“What is your experience with feminist theory?” A professor asked this question as part of an introductory survey for this course I’m taking, WGS 710: Advanced Feminist Theory. I thought this was an interesting way to phrase this question because I think that it intends to ask about coursework and other readings about what looks to be a very high brow academic topic. The word “theory” is a pretty scary word after all: people who “do” theory tend to think about really abstract, intangible ideas and tend to write in a register made for other academic elites. But I wonder, too, how feminist that practice is: it makes me ask who feminism is for and who theory ought to be for. The question, however, is asking about my experience, a very personal thing. Like anyone else, I am a product of my experiences. It asks about who I am in relation to this personal, political thing. It doesn’t really define feminist theory, but it connects it to my experience.
So what is feminism or feminist theory? bell hooks, a famous Black feminist, defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” in her book, Feminism is for Everybody. The Combahee River Collective, a prominent group of Black feminists from the late ‘70s, define feminism as “a politics, movement, political analysis, and practice used to struggle against women’s oppression” (“A Black Feminist Statement”). A feminist academic, Donna Haraway, defines feminism as “a politics defined by fields of contestation and repeated refusals of master theories” (“‘Gender’ for a Marxist…”). Kimberle Crenshaw, following a Black feminist tradition, famously calls for an intersectional approach to thinking about feminism, an approach that considers how different parts of a person’s identity interact with one another and inform how one moves in the world, focusing specifically on connections between racism and sexism (“Mapping the Margins…”).
And who am I? I am a queer, crazy, colored man and scholar. It’s really important to think about what this all means and what it has to do with feminism. As queer, crazy, and colored, I know a few margins: I live in a world built for straight, sane, white men. I live in a world that asks me to be like those people for whom professional culture is built. I am asked to be like these people to prove that I am worthy of making money. I am asked to discipline my margins and use the privileges I have to do so. As Crenshaw suggests, my margins and my privileges touch one another: I am all of these parts at once, so the way people think about me and the way I think of myself is informed by all of these things at once. Some parts are more visible than others; some parts are enacted as opposed to just being things people register about me by just looking at me. But again, all of these parts comprise how I am made and how I make myself.
Because feminism, by the definitions above, begins with combatting sexism and moves to consider other struggles and their connections with sexism, I, even as a man, am included in a feminist agenda. By fighting alongside womxn, I am fighting alongside friends who value my struggle too, who see my struggle as part of their struggle. I am implicated in a politics of compassion, one which seeks to affirm everyone and challenge those hurtful systems like racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and classism. Feminist theory, to me, is a way of naming and contesting those hurtful systems. It mobilizes and analyzes personal experiences to think and rethink about how these systems work and how we can combat them.
My feminist practice, then, needs to look like being a good friend: I need to listen to affirm experiences. I need to think through solutions with my friends by considering ways to leverage my male privilege. I need to consider my margins as tools of compassion, as things that help me care for and relate to others. As a young scholar coming into academia, I need to keep my academic privilege in check: I need to keep my feminist theory and practice grounded in all kinds of experiences.
Collective, Combahee River. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’. na, 1977.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” Stan. L. Rev. 43 (1990): 1241.
Haraway, Donna J. ““Gender” for a Marxist dictionary: the sexual politics of a word.” Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2001. 49-75.
hooks, Bell. Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Pluto Press, 2000.