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Features | On the tyranny of wishy-washy white liberal feminism

And why I switched sides

One October night of my first year at McGill, I sat sipping tea in my dingy Molson room, applying for Women in House, a program that gives selected women students the opportunity to shadow women politicians in the Canadian Parliament. I was excited to be a part of an organization with a mandate to increase women’s representation in politics. I had recently read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and came to the realization that I wanted to embody the feminism that they did. These books resonated with me deeply. Having always enjoyed class privilege in a family with many female doctors, I mistakenly operated under the assumption that if you try, you will succeed, and those who don’t succeed, don’t try hard enough. Later that year, a professor in a political science class divided feminism into radical feminism and liberal feminism, while discussing women’s representation in politics. The professor defined radical feminism by stating, “Radical feminists say that the current social order is patriarchal, and that we need to change the way we think in its entirety. This is in contrast to liberal feminists and their belief that laws and institutions need to change.” Condescending smiles and laughter filled the room at the idea of completely uprooting patriarchal thought from the existing social order. I’m a liberal feminist, I decided at that moment, and subsequently spent the summer reading Gloria Steinem, a Hillary Clinton-supporting feminist. By the time Emma Watson’s UN speech on feminism popped up on my newsfeed last year, I knew something wasn’t right, but I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge and awareness to articulate what the problem was. After taking Introduction to Feminist Theory at McGill, I started realizing how other systems of oppression, such as racism, cissexism, abilism, and classism, affect the experiences of women. This year, after another year of learning and reflection, I identify as a radical, intersectional feminist, and I have no interest in applying for Women in House.

Coming to terms with various intersections of my identity, I have come to realize that gendered oppression cannot be separated from heteronormativity, racism, imperialism, or colonialism. The colour of my skin, the religion of my family, the country of my birth, and the people I love all lead me to cringe when I set foot in another room packed with white women discussing my supposed oppression.

Liberal feminists, at McGill and beyond, are obsessed with ‘rights’, ‘choice’
and ‘freedom,’ terms narrowly defined within a white western liberal paradigm. From this perspective, feminism seeks to make women ‘equal’ to men, so women can function within the dominant political, economic, and cultural systems as they are defined by men. “It is my choice, therefore it is a feminist choice,” cry liberal feminists, individualizing feminism as opposed to understanding the collective movement and situating themselves within it. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” is a popular feminist quote, but I beg to differ. I have no interest in gaining recognition as a ‘person’ that aspires to values defined by upper class white men. In this system, internalizing ‘masculine’ traits is applauded and necessary for women’s supposed empowerment. Being affectionate, showing emotions, taking time off work to care for children, and performing labour at home is vilified. While it is unjust that these activities have previously determined the role of women in society, it is equally unjust that these activities are stigmatized for being ‘too feminine’. In order for women to achieve equality on men’s terms, they must change their lifestyle to fit into the patriarchal idealization of what that equality looks like.

Don’t get me wrong, my critique of ‘rights’ does not mean that I’m against all the rights that I have within the patriarchy. I’m not, for example, going to give up my right to vote simply because it means participating in the system. While working on radical change, it is excusable to operate within the system and vote for the lesser evil to make living conditions smoother. In addition, historically the suffragist movement was a radical act. White women didn’t get the right to vote by being sweet wives injecting little doses of feminism into their husbands’ heads so maybe one day they would gain the right to vote, they won it by rioting. White American suffragist Emily Davidson threw herself in front of a horse in protest of her disenfranchisement.

Having always enjoyed class privilege in a family with many female doctors, I mistakenly operated under the assumption that if you try, you will succeed, and those who don’t succeed, don’t try hard enough.

Liberal feminism is obsessed with placing women in visible leadership positions. However, simply having women occupying positions of power does not guarantee that women’s rights are preserved in those institutions. For example, McGill’s Principal, Suzanne Fortier, is a woman, but she did not confront Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens about his unilateral decision to shut down negotiations regarding women-only gym hours. Also, McGill has a Senate Subcommittee on Women, but at one of their meetings that I attended, two of the members had never heard the term “intersectionality” and asked what it was. Last year, a woman was the Interest Group Coordinator at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), but the student association refused to give club status to McGill Students for Feminisms, a group I am a part of, due to “too many” feminist clubs on campus. There are also many examples of women’s leadership improving women’s conditions, but the point is that having women in leadership does not necessarily lead to that, and emphasis on placing women in positions of power instead of working toward women’s collective liberation is not effective.

Liberal feminism is equally obsessed with discussing women’s achievements while in leadership. The theme of this year’s TEDxMontrealWomen was “Daring Greatly.” The speakers were mostly white middle-aged women discussing their businesses. Any mention of women who could not afford to ‘dare greatly’ because of their race, sexuality, class, or ethnicity were discussed in a flagrantly blatant white saviourist lens. One woman’s project to “develop women’s confidence and advocacy skills” in “the developing world” showed images of women of colour without naming or introducing them. Instead, the women were objectified as oppressed, poor women who needed saving by the affluent white women on the stage.

What I remember most clearly from the conference was my frustration while watching a particular white woman talking about how we, the undefined homogenous group of women, have a huge purchasing power and need to use this power by being “conscious consumers” to shift market patterns. Whole Foods was given as an example of a “conscious” place to shop, completely ignoring the fact that only a few products are affordable to most people and the company remains anti-union. In addition, talking about women’s purchasing power without discussing the politics behind it, including the cosmetics and fashion industries, standards of beauty, or discussing the exploitations of capitalism is shallow analysis. At the end of the event, all participants were reminded that everything is possible if we dare greatly, as if all women are privleged enough to sail through life without obstacles that arise from aspects of their identity other than gender, as if the current system is worth sailing through in the first place.

A movement is deemed successful when it gains momentum by going mainstream, but what has happened with feminism is that by going mainstream and appealing to a wider and wider audience, its core tenets have been co-opted so much that it has lost its substance. The “I Need Feminism” photo campaign organized by Rez Life highlights the individualization of feminism and also brings up the question of allyship, with men taking up space in the project. “My feminism is…” and “Feminism to me means…” both reduce feminism to a customizable sentence without asking participants to understand their positionality within the movement and in society as a whole. Activism is to help improve people’s conditions, but as individuals in a society, we are not independent units, we are very much attached to a wider system.

“We want to know, what feminism means to you,” the New Rez photo campaign event page says. To one man, feminism means that he could play field hockey, a “girls’ sport,” without being laughed at. While gender constructions are part of the patriarchy, this is not a two-way street. Women are not privileged at the expense of masculinity, instead the patriarchy, by definition, privileges men, always.


Men’s role in feminism is a debate of its own, but what is clear to me is that feminism is not about men and is in no way intended to benefit them. Men need to stop finding reasons that benefit them personally in order to support the cause. It is clear that anti-racism is not here for the benefit of white people, so how is this narrative okay when it comes to feminism? Liberal feminists are so afraid of making feminism sound like misandry that their demands fall short on dismantling the patriarchal structure in place. Always trying to be inclusive to men, liberal feminists have given up crucial ground in order to be ‘inviting enough’ to attract men. Feminism aims to make the world inclusive to women, and if men feel too threatened by that, then they need to check their privilege. As Twitter user @kelley_temple aptly put it in 2012, “Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need [to] take the space they have in society & make it feminist.” Men who support feminism need to listen to women’s experiences and unlearn harmful patriarchal practices, not wait for a polite invitation.

Contrary to the common conception of radicalism, radical simply means “from the root” – someone who subscribes to an ideology in its fundamental sense is a radical. Being a radical feminist has gained such a negative connotation that too many self-identifying feminists constantly attach the caveat of “but, I’m not a radical feminist” because they believe they’re too nice to be associated with what they see as a “man-hating” movement. This reputation is partially due to how radical feminism is portrayed in popular news. Femen most recently made the news for protesting topless at a French Muslim conference, and was subsequently categorized as radical. Nothing is wrong with being militant, and nothing is wrong with being topless, but as a Muslim I cannot endorse a group of Western white women that apply liberal ideals to our reality as Muslim women and aim to liberate us by writing “fuck your morals” on their chests. After this stunt, radical feminism took a hit, as it is now associated with Femen and other groups and individuals that ignore the diversity of women’s circumstances and values around the world.

Being a radical feminist has gained such a negative connotation that too many self-identifying feminists constantly attach the caveat of “but, I’m not a radical feminist” because they believe they’re too nice to be associated with what they see as a “man-hating” movement.

Black feminisms, Muslim feminisms, Indigenous feminisms, eco-feminisms and other feminisms have all arisen from collective organizing. The “I Need Feminism” campaign prides itself on making feminism accessible, which is incredibly important, but accusing radical feminisms of being inaccessible is often used to delegitimize them.

During last year’s SSMU elections, the presidential candidates’ Facebook pages were full of attacks on what became known as “Rad McGill”, or the activist community at McGill, and our jargon-y vocabulary that excludes and alienates. While I do understand that education is a privilege and in some instances it is necessary to use more accessible language, I also think that a certain vocabulary is necessary to express certain feminist ideas, and if someone is actually interested at McGill where there are literally hundreds of social justice events happening every year, there is no excuse to not have a basic familiarity with the vocabalary. Just as you can’t talk about physics without an understanding of centre of mass, acceleration or torque, it is impossible to articulate ideas about feminism without using words like rape culture, intersectionality or cisgender. I doubt that the reluctance to learn this vocabulary is because it’s difficult, but more because people feel too uncomfortable to face their own privilege.
To quote a friend’s comment the day the Marriage Equality Act passed in the U.S. Congress, “Now they can all go and celebrate, but we are still being killed in the streets, we still can’t breathe.” She is Black and queer. Liberal feminists can celebrate Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton all they want, but at the end of the day they are still exercising a feminism at the expense of the the 99 percent, and Black and Brown bodies – including those belonging to women.

At McGill, I hear “radical feminist” used mainly as a slur. Throughout my activism work, educating myself, and coming to terms with various intersections of my identity, I have come to realize that gendered oppression cannot be separated from heteronormativity, racism, imperialism, or colonialism. The colour of my skin, the religion of my family, the country of my birth, and the people I love all lead me to cringe when I set foot in another room packed with white women discussing my supposed oppression. The stereotype that I encounter most often in my activism is of the “hairy-legged man-hating bra-burning lesbian radical feminist” variety, and while some of these adjectives are accurate descriptions of me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of them. And not listening to what I have to say because someone doesn’t like the word radical is inexcusable.


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