Why I Was Afraid To Call Myself A Feminist

Hillary Clinton; badass, role model, and feminist.

Hillary Clinton; badass, role model, and feminist.

Recently I received an email from a friend in which she called me a “feminist writer.” I was taken aback. I had never thought of myself as a feminist writer. In fact, I’ve been avoiding the term “feminist” for the majority of my life.

I was raised in a very liberal family. It wasn’t until I got older and was in school that I was aware of things like racism and homophobia. In the world in which my sister and I were raised, these were not issues. Our parents’ gay friends loved someone of the same gender, some of their friends were a different ethnicity, and questions or explanations were never part of the conversation; that’s just how things were, end of story. We were taught from a young age that we could do anything we wanted, that everyone is equal and the world, to use an overused term, was our oyster.

However, “feminism” was not a word you heard around our house growing up. When I asked my mother this over the weekend, she couldn’t respond completely. “I guess we never thought we needed to sit you and your sister down and tell you that you were equal to boys. You were the only girl on your little league team – never thought it had to be addressed,” she finally said after I had annoyed her to a point of no return. I had never thought about it that way.

I can’t remember exactly the first place or time that the concept of feminism came into my life. All I do remember is that the following photo was strongly associated with it.

Gloria Steinem. Photo: US Library of Congress

Gloria Steinem. Photo: US Library of Congress

I didn’t want any part of it, if that’s what a feminist looked like. And for a long time, that’s what I assumed a feminist was: a woman in the 1970’s fighting for equality. In my mind, I had all the equality I needed, and that woman, whose name I didn’t know for far too long, could remain in the past burning bras and fighting for something that was no longer an issue.

Then in high school, I came across this photo of Kathleen Hanna.

Kathleen Hanna. Photo: Linda Rosier, 1992

Kathleen Hanna. Photo: Linda Rosier, 1992

I wasn’t sure what to make of it or what it meant, but I did know that I wanted to listen to Bikini Kill and lots of it. At the time, I didn’t realize the effect it had on me. I sang along, became hooked on Sleater-Kinney, but refused to truly embrace the “Riot Grrrl” genre. I hated the term; it was too hard, too coarse, and while I knew deep down it stood for something that was important to me, I rejected it. The concept of “third-wave feminism” was great for women in cargo shorts who wanted to pay their own share of the dinner and thought chivalry was the Antichrist. I was not one of those women.

In college my friend Lyndsay, someone who regards herself as fiercely feminist, suggested we do a radio show at the college radio station that featured just women songwriters and musicians. We named the show “Anglų,” a word we found in her feminist dictionary that meant “a person whose beliefs and behavior are based on feminism.” Lyndsay could be all the fucking feminist she wanted; I was going to start each show with Le Tigre’s “They Want Us To Make A Symphony Out Of The Sound Of Women Swallowing Their Own Tongues,” and continue to be completely clueless. Clueless, mind you, in my “My Body, My Choice, My Abortion” T-shirt that a bunch of us in the Students for Choice group made, while attending rallies and toting around my soapbox for moments when I needed to point out that if men could get abortions, there’d be a clinic on every corner. No, I wasn’t a feminist at all.

Share This Post:
    • Colleen

      I love you more every time I read stuff you do. I’m so glad we are friends.

      • Amanda Chatel

        Thanks, love! It was the bit about cargo shorts, wasn’t it?

    • Anne

      Now THAT is a fabulous article, and an even more fabulous picture! With way better glasses than the old one ;-)

      • Amanda Chatel

        Thanks, Anne!

    • CMJ

      Truth.

    • Tania

      My mother, in spite of being a fan of equality in every way, refuses to call herself a feminist because she “likes strong men.” I don’t understand why those are mutually exclusive, but I wasn’t raised in the 60s and 70s. And my grandmother didn’t call herself a feminist in spite of working alongside my grandfather, and co-founding the volunteer fire department in their area. I guess I understand where she’s coming from there, but still. It seems so silly.

    • MR

      Yes, women will decide the direction of this Country, over the next century from the voting booth. Reading history what always surprises me is that from 1920 – with suffrage finally – why women didn’t move the US forward faster? This is still true today. Women continue to be more than 50% of the electorate. Yes, Nature dictates this.

    • kj

      Yeeeeeeeeeees pants optional feminism is the best.

    • Maggie

      Amanda, you KILLED this article and I am now tweeting it because it’s awesome. One of your best!

      • Amanda Chatel

    • http://www.facebook.com/georgette.k.1 Mztress Isis

      You rock!

    • http://www.facebook.com/MatthewMcVeagh Matthew McVeagh

      Well said and thanks Amanda. I love the way you express the gradual shift in the discrepancies between your self-image and identification and the reality of where you’re coming from. I honestly believe there’ll be a day when children of both sexes will be puzzled as to why anyone would see one sex as inferior to the other in any way and educators will be reduced to saying “Well that’s just the way it was”; I think we’re talking centuries rather than decades but I think it’s inevitable. Every self-affirmation, clarification, argument and illuminating reflection will be a step along that road.