Last year, two of my close friends took a first-year seminar on women and gender in eastern Europe.  Both of them enjoy retelling the story of how, during the first week of classes, the professor asked the class for a show of hands: “How many of you would call yourselves feminists?”

Three people raised their hands: my two friends and one woman who emphasized that she didn’t identify as a radical feminist.

Doesn’t three sound like a shockingly small number of feminists in a room of more than twenty people?  True, most of them probably hadn’t enjoyed being part of an out-and-proud feminist network as my friends and I did throughout high school.  Maybe they weren’t comfortable using the “F-word” during the first week of college, which would align them with a powerful political ideology.  Looking back, though, plenty of my fellow first-years were happy to support other (read: less awesome) causes from day one.  This, coupled with my subsequent experiences beyond student organizing at Carolina, has convinced me that students here reserve a special squeamishness for feminism. 

Let’s return to the student who swore up and down that she wasn’t a radical feminist.  What the hell does non-radical feminism mean, anyway?  Feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression (bell hooks, “Feminism”).  That means that if you don’t like racism or sexism, and you try not to treat people horribly based on where they fit in the capitalist caste system, you support feminism.  If you’re doing feminism correctly, you can’t avoid being radical, rigorous, riotous.  That’s that.  Why do so many people have a problem with this?

Being radical, rigorous, and riotous, supporting feminism, can feel alienating at times, and that keeps a lot of people from participating in it.  On the other hand, feminism can be a refuge for people who feel alienated by our mainstream/dominant culture, which currently supports and disseminates (what a verb!) white supremacist, sexist, classist and imperialist ideology.  Feminism is inherently radical because it seeks to alter mainstream culture in a way that dismantles the roots of sexist oppression.

Most people reading this blog support, perhaps at a very conscious level, feminism.  Good for us.  Before we pat ourselves on the backs for “being radical”, it’s necessary to address the problem of choice feminism, a devilishly tricky variant of feminism that is undermining the movement and creating a huge group of complacent and supposedly non-political people.

Choice feminism is a non-judgmental way of approaching feminism that justifies everything anyone does as long as they’re “politically conscious”.  Sounds great, right?  It even echoes the tried-and-true “the personal is political”.  But actually it’s incredibly misleading, given that choice feminism avoids political engagement and stops informed critique in its tracks.  Choice feminism ignores the complexity of choice, and the ways choice-making agents and their environment mutually affect one another.  It also defines feminism as an endless source of empowerment, for good or ill: any choice made by a feminist is universally beneficial and empowering for other feminists.  This leaves no room for discussion of what feminists actually support; over-identification with the cause has transformed many people’s experience of feminism into a justification for unyielding self-indulgence.

For instance, if you call a woman who cuts you in line at the grocery store (or  a close friend, partner, or colleague who has done you no harm) a “bitch”, that is not a feminist action, no matter how conscious you are of your use of sexist and derogatory language.  Beginning a discussion of how sexism harms people requires us to be judgmental.  That is okay.  Judging other people, and not letting them get away with being jerks, is a part of being a socially responsible person, not just a feminist.

Political consciousness and good intentions are not enough.  In order to behave in an ethical and feminist way, we have to think of the implications of our actions.  This requires a considerable amount of self-criticism, but it is a necessary and ongoing step to creating real change in society.    

As supporters of feminism, we must constantly question our own behaviors, use of language, and engage fellow ethically-minded folks in critical and political conversation.  When you think something might be harmful, ask yourself, “Who benefits?”  If the answer makes you uncomfortable, don’t ignore that discomfort!  Do or say something different.  Even if that doesn’t lead you to support feminism, stop living on autopilot. 

Sarah-Kathryn Bryan


 “Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics” by Michaele L. Ferguson

“Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression” by bell hooks