I am not a feminist.
I am not a feminist because I don’t know what it means to be feminist. Even after a cursory study of feminism in one seminar during college, I still don’t fully understand what it means. Is there any one definition?
Instead of trying to define feminism, I want to share my own experiences that offered me rudimentary insight into the debate over feminism. When I was in high school, I participated extensively in the bizarre realm of speech and debate. As a female in predominantly-male dominated events (think of the proportion of female to males in the ranks of world leaders — an extreme yet apt analogy), I faced the universal female dilemma: the ditzy female v. the masculine woman.
Two experiences stand out to me in particular. First, a judge once remarked that I seemed “ditzy” during my discussion of some international event. Apparently, despite the statistics and reasoning I offered in my 7-minute extemporaneous speech, I exemplified an air of triviality and general lack of knowledge. I was baffled. I was more astonished than offended, as that very judge decided to omit any explanation or support for the verdict of ditzy. Yet, just a few months later after that incident, my coach pulled me aside one day to tell me that I needed to present myself in a more “feminine” image. Red lipstick, hair down, and no more pantsuits, she said. According to her, appearing in this manner would positively distinguish myself from the rest of my competition. I was baffled again. If I wanted to combat the ditzy image, presumably I needed to demonstrate power traditionally associated with masculinity — for example, the pantsuit of which Hillary Clinton was the subject of much commentary during her presidential run in 2008. I was receiving conflicting messages about my appearance and mannerisms in a sphere of males.
The second experience was similarly jarring. As a debater, I often had to contend with heated and belligerent verbal attacks that often had no sound reasoning. Once, a judge commented on a ballot: “You are very angry and hostile, and you need to stop yelling” (the actual wording was far more caustic). Maybe I was hostile at the time. Maybe I had raised my voice. But in the past, when I faced male opponents who yelled likewise and shouted out antagonizing attacks, cutting me off at every first word I tried to utter, I had never seen a judge’s ballot remarking on their anger. What a strange world. I’m not saying every male opponent behaved this way. And I’m certainly not saying the best debaters argued this way. In fact, the top male competitors were typically calm, reasonable, and incredibly skilled orators. But it confounded me that such a double standard, at least as it appeared to me, existed. If I was not angry and bellicose, I would be occasionally observed as “too passive, too compromising” to some judges. Where was the line between aggression and courtesy? What exactly, I wondered, did it take for a female to be broadly accepted as a powerful but conciliatory equal in a male-dominated sphere?
I have no answers to these questions. The only takeaway is that the concept of “girl power” is a paradox, and perhaps even a euphemism to disguise the messy and complicated reality of feminism. I still don’t know what a feminist is, though. What do you think?