As recently as a few years ago, it was generally considered unfashionable for women to identify as feminists. It was a label that carried with it so many negative associations: being angry, hating men, and broadly being a big ol’ killjoy. Remember all the celebs who straight-up refused to identify as feminists on red carpet after red carpet? Now, in the era of Donald Trump and pussy hats, most women and a lot of men are on board with not only feminist values and actions, but wearing the label too. Well, sometimes. Now that we’re talking about feminism more and more, we need to talk about what things are and are not feminist too. Today’s reminder: It is, despite what some people will tell you, totally feminist to criticize another woman when she’s correctly deserving of criticism.
Supporting other women is important, but “support” does not equal babying someone or letting them off the hook when they mess up or protecting them from earned criticism in the name of “feminist solidarity.” That happens way too often.
The truth is, there is no “right” way to be a feminist. You can’t just paint women with a broad brush, and you can’t assume that feminism is always going to “look” any one certain way. And it’s true that it’s decidedly unfeminist to criticize a woman for choices she’s making that are generally just about her living a happy, authentic life, especially when those choices don’t negatively impact anyone else. Coming for a woman for living her best life is just mean. But you can criticize her when she’s, for instance, perpetuating stereotypes and ideas that hurt other women, whether she knows it or not.
One of the most basic things we should all be able to agree on is that women should support and empower each other, so when a woman isn’t doing those things, or is so caught up in privilege that her actions only convey support for some women, you can totally call her out. If anything, you’re doing everyone a favor.
And honestly, we have to hold other women accountable for their dangerous positions, especially when it comes to women in power. Because while feminism might feel full of contradictions (yes, you can wear makeup or choose to not have sex or shave your legs), some things are inarguable. Maybe the biggest: If you actively support people and institutions that undermine the rights of women, you don’t get to call yourself a feminist. Messing around with all women’s rights and getting in the way of gender equality is not bad feminism, it’s a woman holding up patriarchy. And if you feel inclined (not obligated; that’s not the point here) to say something about it, you need to feel very free to set that woman straight, just like you might do with a man. Not doing so just because she’s a woman and you don’t want to hurt her feelings is infantilizing you both.
This is especially true with white women in 2018, after so many of us voted for Trump in the last election, choosing to act in favor of whiteness to the disadvantage of all women, especially women of color and immigrants. We have to start calling out our friends and faves over things like this, even if it gets super real.
We can’t forget that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in the 2016 election. In Alabama, white women came out in droves to vote for an alleged sexual predator and racist in the November 2017 election. In the 2018 midterm elections, it’s rumored that Michelle Bachmann, who ran conversion therapy clinics for gay people with her husband, is vying for Al Franken’s Senate seat in Minnesota. There are Democratic women in Congress who think the best strategy for 2020 is to walk back our constitutional right to get an abortion to get some of those more conservative, mostly white women onboard.
As things heat up during this new election season, you’ll probably hear some of these women (and a lot of men) talk about “feminist rage” for shutting down these kinds of anti-woman women and their media mouthpieces. These are the people who assume that women voted for Hillary Clinton because she has a vagina and not because they simply found her to be a stronger candidate who appealed to them more than than Senator Bernie Sanders (who, by the way, is one of the people who wants to cut down on “abortion talk” to win elections). These kind of people need to be reminded that calling out women who hold and practice views that hurt other women is actually *the* most feminist act.
But it’s not just about calling out women who hold extreme views about gender roles, race, or women’s reproductive health. We also need to criticize women closer to us who forget that the whole point is that women have the freedom to make choices.
Criticizing someone like Michelle Bachmann is one thing. Her distrust of women is right out there. It’s another, perhaps more important, thing to call out women who claim to be all about “girl power” and feminism, but whose actions really don’t back up those labels. We often call out women we want to love, like Taylor Swift for not standing up to white supremacist fans, or Lena Dunham when she glamorizes abortion to sounds more “feminist.” Calling these women out on social media to use their platforms more wisely and to think more carefully about the words they use to talk about feminist issues doesn’t make you a bad feminist. It makes you smart and invested in the long game. If these women are truly on the side of other women, they’ll want to use their platforms to the greatest collective advantage — criticism, when delivered thoughtfully, can be a wildly constructive part of that. The more you speak truth to women around you, the more you’ll get used to calling out men, too.
Since we likely won’t ever get to sit down with some of these high-profile women and talk to them about these issues, we have to turn to our friends and family and call out their privilege an/or internalized misogyny when we see it hurting other women. We’re asking men to start calling out sexism in their daily lives, so we should definitely do the same.
The work doesn’t just happen (it doesn’t even mostly happen) on social media between us and the famous women who flub their words or support problematic people — it’s about the dialogue we create in our communities and the standards we live and die by.
It might be small things, even, but you should lead by example. Call out that friend who judges a woman based on her looks, clothes, or sex life; ask her what she means when she says she “doesn’t get along with other women”; tell her that her “feminist” takes on current events aren’t as intersectional as she thinks if she’s leaving out women whose lives and experiences don’t look like hers. When women support each other and work together, amazing things can happen. But making sure everyone’s really practicing how to be on each other’s team is important, meaning don’t feel bad for criticizing another woman if she’s holding herself back. Hopefully, it’ll turn into a way more productive conversation about how we can all be better.