One of the real dangers of being an advocate or activist for any cause is that you put yourself up as a kind of best example for public scrutiny. At least in my naïve world, being an activist or advocate requires trying to live a personal life that adds credibility to your cause. I do not believe that a woman who beats her partner is in a position to raise the banner for equality and women’s rights.
This effort to lead a personal life that adds credibility to the cause can sometimes seem as if a person has everything figured out. This is added as well to the expectations that people have of anyone in the public domain. Quite apart from the struggles an imperfect person has in living a life that complements advocacy and activism are the pre-determined labels and assumptions given to a person.
Anybody who is fighting for equality, safety and fair treatment for women is automatically labelled as feminist. Before I deal with my own complications with the term, let me first discuss some concerning perceptions about the term itself. I find that many women in Barbados who reach a certain professional level use any appropriate forum they can to disassociate themselves from feminism.
I think this has to do with the local usage of the word that connotes feminists as being trouble makers – loud and forgetful of their place. These women take up the upliftment of men as a necessary chore and they decry feminism or the need for any such thing at every turn. This is a part of the glass ceiling that still exists. It is a kind of toll these women consciously or unconsciously pay for their maintenance of their ‘little piece of the pie’. For their avowed distance from feminism, they are tolerated in ‘manly’ spaces.
My discomfort with the term ‘feminism’ is not in any way related to this kind of self-serving. I have known that I would not adopt the label ‘feminist’ from the time I was exposed to the concept in gender studies training. The first thing the term conjures for me is whiteness. It also has a decided air of superiority and privilege.
I have always wanted to engage women’s work from the vantage point of the grass root. When I was engaging gender theory, I was also already a mother of boys and in a comfortable heterosexual relationship and I wanted a theoretical space that allowed me to hold on to those important tenets in my existence. It was not even that I was looking for a theoretical frame.
I was looking for groundings for a praxis in woman’s work. Here is where I felt the biggest discontent with the word ‘feminism’. Feminism, in my experience of it, has always been a marker of whiteness. Even when it was narrowly able to fend off whiteness, it was still associated with the middle or upper classes and privilege. I did not see a clear intersection for the participation of the very women that feminism was said to serve. I, however, saw many proxies making handsome money in academic and international development space.
My call to advocacy and activism has always been more personal. I simply wanted to be a part of the wall of support that woman who needed it could draw on. I wanted whatever I was to be an active word. Even before I knew what I was, I was womanist. There are three differences between womanism and feminism that I invested in.
Firstly ‘womanism’ is a black coinage. We are perceived to be just as loud and out of place as feminists – thankfully! Secondly, womanism supports the building of relationships between women as a part of the fight for equality and sensibility. Based on the plantation past of these Caribbean islands and how women have been socialized to see each other as enemies for various reasons, this, to my mind, is a critical element in redefining womanhood.
Perhaps above all, I felt like being womanist allowed me to retain my value of heterosexuality, the Black male as a partner and the Black family as a unit to be bolstered and premiumed. Since I was the one looking for an action word to partly describe what I was attempting to do in my everyday life, womanism could provide a base for my praxis in a way that feminism could not.
For the first time, I will seek to turn the outline of these thoughts into an academic argument for a conference at the end of November. Hopefully, I can get more women to reflect on their own relationships with feminism or womanism and what they need to do or what they are not doing currently in the female space. Like the 44th president of the United States, I am convinced that we are the change we are looking for. Naming and philosophy are central and not peripheral.
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)