“You’re just a dirty feminist.”
I recall vividly the high school boy who said those words to me as we were walking out of the woods after a 10th grade biology class excursion into the wilderness surrounding our school. We’d gone out to do something or other with plants and trees, but it was really just an excuse for friends to pair off and gossip. He was walking in front of me, hands shoved in jean pockets, and cast a dark glance over his scrawny shoulder. I could see loathing in his eyes. Since I loathed him as well, I took genuine satisfaction in his dislike. In that moment I had no idea what “feminist” meant but knew if he thought it was bad it must be good.
“Isn’t it adorable he thinks a feminist is bad?” I commented loudly to my friend with that well-known, signature eye roll of the American teenager.
Later, my mom explained feminism as the belief that women can do anything men can do and should have the same exact rights. Feminism = Equality. I listened intently and my world made a lot more sense. These beliefs, regardless of the word, to my knowledge, never being used in our home, were the foundation on which my mom built our lives. I simply never knew there was a word to describe us, even though I knew others often thought we were “weird.”
My mom is a woman of few words, who prefers to live her life as she sees fit. In our case, she lived her values in a silence that spoke volumes. By the time I learned what the word meant– by my mom’s definition, my own experiences, and the negative perceptions of others – I embraced feminism with enthusiasm.
Since that time, I’ve heard a lot of derogatory words used in relation to feminism. In all honesty, dirty is the most concise description I’ve heard someone use to describe their hatred. Normally you get the hemming and hawing of misogynists or the (not so) eloquent critics of those who claim to believe in equal rights even though they aren’t in any way feminists. It is rare do you get someone so honest in their hatred they can sum it up with one adjective.
So, let’s examine the word dirty in the context of feminism. We know – and by we, I feel like I can speak to at least all the feminists I personally know – understand the actual definition of feminism to be advocacy for equal social, political and economic rights. Even if we disagree on other parts of feminist thought, we share a common root in the definition, as well as the desire to dismantle the patriarchy to achieve equality.
In contrast, dirty has several meanings, depending on the context. Here, I presume my classmate meant dirty as hateful, morally corrupt, and objectionable.
In translation: advocating for equal social, political and economic rights is a hateful, morally corrupt and objectionable action. Feel free to inset any applicable synonym to this translation. When presented with such a definition, most people would agree that such a statement is fundamentally absurd. Of course, this does not include the people who openly believe women don’t deserve equality.
Still, most people don’t look at the actual definition of feminism. They instead choose to believe what they think they know about feminism rather than looking beyond the negative rhetoric espoused by mainstream media and extreme right wing conservatives. Holding onto beliefs concerning “extreme” feminists, also known as feminazis, is easier.
Why? Feminism is scary. It challenges the status quo established by white men who, although they’ve historically held all the power, are losing ground and feel threatened.
Just like all oppression, it boils down to power and fear. Who has power over whom? By framing feminism as dirty in every way possible, misogynist ideals undermine the reality and significance of the word. Individuals who claim to support equality while decrying feminism gives power right back to the institution we’re fighting. You can’t espouse feminist ideologies while claiming not to be a feminist. In doing so, you are not fighting for equality but are instead undermining the fight for equality.
I understand that it is difficult to reexamine beliefs we’ve grown up with. It’s easier to accept what we’ve heard. Since people generally don’t like change and oppression is ingrained into the very fabric of our society, it takes a true examination of self to challenge and accept that we have the individual power to change our society by opening incorporating feminist thought into our lives. For all the strides we’ve made in the right direction, we are nowhere near where we ought to be in terms of equality.
Changing the way the world perceives feminism takes each person individually coming together as a collective fighting against oppression. We need to live our values as feminists, challenging inequality in our everyday lives, and create a new rhetoric for feminism.
Challenging sexism in our everyday lives can be as easy as questioning the questions you receive from those in your life, and you never know when you will receive an opportunity to do so. For example, I recall graduating with my M.A. and returning home while looking for a job. Instead of asking about my job hunt, what I wanted to do with my degree, or where I was moving, the most common question concerned my relationship status. Apparently, since I graduated it was time to talk about finding a man and settling down. As a feminist, instead of letting this slide, I sought to challenge this assumption that this was my next step.
Don’t get me wrong, feminism isn’t perfect. Historically, there have been many issues with excluding anyone who didn’t fit the category of white, Christian, heterosexual, and middle-upper class. We have these issues today and must continue to work through them as a movement. Still, I’ve noticed that feminists seem to spend a great deal of time tearing down other feminists. It’s tiring to watch. We have so much to fight against that we shouldn’t really have the time to fight each other. I’m more concerned with fighting patriarchal beliefs and terrifying governmental policies than worrying about if other feminists think I’m feminist enough to be a feminist. Nobody is perfect. Besides, why would anyone want to label themselves as a feminist when they risk being ripped apart by people within the movement itself?
By living your values and showing the world that a feminist is here to advocate equal rights for everyone, you show the world what it means to be a feminist. I knew a woman once who claimed the most powerful feminists are those individuals who you can simply tell are feminists. You see it in their actions – by how they live their values, stand against oppression, and interact with the world. And it simply takes one person at a time, impacting those around us, learning from others, to create positive change.
Me? I’m a feminist who is working-class, well-educated, and bisexual. I’m a feminist who will continue to live my life with values of equality and challenging oppression in our society. It is my hope that the children in my life, the children belonging to my cousins, will look at me and see not a dirty feminist but instead a feminist, a strong woman who stands against injustice, challenges discrimination, and loves each of them in all of their equal, wonderful, and individual unique selves. And one day, when I have children, I will raise them with these same values and show them there is nothing scary about feminism.
Feminism isn’t dirty, and we can change that perception one feminist at a time.
Chelsea Grieve spends her time writing and drinking a ridiculous amount of coffee and tea. She reads, tries to belly dance, and explores vegetarian cooking. Haku and Momo, ninja cats extraordinaire, accompany her on literary and writing adventures. You can find Chelsea’s most recent work in Only Trollops Shave Above the Knee: The Crazy, Brilliant and Unforgettable Things We’ve Learned from Our Mothers.