Last week, just by chance, I ended up seeing Ani DiFranco concerts two nights in a row for the first time in my life. The experience was eye opening. The world got a glimpse of the groupie I could have been had I had more money and a little more focus back in my first year of college. My subject of idolatry would definitely have been Ani. She invokes warm fuzzy memories of embracing my queerness, shaving my head, failing at nonmonogamy and finding the new religion of feminism before I realized it wasn’t as simple as its definition.
A good friend of mine is immersed in the current happenings of academia, having just emerged from teacher’s college. Feminism rarely comes up in her conversation anymore — it’s sort of a dirty word now, kind of a joke. It comes up when we talk about hairy armpits, bra burning and the Diva Cup. Still I feel as nostalgic as a 28-year-old can feel when someone calls me a feminist. I kept the Arts and Ideas paper from 1999 on which a TA scrawled pointedly, “Your feminist stance is preventing you from fully engaging with the material.” He was right and I like to remember feeling proud of that, to remember a time when it was more important to be rooted in something than to be growing, more important to be a feminism groupie (manifested as an Ani groupie) than one of those women who didn’t “get it” yet.
Finding feminism is like discovering the matrix. You can’t believe you didn’t notice all this stuff, you can’t believe no one told you how fucked up things are. You feel angry for knowing, angry for having not known. It’s such a harsh transition to make. You don’t just gently start to pick up on misogyny here and there. Once the floodgates are open you are smacked relentlessly with realization after realization. It can be devastating and it can feel like the only way not to drown is to find a really big crew and a really big boat, put your head down — and paddle.
Feminism was my second religion and I followed the same path around it as I did to and away from Catholicism. It fell apart when I started to question my gender identity. How would women’s rights apply to me as a boy? The basic conclusion for me was that a whole group of people can’t be any one thing. Someone is always excluded, ignored or misrepresented.
On day two Ani diverts in the middle of a spoken-word piece to ask, “Do people use ‘feminist’ here [in Canada]? Why can’t all decent men and women call themselves feminists?” She quotes the dictionary definition, pokes fun by saying, “Feminism: someone who believes that women should have rights equal to men’s. Oooh. Oh no, that’s not me. Too scary, too out there.”
I was thinking she should know why we don’t all call ourselves feminists. Regardless of the dictionary definition the word was “discovered” by certain women first who colonized it, so to speak, and who defined it exclusively to exclude women who didn’t fit the bill. We don’t all call ourselves feminists (or gays or queers or righteous babes) because as efficient as that might be it isn’t an accurate reflection of where each of us is at as individuals. History plays such a big role in our use of language, a much bigger role than the dictionary does. We can’t all call ourselves anything, even something as seemingly simple as feminists, even something as seemingly simple as women. Those days are over for me. Not the days of feminism as a theory but the days of assuming that feminism constitutes a clear life mission or explains anything concrete about what women really want.
Still I miss the feeling of awe that came with feminism at first, feeling like a necessary part of something bigger than myself, a link in a chain. Ten years laterthat room full of people who were “just like me” seem so different, so… just a room full of people. I ran into a young woman who used to volunteer with me outside the concert on the second night. All black makeup, boots and wide eyes, this was her first Ani concert. “I was hoping for ‘The Million that You Never Made,'” she said. “I was hoping for that strong, angry thing… you know, that angry woman thing.”
I think we all possess our own versions of that strong, angry thing. I used to call it feminism but it’s not that simple, nor that restricted.
The universe has become so beautifully complicated, so multifaceted that it is almost impossible to talk about anything without neglecting to talk about something else. I am so infinitely grateful to be living in such a time. There is progress in the process and order in the chaos. I’m sure of it.