This Is What a Feminist Looks Like

This post is a response to Feminist Coming Out Day. Click to learn more.

Hi. My name is Lindsey Donner, and I’m a feminist.

This makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ve tried for years to carve out space for this, but I’ve learned, through trial by fire, that the word “feminist” is as alienating and professionally crippling as certain political affiliations, and maybe worse, since it is hard to separate “it” from me as a person. She’ll be difficult, people think; she won’t like my jokes. She’ll side with other women by default. And: she will not be fun!

I started using the word “feminist” as an identifier about a dozen years ago, when I was just starting high school. That’s when I read Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for the first time.

Something clicked in my brain: there was a logic to the patterns of my life, to the roadblocks I kept getting derailed by, and that pattern was inextricably tied to my gender.

I wanted to be a rock star and a CEO and a famous writer. I wanted to change the world. But it seemed that everyone else just wanted me to shut up and be a girl.

  • At 12, I was harassed in school hallways, passed lewd notes, and asked to perform sex acts on other teen boys.
  • At 15, I had spitballs and food thrown down my cleavage and was asked if I was lactating during a high school class.
  • By age 16, I had boyfriends ask me to not wear certain outfits because it made other guys “think things.”
  • All my life, I had teachers and adults ask me to smile more because I was “too serious,” an accusation I never heard delivered to my equally intelligent male classmates.
  • At 16, I had an employer tell me I “should really wear skirts more often.”

With a few exceptions, absolutely no one had much to say about me, the straight-A student and voracious reader, the person who was so bored to tears in English class I was permitted to sit in the back of the room and work on a novella (literally) while the rest of the class did grammar exercises. (I’m still not sure if the teacher wanted to encourage me or just get me out of the way.)

I also had disordered eating habits and ended up, as a teen, in a long-term relationship characterized by isolation and control, also known as “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence.” I know some people will judge me for this, but what happened to me is actually a commonplace experience, and one that’s connected me with a lot of other women. In fact it’s so common one in four women [4] in this country will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives.

Feminism, to me, is not a personal matter. It’s a humanist matter of great political urgency. But I find that what resonates with people most is ordinary human experience. And while I know I’m taking a risk in sharing this, I hope to explain why feminism is such an urgent, driving force in my own quite blessed life.

Plus, as a pathological writer, imposing a narrative shape on life is something I can’t resist. It’s a way to make beautiful, temporary sense of the disorder.

“Get over it”

When I sought help at age 16 from a Rape Crisis Center to get out of my IPV situation, the reactions of my support network ranged from disgust to ended friendships to support for my “poor” partner to the admonition, “Get over it already.”

I realized, in the blur of those days and weeks and years, why women so often stay silent. It was a brutal reminder.

The thing is, statistically, nothing about my experience is unusual or remarkable. One out of six American women experience rape or a rape attempt during their lifetimes[1], and 73% of victims are attacked by someone they know[2], so my personal situation hardly merits a footnote; the fact that my favorite vegetable is spinach is arguably more unusual. My disordered eating is a snore too. There are 7 million American women with eating disorders [3] (and 1 million men) nationwide.

I wonder how many of them get the unconditional support they need?

Remember, we’re talking right now about the U.S. right now, which, lest we get myopic, is still the freest democracy in the world and the most advanced. In most places on this freewheeling planet, women are still chattel at best, and their issues are of an immediate, physical, practical nature. Philosophizing in a college classroom’s got nothing to do with the problems facing most women today.

As Americans, we have the right and the hope to complain about  symptoms of misogyny like Photoshopped pictures, the porn-industrial complex and boob jobs. (A right and hope I cling to dearly.*) We think it matters. We have the time to think that. (Thanks to Robin in the comments, please see “Feminism’s Global Challenge” for a much better explanation than mine.)

So what’s so darn confounding is that this highly developed corner of the world is still reeling as it tries to make a space for women who are no longer considered the “property” of their households. Corporate hacks pay lip service to the “issues” as our daughters get left behind, and powerful women like Penelope Trunk put science on blog parade as social proof of the “problems” of feminism. We haven’t figured it out yet. That’s no surprise, though. We’re looking in all the wrong places.

Because the problem is and has always been a systemic one.

While I agree that throwing money at the problem of having too few women in science or in executive offices doesn’t always work (see “The Trouble with Bright Girls“), misogyny is itself a systemic issue. Hiring more women doesn’t solve anything. We first have to admit there’s something wrong, at the cultural level, before programs and planned activities and a “Mommypreneurs” department on the women’s side of Entrepreneur make any sort of broad societal impact. The reason they’re not working is because they don’t solve anything; they just teach us a few workarounds. In a way, they are symptoms too.

Here’s what I do know: I have gone into offices in my professional life and heard countless jokes about drunk girls and rape and “getting laid.” I’ve been paid less than a male colleague working the same job who told me, in lurid detail, that he’d be happy to “f– the lesbian out of [me],” though I’m not a lesbian, nor is being gay a “condition” that requires remedy.

I’ve been called a “FemiNazi” by a former coworker after I suggested he was wrong about his roommate’s desire to get an outdoor motion light fixed in their apartment complex. He thought it was ridiculous that she wanted an outside light for her own safety; since she was pushing 40 and not conventionally attractive, as he put it, “It’s not like anyone would want to rape her.” (That this line exactly echoes a satirical moment in “Arrested Development” does not escape my mind; the use of the word “Nazi” in this sadly common lob doesn’t escape me either.)

And I made a male colleague (years ago) quite upset when I didn’t want him to wrap duct tape around my mouth and face as part of a “sexy” gimmick for a photo shoot.

… Really? And this is just the humdrum, day-to-day stuff. This is the nice stuff. I’m not going to go into the gory details. Enough’s enough.

It’s also important to point out that in all of the jobs I mentioned, I was a valued member of a team (typically mostly-male teams).  On paper, I wasn’t “junior;” the ribbings weren’t related to my status or office class. No, this wasn’t some sort of hazing. This was just work.

Will you still r-e-s-p-e-c-t me?

I don’t want to use these experiences to downplay the amazing jobs I’ve had or the amazing life I’ve been lucky to live (or the men I’ve been privileged to love and know, like my radically-cool feminist husband, my supportive dad, or some of my most influential career and education mentors). It’s been a bizarre ride, but I feel I’m happier now than I ever was before. Everything up to age 25 or 26, as I look back, was just preparation for personhood.

Because I love my work, and I believe in others, I always try very hard to see the best side of a colleague or acquaintance and, if the relationship is friendly, to call them out on the more uncomfortable moments with a simple (i.e., apolitical and constructive) explanation.

Sometimes, I succeed with flying colors. After all, many people are just making crude jokes out of unexamined habit.

Yet I still worry deeply about YOUR judgment as you read this piece. Will you think I’m worth less? Does this affect your opinion of me?

The question for me today is, what can we do, us ordinary, non-activist worker bees? What can we do in our lives and homes to make our own incredibly free country freer and more welcoming to women–and to the gay men and women, transgendered men and women, and other-gendered people subject to extra scrutiny based on matters of the body?

Imagine this. Imagine if, every day, we were each more aware of our actions. The way our words denigrate others; the way we touch or talk to our female coworkers or junior colleagues versus the people we “respect.” Imagine if we didn’t judge a woman for her hair, body, or personal choices. Imagine if we tried to put ourselves in her shoes.

Imagine if we paid more attention to the different ways we give relationship advice to our friends and relatives. The way we listen, or don’t, when a colleague voices a concern about the office environment in which he or she works.

This isn’t about political correctness or lip service; no form of feminism or humanism that I’m aware of is, actually. It’s about doing right by the people you respect and recognizing that the golden rule is still the best rule. It’s about finding ways to support people who are at a presumed disadvantage, vs. expecting them to assimilate to the ruling culture. It’s about common sense and equity and choice.

Other people are out there pounding the pavement, doing the hard work to improve the conditions of the world’s women; but it’s up to the massive, ordinary, everyday tangle of “us” to implement change by living it. Are you up for that?

# # #

Shout-outs: Nikita T. Mitchell, for convincing me to write this post (amazing, inspiring woman); and the men and women behind Feminist Coming Out Day 2011, who sent me an awesome tee-shirt and button in exchange for my donation that I’m proud to wear. (From their About page: “This project arose out of a frustration with the limited portrayal of the movement as straight, White, and cisgendered. We know firsthand that our allies are a diverse bunch.”)

* Writes John Berger in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos (p. 18): “They know that there has never been a winter in Anatolia without snow, a summer without animals dying from drought, a workers’ movement without repression. Utopias exist only in carpets. But they know too that what they have been subjected to in their lives is intolerable. And the naming of the intolerable is itself the hope.”

23 Comments

  • I love this post because I completely agree with you. One of the saddest things is the pressure not to declare oneself as a feminist because of fear of the name-calling or assumptions that others make of us like your co-worker calling you a ‘feminazi’. Wow, that makes me angry so I can only imagine how you feel.
    I have to explain over and over that I love men and have great men in my life but that is completely compatible with being an active and engaged feminist. I should never and never want to have to justify that. Unfortunately, the societal pressure and perceptions of ‘feminists’ mean that sometimes I feel I have to.
    There’s still a lot of work to be done.

    • Amen CB. Thanks for sharing this and for your link; it means a lot to me. We need to support each other, too!

  • [...] sentiments are the same in this post from Lindsay Donner about the stigma that has been associated with the word ‘feminism’ to discredit women and paint [...]

  • [...] This Is What a Feminist Looks Like by Lindsey Donner [...]

  • Lindsey,

    Thank you for your honest, heartfelt and intelligent post. It was hard for me to read about your experiences but the reality is, it happens so frequently. You are so brave and so much of what you write here is so poignant. I love your words and I quote them here:

    Imagine this. Imagine if, every day, we were each more aware of our actions. The way our words denigrate others; the way we touch or talk to our female coworkers or junior colleagues versus the people we “respect.” Imagine if we didn’t judge a woman for her hair, body, or personal choices. Imagine if we tried to put ourselves in her shoes.

    In my experience, women can be brutal towards one another and I don’t really understand why. Is it jealousy, competition, envy? For whatever reason we tear one another down instead of giving each other love and support. I try to live a positive life and support everyone I know because I feel that what I do impacts others and to be positive and supportive makes the world a better place. Trying to walk in anothers shoes is difficult at best yet I feel it is truly enlightening and allows us to embrace others instead of malign and alienate them.

    I hope your post will help to change attitudes and behaviors Lindsey. Thank you so much.

  • Did I tell you how wonderful I think you are?

  • I feel portrayed and inspired your article.
    I remember reading “The Laugh of Medusa” by Cixous and Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in high school finding myself being pursued by my course adviser (who surprisingly was a woman) to quit my “erroneous thinking” in order to achieve something in life; and when asked what was my career goal? and answering i wanted to be a Physician and that my contemplation of having a Family/Husband plans where in a very far background, just lead me to be portrayed as a “under achiever” (to her of course). Living in a Country (Mexico) where misogyny is pretty much the standard has not been easy, but i have always stayed true to myself even if the path becomes harder just by having XX chromosomes instead of XY.
    Keep on the good work Lindsey!

  • Lindsey, I know you can’t see me right now but I want you to know I’m giving you and this post a standing ovation!

    There’s been so much talk about all the work that my generation put into ‘Women’s Liberation’ and the feeling that young women of today don’t appreciate it. A lot of it is true. I think the pendulum swung too far in the ’70′s and by the late ’80′s women just ran out of fight.

    You give me renewed hope!!

    In so many ways, especially on the international scale, we’re much worse off than we were before the fight began. So keep beating the drum! I’m with you all the way.
    Thanks for this amazing post!

  • @Denise – Thank you, Denise. I agree with you. Supporting one another is key, yet so few of us do it as a matter of course.

    @Erica – I can only imagine! Knowing Mexico as I do, I love it, but it is a country fraught with cultural ideas that can hurt and stymie both women AND men. Most countries are, some are just a little more open about it. :D Choosing to stay on your path anyway is very, very hard when so much around you tells you you’re wrong. I admire you personally and know that you’ll succeed wildly no matter what!

    @Barbara – I love your explanation, that women ran out of fight. That is probably true, but I think today, in many many corners, the movement has taken on a different and perhaps more global shape. Maybe we’re not worse off, but we’re certainly more aware of the condition of women in other nations alongside our own. Conservatism always follows liberalism at the pop culture level, and there’s been something like a backlash, but I personally know of many people doing amazing work. If I had not grown up reading “Bitch” magazine, if I had not had access to amazing gender and queer theory coursework in college, if I had not read the poems of Tony Hoagland and Sharon Olds and their confessional predecessors (Anne Sexton was a big influence), I might not feel the same way or as strongly.

    I guess what I’m saying is, we’re out there, and we’ll keep at it!

  • Lindsey, you’ve been an inspiration to me as a feminist since we were kids, when I watched you live through the experiences you described in this post. I’m so glad you’re using your incredible talent for writing to share this message today. You’re awesome.

    • That means a lot to me to hear that, Robin. More than you know. By the way, I just sidled over to your blog post and–hilarious yet, of course, wickedly smart. I love the part about your mom telling you you were being classist. I prefer to imagine that’s exactly the word she used!

  • You’re absolutely right that the real change has to come from an upswell of the average, ordinary people. Over the last 30 years or so, I’ve seen amazing changes in the average hearts and souls that would have been unheard of in earlier times, not just in attitudes towards women, but in all people that may lie outside of some “norm” that someone decided was a norm. Change has taken root in the average man and woman, but it has been rough at times, and there’s still a ways to go, but there is incredible hope that it will happen at a faster pace now. Just like any movement, once it gathers enough members, it suddenly rushes forward. The recent Egyptian movement comes to mind, but that’s only one of many. It’s people like you, who know how to communicate in a clear, understandable voice, using the power of the web, that will help change happen faster and faster than ever before.

    Beautifully written – a wonderful read. Thank you.

    • Thank you for this comment, Donna. History supports the idea that the masses have the ability to not just incite but make space for real change. I appreciate your kind words!

  • Lindsey, I’m appalled at the workplace situations you describe–and the complete ignorance and boorishness of some of your co-workers.

    But your strength and resilience shine through. And the good news is you’ve managed to avoid internalizing their deprecations. You refuse to be limited by degrading cultural assumptions–conscious or unconscious–of others. You inspire me.

    • Thanks, Lorraine. Most of my work experience has been at very small, mostly-male companies, and I think the small, non-corporate environment makes people feel more free. This is a plus in many ways from a collaborative perspective, and a minus when certain personal shortcomings are permitted to surface uncorrected. “Someday, when I write my book…” as I always say.

  • I would agree that in a small work environment people do feel freer and sometimes this is not a good thing.

  • I don’t know how I got here, but I’m NOT LEAVING. Thank you for sharing your story. I value it beyond words.

    • Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to say so, Shanna!

  • [...] you to Lindsay Donner for the inspiration and courage to post my own feminist [...]

  • [...] and editor Lindsey Donner wrote a great post called "This is What a Feminist Looks Like: My Story of Feminism and Call to Action." Lindsey says she knows using "the word ‘feminist’" can be [...]

  • [...] you to Lindsay Donner for the inspiration and courage to post my own feminist rant. Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook share via [...]

  • [...] Lindsey Donner (@lindsey_donner) writes: Hi. My name is Lindsey Donner, and I’m a feminist. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ve tried for years to carve out space for this, but I’ve learned, through trial by fire, that the word “feminist” is as alienating and professionally crippling as certain political affiliations, and maybe worse, since it is hard to separate “it” from me as a person. She’ll be difficult, people think; she won’t like my jokes. She’ll side with other women by default. And: she will not be fun!…I wanted to be a rock star and a CEO and a famous writer. I wanted to change the world. But it seemed that everyone else just wanted me to shut up and be a girl. Read her post here. [...]

  • [...] some may have missed the stats about equal pay for equal work. Then a few months ago I read a post by Lindsey Donner that renewed my faith in the movement.  A very bright and talented young woman who spoke to [...]

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