Feminism is exhausting. Sometimes, I wish I could turn it off, choose when and where to be a feminist. I’d love to be able to watch trash T.V. in peace! Unfortunately, this is not how a worldview works. We carry it with us into every decision we make, every thought we have, everything we do. And it’s exhausting.

At times, it can also be paralyzing. Feminism has left me feeling unable to make the “right” decision, scared to take action for fear of not getting it “right”. The thing is, there is no “right”. There will always be gaps and blindspots because there is always power, privilege, and oppression at play. But to do nothing, paralyzed with fear of making things worse, is ultimately failing at feminism and results in maintaining the status quo.

I’m curious at ways in which feminists do feminism. At strategies of change employed. Feminism is as diverse as any other political movement; within feminism there are immense and ongoing tensions, debates, critiques. Engaging these tensions is key to shared understanding and coalition building, and ultimately creating positive social change. It’s the way in which these tensions are engaged that determine the effect: do we create opportunities for dialogue or do we reinforce patterns of domination?

In my experience, often times these tensions are engaged with fists raised, guns blazing. In fact, at times it feels this is the nature of feminism: to deconstruct, analyze to death, intellectually annihilate. As a feminist, I often feel so empassioned about an injustice that I heed feminism’s charge and launch into an all-out preach-down. “Preach-down” because the speak is condescending, one person talking down to the other. “How can you do that? Don’t you know…?”

On the campus where I work, the University of Cincinnati, there was a feminist art exhibition several days ago entitled, “Re-envisioning the Female Body.” In response to the activist art, there was a counter-demonstration organized by “Feminists at UC Against Re-envisioning the Female Body.” The point of the counter-demonstration was to essentially engage the tensions of feminist activism, to raise concerns about the exhibit and subsequently, create dialogue. As a feminist that works in a campus-based women’s center, I have to say, all of this feminist organizing has been dreamy. Feminism complicated?!!? Feminism centered on campus (literally and symbolically)?!!? Amazing.

Interestingly, what promised to be a space for dialogue quickly devolved into a silencing mechanism. The “preach-down” effect kicked in and the result was a distraction from the very real tensions–tensions worth paying attention to–that catalyzed the counter-protest to begin with. There was a failed opportunity for coalition building.

We forget the power of listening to each other. To enter into dialogue, engage tensions, and build coalitions, we must beginning not by preaching, but by listening.

I know how hard this can be. As a professional advocate, I’ve been challenged to advocate for systemic change with colleagues who might share very different–sometime opposing–perspectives. If I approached every issue with my fists raised, I am convinced I would get little accomplished. I’ve learned this the hard way: what results is defensiveness and a digging-in-of-the-heels . To prevent my deployment of a “preach-down”, I often have to bite my tongue. But I do try my best to understand the other’s perspective, not make assumptions, and clearly communicate my concerns.

About a year ago, I was in a room with several administrators trying to coordinate care for a student who had been sexually assaulted by another student. One administrator questioned, “I’m not sure that I buy that just being in the same room with him would be upsetting.” I could feel my face turning red, my heartbeat racing. I was furious! We were talking about the impact of a rapist having ongoing access to the survivor–of course that would be “upsetting”, to say the least! As much I was inclined to do a “preach-down”, I knew that to best advocate for the survivor, I had to find a way to engage in dialogue with this person. My goal was to come to a shared understanding so to best support the survivor. Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what I said but I attempted something along the lines of “I’m not sure what you mean…” More importantly, I know what I didn’t say, because I spent a lot of energy on controlling myself. And a lot of energy on listening.

Of course, we can’t end there. We have to act. I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes hide behind “listening” as an excuse to not act or speak out. I try to convince myself of this particularly when I am scared to act, paralyzed by my own fear of screwing up. And my body tells me—just as it did in that room with my fellow administrator—when I must act. And when I do, I try my best to be as effective as possible by building coalitions (whether with another person, group, organization). I find that listening allows me to best articulate my points and ultimately, accomplish the change I am working toward.

I challenge the belief that activism is solely defined by action; whoever yells the loudest and does the most is The Activist. I believe that this definition neglects the power of coalition building which requires a different kind of engaging tensions–the kind that is dependent on authentic dialogue. It seems to be that feminist activists should know this and practice it. With a shared value of voice and inclusiveness, we should know to begin by listening to each other.

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