No social movement gets anywhere without discussion; if we didn't examine and criticize feminism, it may never have progressed beyond the white-focused, heavily middle-class suffragette movement of the early 20th century. This naturally leads to a certain amount of debate among people who align themselves with the movement, but learning how to respond to people with different ideas of feminism can take some getting used to. Although you may expect to disagree on some level with people who don't identify as feminists, when you're around other feminists, you might expect that naturally, you'd all get along.
However, feminism encompasses all kinds of demographics; different abilities, classes, ethnicities, sexualities, identities, and more are all united by the idea that everyone should be equal no matter what gender you are. When you gather that many people together, it's no surprise that everyone may operate under a different definition of feminism — and more importantly, that's a good thing. A large part of the contemporary feminist movement has focused on acknowledging that the patriarchy affects everyone in different ways and providing a platform for voices that have been silenced in the past. As professor Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote in 1989 when she first defined intersectional feminism, "Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society."
In short, everyone experiences life differently, and feminism means different things to different people. As long as the end goal is equality, with the freedom to choose what's right for you, who's to say that one idea of feminism is better than the other? With that in mind, here are some things to keep in mind when you're confronted with someone whose definition of feminism differs from your own.
1. Don't Dismiss Their Point Of View
When many people come across unfamiliar ideas, their knee-jerk reaction is to shut them down. In fact, a 2012 study found that people in the United States are more distrustful of people who have different political ideologies than of those who follow different religions. However, feminism simply can't progress if we spend all our time drowning each other's voices out; whether or not you disagree with someone's particular brand of feminism, don't automatically dismiss their beliefs just because you haven't gone through similar experiences.
2. Listen, Listen, Listen
Especially if you come from a privileged background, listening is key to feminist discussions. Historically, feminism has focused on white, educated women to the exclusion of other people, and that only ends up holding everyone back. (This isn't to say that white women aren't allowed to speak up, but it's important to recognize that white people are often afforded chances to speak that people of color are not — so clearing the way for other people to speak is essential.) Even if you disagree with someone's idea of feminism, do them the courtesy of listening to why they maintain their beliefs — chances are, you'll learn something new.
3. Stand Your Own Ground
It's important to keep an open mind, but that doesn't mean you should automatically assume you're in the wrong. We can all learn things from each other, and if you focus on having a discussion rather than an argument, you might be able to introduce someone to new concepts. Furthermore, watch out for people who claim the feminist label yet don't actually act particularly feminist — there may be many definitions of feminism, but ultimately, it all comes down to believing in equality.
4. Remember We're All Striving For The Same Thing
Feminism has a wide appeal, and as such, it embraces many different points of view. Not everyone is going to get along, but above all, it's important to remember that we're all fighting for one thing: Equality for all people, and the freedom to make the choices that are best for ourselves.
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