with academic feminism, but that is a completely different topic and rant. I know a lot of feminist with degrees in sociology or political science. You don’t need a degree in women’s studies to be a feminist. Does having a degree in women’s studies make you a better activist? No. The person who helped me grow as a feminist has degrees in sociology and never took a women’s studies class.

  4. Danielle June 18, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    Great post and comments! As a professional feminist, I’d like to offer 2 more suggestions.

    1) Consider moving to DC. More feminist orgs than you can shake a stick at, and many are hiring🙂

    2) List your activism prominently on your resume when job hunting. Running a college feminist group, for instance, is like running a small nonprofit. You develop speaking, fundraising, publicity, programming, and other skills, so sell it.

    xoxoxo Danielle

  5. Jane June 19, 2010 at 7:39 am #

    I agree with everything that has been said but I think we should also remember that Women’s Studies prepares the graduand with skills which are not obvious. You will have a sophisticated understanding of more general human rights and diversity issues which are incredibly important to many employers, You will have a nuanced understanding of political issues which may affect your employer and in many jobs, especially public sector, this will be incredibly useful.

  6. Lee June 20, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

    Thanks so much for writing this post as it finally gave me the courage to write my own post about the elitism I experienced while attending my first “feminist” event last week, and reminded me that I don’t have to wait for an organization to validate the beliefs I hold or the actions I can take in living those beliefs.

    I don’t have a women’s studies degree…truth be told, I barely made it out of high school, thanks to all the psych ward hospitalizations I had while there, and I’ve been a college dropout twice. All of this is more because of the mental illness that my actual intelligence or merit, but you know how society works. This is something that automatically dooms me as being considered stupid and lazy by the rest of the society; the last place I expected to also experience that sort of treatment was with a group of women who claim that they’re working for equality and justice.

    I wouldn’t honestly know where to begin to establish anything that could help…part of the reason I was so attracted to feminist organizations is because I’d be isolated in my beliefs about feminism and sexuality otherwise. I’m the only one I know who thinks like me. But I also believe that if something is true for you and you’re willing to accomplish something, that you’ll find ways to do it, so I guess I’ll go on that.

    Thanks again for this post, Steph, saving it in my reader.🙂

  7. Steph June 20, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    @Lee — Just read your piece on your tumblr. very powerful, and also very tragic. I hope you know that you’re definitely not alone in that experience. I’ve had it, clearly some other commenters on this post have had it. i think it’s way past time that we be open about that. There’s no excuse for condescension within the feminist/womanist/reproductive justice movement/s. It just makes our community more and more fragmented. Who wants to work with people who treat you like a piece of shit? Especially when they’re the ones who’re leaders of the movement you thought you loved. Yeah, it’s complicated.

    @Danielle — Unfortunately, not everyone can up and move to dc. Not all of us want to either! There have to be other ways (besides living in NYC or DC) to create feminist change, to have feminist communities, that are healthy & self-sustaining.

    @Serena — Wonderful questions and thoughts, as always.

  8. Helen August 17, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    My advice would be:

    1) don’t feel you have to conform to a certain way of dressing in order to be a feminist.

    2) Read, read, read.

    3) Be INCLUSIVE of people who are trans, disabled, have mental health issues, are people of colour.

    4) Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your diet defines your feminism.

    5) Read the blog Womanist Musings.

    PETA’s scumbag tactics of dressing up as the KKK and mocking fat women / body hair and portraying domestic violence as funny are an excellent example of how NOT to do intersectionality.

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