Is Quiet Feminism an Oxymoron?

canstockphoto6853838Several posts on feminism at The Outlier Collective convinced me to finish this essay, which I started a year ago and never found the footing for – it’s a tough subject and one that I haven’t fully resolved for myself.

I stay current with feminist issues and have, for much of my adult life, believed that I’m a feminist. I am a white, middle-aged, middle class mid-western woman with a four year college degree. I am a veteran of the US Army. I am the parent of a daughter. I come from a long line of hard working, sometimes abused and economically bereft women. While I grew up with domestic violence, witnessing and experiencing physical and emotional abuse, I have never been sexually assaulted or raped. I have experienced gender discrimination and workplace sexual harassment, but I’ve rarely, as an adult, felt powerless to change my circumstances.

I write down all these facts – my “street cred”- because I’ve come to feel defensive about definitions of feminism put forward by both proponents and antagonists. I’ve stopped calling myself a lot of things, because labels are limiting – not just in one’s thinking, but also in one’s ability to have conversations with other people. I have called myself a feminist, politically independent, a secular humanist and a myriad of simplistic and ultimately restrictive labels. I am none and all of those things, depending on the membership requirements. I am as middle-of-the-road as they come.

Not being much of a rabble-rouser, protester, fierce advocate of the masses, petitioner or community organizer, I tend to shy away from collective causes. Groups exhaust me. Meetings inspire narcolepsy. Shouting and fierce arguing repels me. I am, by nature, an introvert and I tend to counter passion with rationality. Dogma, theism, polarization or fundamentalism of any ilk makes me avert my eyes and walk away muttering swear words under my breath. If one could protest passive-aggressively, I’d be the poster child.

When I look at my personal history of feminism, it’s been a long and uneven road. I was the first woman in my family to serve in the military and get a 4 year degree. I have, through much struggle, broken the generational cycle of bad marriages, addictions, violent husbands and abused children. Financially, I don’t live in fear from paycheck to paycheck. I work hard, I don’t expect to be taken care of, I am assertive and I don’t hesitate to call bullshit when I see it. If I stay silent, it’s because I’m giving myself time to think before speaking. If I shout, it’s because someone is causing direct and immediate harm to themselves or others.

On the flip side, I have tortured myself with body image insecurity. I have stayed too long in denigrating friendships and relationships. I find it hard to respect women who obsess over appearance or men. I find men who hate women dim and irritating. A few feminists strike me as shrill harridans and some misogynists make me laugh. I don’t wear womanhood as a badge of honor or find the cult of motherhood to be any more meaningful than a biological happenstance. I’m pretty sure all of these things or just a few would knock me out of the club.

I don’t understand sexism or racism or any -ism that serves to separate humans into us and them based on biological roulette. It seems illogical and irrational and ignorant, so while I can recognize and acknowledge that it occurs, I don’t “get it”. That it still occurs so rampantly is puzzling to me. Unfortunately answering everything with “well, that’s just a whole lot of stupid there” doesn’t serve as a cogent argument.

I do understand why people are passionate and angry and fierce about defending the helpless, the hungry, the abused. For me, though, the battle had to start with the personal – overcoming self-destruction, turning away from toxicity and raising my daughter to be an amazing, self-assured human being.

I am trying to do right in the world without sacrificing my hard won gains. Is it enough? Am I doing enough for feminism? My mediocrity, lack of traumatic experiences related to gender and my inability to shout passionately at the world makes me doubt my veracity as a feminist. Some feminists make it clear that I might not be of their ilk.

I believe, though, that there are many women, like myself, who believe they are feminists simply by doing, by fighting their daily, local battles. Some of us turn the tide of generational family history. Some of us blunder through life, ignoring cultural and familial messages, just doing what we need to do to be decent human beings. Surely there is room on the landscape for some of us to be feminism.

61 Comments on “Is Quiet Feminism an Oxymoron?

  1. Michelle,
    Activism starts home, inside of one’s self, and by the actions we take in our everyday lives, and the values we promote around us, and how we educate our children. By carrying out our beliefs in our daily routine, we are promoting change and making the world what we want it to be. Integrity is a beautiful form of activism.
    Le Clown

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    • I absolutely believe that. Sometimes, with a degree of envy and defensiveness, I do admire those who loudly fight the good fight. At times, though, it makes feminism seem rather exclusionary, because so many of us are quiet people. Thanks for reading and commenting – your paragraph is a lovely summation of what I think I was trying to say!

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      • Hi! I wrote one of the posts on the Outlier Collective this week, and I wanted to share something else with you that I wrote a few weeks ago:

        http://bellejarblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/maybe-you-dance/

        Sometimes “quiet feminism” (or any kind of peaceful protest – in this case it was against homophobia) is more effective, easier, and just plain more fun than being a rabble-rouser. I also think that it’s possible to be a quiet rabble-rouser πŸ™‚

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        • I just read and commented on that post – wonderful story. It’s very hard to judge when a good time to stand your ground is and there will always be that inkling of doubt. Belligerent drunks – no. Woman at the bank making a snarky comment about “those people”(homophobia in this instance as well) – a big loud yes. I do feel a little gleeful when wordplay is my weapon of choice, but dancing in ANY scenario is bound to defuse things!

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        • PS – I am still reading through the comments on your post at TOC. Wow – tough crowd! I admire your willingness to write on the topic and put an opinion out there that draws such extreme responses.

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  2. I am your kind of feminist. I do not scream and shout. I do not march in protest. I do not hate men. I don’t believe those things have to be part of the deal. I am an independant woman. I bought my own homes. I pay my own bills. I have had a fabulous career. I was successful and earned as good a salary as men who did/do the same job. I worked hard for it, just as they do. My parents brought me up believing I could accomplish whatever I wanted as long as I was prepared to work hard. I like being a woman. I celebrate being a woman. I enjoy relationships with men. But I am no one’s ‘little woman’. I believe it is every human’s right — not just every woman’s — to have a good education and a fulfilling career. Or, for that matter, to stay home and raise the kids, even if you’re the man in the family.

    And I don’t want anyone — not another woman, not a man, not a government to tell me what I can and cannot do with my body, my health and my reproductive organs.

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    • I think it’s interesting how you describe a feminist and I think that’s often the stereotype used against feminism. There are always fringe elements in any group, but we still need the shouters and protesters and the passionate activists. I guess my point is that there’s room for all of us, whether by doing or shouting or any combination thereof – definitions of feminism need to remain broad and inclusive. It can only be beneficial to furthering human rights equally.

      Sometimes, knowing what I do about issues that affect women and children worldwide, I have a sense of “survivor’s guilt” and perhaps that is what causes some defensiveness. As I mentioned in the introduction, I haven’t really come to any grand conclusions or resolution about the issue.

      You were fortunate to have the upbringing and encouragement that you received – it has obviously served you well!

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      • I AM lucky to have had the upbringing and encouragement I had. And to have had so many smart, strong, independant women, on both sides of my family, as role models. And I agree with you. There IS room for all of us. This was just one cause I have chosen to ‘fight’ in a less vocal, less militant way. I feel differently about other causes and issues and am out there screaming, shouting and protesting with everyone else. The important thing is to make a difference, to make life and opportunities and the world better and more fair, for yourself and for others. How you do it, is up to you.

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  3. I think you can be who you want to be – I like to say (stolen from Jello Biafra) that many liberators really want to be dictators – and we see that everywhere. So allowing you to be you is, to me, being a feminist. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. In line with what Eric says, activism begins with ourselves and moves outwards in a way that we feel the most comfortable with. If everyone was ‘active’ in the same way – things would be very lopsided and messy. Go forth – be you.

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    • I think, too, if everyone were active in the same way, it would be very, very noisy. And it’s true, activists can be fundamental extremists just as easily as any oppressor. It bothers me when it becomes apparent in some feminist circles, since I always thought inclusiveness was part of the foundation.

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      • I think that people tend to bond thru hate all too much and even in the ‘best groups’ we have those that want to go from oppressed to oppressor – and exclude everyone that is not right in line with their thoughts. They are no better than the original oppressors, IMHO.

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    • Rutabaga, “many liberators really want to be dictators” – yep. Thus the outcomes of the so-called Arab Spring. The wheel turns, and nothing changes but the flavors.

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  4. We are ALL in the process of becoming. That’s why labels such as “feminist”, “activist”, “purist”, etc. are, in my opinion, limited in their scope simply because they do more to separate rather than unite us. As you do, I contemplate these social edicts quietly and find the pieces that resonate with me rather than band together with the masses. Groups that band together often lose sight of the bigger picture and the cause is reduced to who can shout the loudest or worse, lose their voice entirely choosing to follow the lead of those who dominate. I did not have a nurturing childhood and I don’t see it (now) as a crippling factor in my personal evolution but a necessary challenge. I continue on as a “work in progress”. Another remarkably insightful post!

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    • Indeed – the nature of labels is that they have definition and boundaries. When I found that the origin of the word “feminism” was from a male French philosopher, the Saturday Night Live church lady’s voice popped into my head: “Well, isn’t that convenient?” The term seems intentionally reductionist and has ensured that until recent years, men wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from the terminology (some women as well).

      I am very fond of the old Groucho Marx quote: β€œI don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” I am often reminded that being introverted makes any gathering of more than 2 people seem unappealing, which often shades how I perceive groups, labels, causes, etc.

      In terms of upbringing, it took a lot of fortitude and misery to evolve and come to an understanding of who I wanted to be, regardless of where I came from, and sometimes I just want to rest from the fight, not pick up another banner to lead the charge. I agree that we’re all still “in process” and on a continuum – and will be until we die.

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  5. Feminism isn’t something I spend much time reading or thinking about, but I feel the same way about other issues that are important to me. I prefer living out my beliefs in a quiet way rather than talking about them, but most people find that impossible to understand. Perhaps it is a reaction to my fundamentalist childhood- I don’t trust dogma and I don’t trust people who claim to have all the answers or make a big fuss about how right they are. I would much rather try to find common ground with people than look for things that divide us.
    Nice post- I read one of the feminist posts last night because I follow her blog. I felt exhausted after reading it, and the comments- ready to go back to my quiet life πŸ™‚

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    • While I admire the clarity and passion expressed by those posts, I, too, find it exhausting. I learned long ago that I have to limit my personal outrage, because it was draining and ineffective. I believe firmly in “leading by example” and making sure one’s own backyard is up to snuff before stepping onto the public stage.

      I appreciate the awareness that activists provide and I believe that public feminists and humanists are critical in a world where the media is failing to report on substantive issues.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your perspective!

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  6. Quiet feminism… a good phrase. I was always one of those who wanted to do what I wanted to do, and rules be damned. I was lucky to benefit from the social changes of the 70s but I distinctly recall being told as a child, “You can’t be or do that because you’re a girl.” So on the one hand, I suppose I owe some of my opportunities to the noisy feminists of the 1960s and 70s.

    On the other hand, once someone has an opportunity, the only thing that shuts up the naysayers is COMPETENCE, and that’s my brand: don’t make a big fuss or show, just go do your job. It was my personal philosophy never to bring up my gender if at all possible, and given the contrast with the few-but-loud who use their gender to escape blame or work or whatever – it was a welcome attribute to my co-workers.

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    • I feel a great deal of gratitude for those women who were loud and abrasive and wouldn’t shut up and kept doggedly fighting the good fight. It granted me access to choices, to the opportunity to be a quiet feminist doing what I wanted to do. There’s no doubt, with everything from the issues currently in Brazil to those right here on our own soil, that there is still room for that kind of activism.

      I’ve found that working my ass off and being competent tends to help me succeed in any environment. And if there is an obstacle I can’t change, like wage discrepancy or treatment, I have always found better opportunities elsewhere.

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  7. I wish you had linked to the post(s) you are responding to–I did check out some of the posts at the Outlier, and I’m not sure where this post on your blog fits in with the posts/comments/conversations on that blog, but I’m going to charge ahead and comment anyway πŸ˜‰

    I think “quiet feminists” run the risk of standing on the sidelines, and being over looked, so for me, and for my daughters, and my daughters’ friends, and the mothers of my daughters’ friends, etc., it’s important to stand up loud and proud and say that I am a feminist, especially at a time when lots of folks view that word as synonymous with radical and lesbian and man-hater (and probably all three simultaneously). It’s important to add the face of normal, average, regular women (and men) to what it means to be a feminist, alongside all those radical man-hating lesbians. πŸ˜‰

    So that is my concern with “quiet feminism.” That doesn’t mean I expect introverts to sign up with Code Pink and chain themselves to the White House gates, but it’s important to raise our voices, every now and again.

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    • Sorry about not being specific on the links – I enjoy reading The Outlier Collective and while some posts were on that site, I was really addressing posts on the topic in general that I’ve read recently.

      I would argue the point that words are sometimes less effective than action. I don’t care if someone knows that I am a feminist. I care if I behave like one. Maybe it’s simply a philosophical semantic about how one makes a difference.

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  8. Great post Michelle. I have always believed in the walking the talk, or just walking and less talking. So no it’s not an oxymoron.

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  10. I guess I’m a little of both. Quietly living my life until I come up against an injustice. Then I use my words.

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    • That’s what I mean by the local, daily battles. I will take on a misguided teacher, write letters to city council, verbally stomp on someone who says something racist or sexist or whatever issue comes across my path. I regard change like ripples in a pond – you start where you’re at and hope that it carries beyond that moment or that person.

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  11. I share every single point. My goal is to meet the ignorance and fear that I happen across with gentle curiosity. Whenever “a whole lot of stupid” gets in my face, I try to ask a question. I can’t always do that–sometimes the stupid is just too thick. But when I can I feel like I’m being a bad-ass activist.

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    • I went through a lot of my life being quiet in general, but at some point I stopped holding back my words in the face of stupid or wrong or the poorly-intentioned.
      Your name reminds me of having to watch a driving safety film in the Army years ago. There were male soldiers and then “Safety Sue”, a scantily clad woman with a big “S” on her bikini top. It looked like it had been made in the 1960s. I wrote the base commander and the staff in charge of the driver’s academy (where we learned to drive HMMWVs, jeeps, etc.) and my understanding is that they stopped using the film in training. Even if it might not have been my protest that did it, I totally felt badass!

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  12. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself. You do your part. And, you’re raising a daughter who’ll hold her head up high, have a great sense of self, and who won’t need a label to define where she stands on issues. Good work, Michelle.

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    • Thank you. It’s interesting to try and understand why humans feel so compelled to label themselves and others as anything. I’ve been thinking about that lately – why the need to say “I am a…”? Sometimes I think it’s a shorthand way of seeing or explaining ourselves. Maybe it’s a symptom of our times – no slow, lazy, winding conversations getting to really know each other – just cutting to the quick, using taglines and cues to quickly establish connections. I think I might need to write a post about that someday!

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  13. Wow. Your writing always seems to take confused thoughts and feelings that I have and crystallize them (while admiring your expansive vocabulary). I’ve always shied away from the “feminism” label because the loudest in the group are so militant that they simply seek to replace “male privilege” with “female privilege” instead of “equal individuals,” as all humans are.

    I keep trying to sort out more of my jumbled thoughts in this comment, and it’s just not happening. Suffice it to say that I love what you’ve written here, and I feel much the same. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Thank you! I’m afraid I’m still a bit jumbled myself. Feminist ideology, in and of itself, is confusing because of the labels and stereotypes and the fact that people are simply more complicated than a name. The idea of equal opportunity for all should be a human goal. Unfortunately, it gets lost in the arguments about what and who defines a feminist. I feel somewhat disloyal by rejecting the label, since so many women have done an awesome job for human rights under the auspice of feminism. However, when they start nitpicking about what is required to call oneself a feminist, I tap out.

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  14. Actions speak louder than words.
    And from what you describe of your life, you are a living example of not being controlled by gender, or by giving in to anyone because of it.

    And the feminist clubs should count themselves lucky to have you on their side.
    (And I should get extra points for not adding anything else here!)

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    • I suppose like any movement, there will always be factions, infighting and exclusiveness, but I don’t want to denigrate the ideology of leveling the playing field for humans in general. The people that I get into “discussions” about feminism with are the same people who argue with me about unions and I think it boils down to the question of “what parts of a movement are an anachronism and what purpose should they be serving at this point in time?” I think we’re in an awkward transitional period – tainted by historical reference and manipulated for political purpose, it’s hard to remember the original intent and that it’s necessary to adapt to new realities.

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  15. I hear you on all of this, the labeling, the “quiet” (sometimes bystander?) approach, the fight within. Great writing.

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  16. I think actionable feminism is scalable. For some, that scale is national/global and involves large demonstrations and newsworthy drama. At that level, it can affect a lot of people just a little bit (adding up to something non-trivial). For others, it can be personal, helping one person move further towards utopia than you could at the same age. That’s a dramatic effect for just one person (again, non-trivial). Quiet? Sure. Effective? Yup.

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    • I like the idea of scalability and I think any kind of activism changes in scale over the course of one’s life. I’m now part of the “sandwich generation”, with a young child and aging parents to care for, as well as still trying to build a career. It’s hard to get enough sleep, much less try to change the world. I hope my activism increases as my responsibilities and time constraints change, but for now, any activism has to happen close to home.

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  17. …”by doing, by fighting their daily, local battles.” Perfectly said, Michelle. It’s all in the doing. Excellent post!

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  19. As a long-time fascinated observer, “feminism” seemed to suffer from two issues. Firstly, the idea that half the world would agree on anything is an absurd one. On the one extreme, the Gloria Steinems, on the other, the Phyllis Schlaflys (I found Camile Paglia interesting for her “not a victim” and “women do have power” stance).

    The other was that it often drew strong lines in the sand: US and THEM (with THEM being all men). That disenfranchised men who supported the ideals of equality and polarized the playing field. The worst of this being the “all men are rapists” meme. It did create resentment or distance among those who were otherwise supportive (including some women who quite liked men).

    The extremes of feminism seems to have settled down to the business of truly enabling an egalitarian society. On the flip side, the advances made by the movement haven’ been as large as one might hope. Glass ceilings still exist, and as with racism, the “enemy” has simply learned to be more covert.

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    • You make some very good points. I think the lines in the sand are becoming increasingly factional among feminists themselves, which is not an uncommon problem for any movement. As for Ms. Paglia, I will give her this: she is an equal opportunity critic. There’s hardly a group or pop subject left unscathed by her academic meanderings.

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      • Indeed. Understandable, I guess. Causes are driven by passionate people with strong ideas about what is right. Not at all surprising they’d find cause to disagree. (It always struck me as odd that the Lutheran church had managed to fragment itself into three (now two) groups who didn’t agree. Take one of the blandest, most white-bread religions around, and yet they find cause for violent disagreement.)

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      • I’ve been taking Mondays off all month as a form of “pre-retirement” and to burn my Q2 vacation days. It’s been nice not having any more Monday Mornings. (Although I guess my Tuesdays have filled that role this month. Still: one more week, and it’s all done.)

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  20. Nice piece. I think there is a feminism is born our of confidence or belief in it’s rightness and acting on it. I was lucky to have a role model that showed me everyday that she was not limited by her gender and that I shouldn’t be either. It’s that daily work or walking it out that makes it real for me.

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    • I didn’t necessarily have role models, although I loved to read about a lot of female icons – Annie Oakley, Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Blackwell, Amelia Earhart, etc. I think -isms never made much sense to me, so I didn’t take them into account when wanting to do anything. It just never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something until policies or people tried to send me that message. I’m really good at selective listening, though!

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  21. I love this. Spot on. I suspect there are large numbers of us out here who choose to live out our convictions without noise and force. Sometimes I am sure that noise and force, however well meaning and even intelligently derived, *are* the problem, or at the very least exacerbate it. Quiet strength and thoughtful living impress me ever so much more. Thanks for this.

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    • Sometimes that noise serves to draw a line in the sand, polarizing us beyond rational conversation as well. I see its role, but recognize that it’s not necessary to be part of it, in order to make a difference. Glad you enjoyed this – thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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