Feminism and I found each other in 2013. Our courtship began slowly, as comforting as a rebound relationship, which, in fact, it was.
But first, a little bit about me. I’m a 31-year-old white woman. I live in Los Angeles with a small dog in a one-bedroom house on a hill. Save for the sounds of birds chirping outside, I start my early mornings in silence. I drink French-pressed coffee from a ceramic mug, and my iPhone is always within reach. I’m privileged, and I live a good life.
I’m a stereotypical fourth-wave feminist.
Like many modern romances, my relationship with feminism began online. In the beginning, I followed outspoken women on Twitter, retweeting what I most related to. Then, I moved to Facebook, copying and pasting poignant snippets of shared articles into my captions. When a debate ensued on a friend’s status, I was quick to tap like on the comments I agreed with, occasionally offering my own, often uninformed, opinions. On Instagram, I carefully crafted posts with regurgitated rhetoric I didn’t fully understand, but I used all the right hashtags.
Soon I began my own debates, bolstered by opinions I’d gleaned from online articles that could articulate my thoughts better than I could. But in person, feminism and I hit a wall. I struggled to communicate in the same confident and persuasive tone I used online. I often found myself angry and defensive, unable to have a constructive conversation with anyone who didn’t completely agree with my half-formed ideology.
I was raised in a place where the word feminist conjured up images of angry, masculine women too domineering to land a husband; at no point during my first 25 years of life would I have labeled myself one.
The reason for my doubtfulness was simple: My first, wavering steps into feminism were symptoms of a larger ailment. I was unable to think for myself.
I was raised in a conservative city in West Michigan, a place where the word feminist conjured up images of angry, masculine women too domineering to land a husband; at no point during my first 25 years of life would I have labeled myself one. My father worked overtime and my mother cared for the house and children. This was the blueprint I used when formulating my own life plan; architecting it required little thought and was fairly easy to achieve.
On August 30, 2007, I said “I do,” successfully checking off a box on my lifelong to-do list. I was 20 years old.
We bought a house with a white picket fence, a large kitchen, and elaborate gardens planted with seasonal roses, bushes that burned red in the fall, and a single hibiscus flower that bloomed beside a koi pond. We selected furniture, painted the walls the perfect shade of neutral grey, and called it our forever home.
For five and a half years, I embraced my role as a wife. I mimicked my mother’s behavior, taking full responsibility of the house in addition to my job as a hairstylist. I was also my husband’s business assistant, a role I believed helped his career and benefited our future.
In an unexpected turn of events, in October 2013 I filed for divorce. Stereotypically, the dissolution of a marriage is often considered the result of feminism. In my case, it was the catalyst for it.
As I distanced myself from my identity as a wife, I felt defeated, uncertain, unappreciated, undervalued, and really, really pissed off.
During the proceedings, I was forced to confront the question of my worth. My husband wondered why I thought I was entitled to half the profit from the sale of our home. He argued that my hairstyling career brought in far less income than his business, a view that completely disregarded the hours I’d spent maintaining our home and working as his unpaid assistant.
With the realization that my contributions were considered less valuable than his, I could see that I had been bred to fulfill a role that, by many, was viewed as lesser than. As I distanced myself from my identity as a wife, I felt defeated, uncertain, unappreciated, undervalued, and really, really pissed off.
Born out of a feeling of inequality and exaggerated by the shame of my life plan being torn to shreds, this anger led me to a new ideology. As the world I once knew crumbled, I grabbed ahold of feminism like a life preserver, a convenient refutation of my past life.
At first, the role felt like playing dress-up in clothes that were too big. I eagerly absorbed any opinions that claimed to be “feminist” without drawing my own conclusions. I blasted the traditional family model, believing the issue lay in the institution as a whole, not in the pitfalls of my own relationship. I embraced what I perceived to be sex-positivity, which was, in reality, a messy approach to romantic entanglements that left me even more broken hearted.
In a familiar stance, I clung to the beliefs of others while defending them as my own.
In defense of my new, strong woman persona, I was unable to admit I was struggling and felt deeply offended when my friends and family expressed concern. In a final attempt to prove, mostly to myself, that I was capable of independence, I moved to Los Angeles.
Struggling with one’s own feminist identity seems to be a part of modern feminism. In the seventies, Joan Didion skewered second-wave feminists, describing a popular view of the movement as “a yearning absolutely devoid of ideas.” As she observed women using feminism to defend their personal ideologies rather than championing a unified cause, Didion concluded that “the women’s movement is no longer a cause but a symptom.”
What started as a movement with clear political goals—spearheaded by an identifiable group (first-wave feminists were practically all white)—is now a murky landscape, difficult to define and constantly evolving. Topics like misogyny, body shaming, sexual harassment, intersectionality, gender roles, trans rights, and workplace discrimination create a buffet of à la carte options from which supporters pick and choose. Fourth-wave feminism is defined by its undefinability. I can only imagine the Twitter war that would erupt were Didion to publish something similar today.
I still find it easier to craft punchy statuses and share half-read articles than it is to do the work of self-reflection, but I’m analyzing my own story and using it to create opinions that are fully formed and worth expressing.
Which brings me to where I am now. After several years of sitting behind a screen, signing e-petitions, devouring online periodicals, tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting, debating, and liking, my honeymoon phase with feminism ended. I’m adjusting how I participate in a movement that is difficult to define. And, while I still find it easier to craft punchy statuses and share half-read articles than it is to do the work of self-reflection, my goal is to contribute a unique voice steeped in deep, personal analysis, a direction in which I hope feminism is heading.
Not knowing where I stand in this patchwork movement feels a little destabilizing, but it also feels good to finally admit that this mentality is new to me. I don’t have all the answers. Instead, I’ve begun to ask questions. I’m reading stories of people’s different experiences in the hope that I can see beyond the lens of my own, shallow perspective. I’m examining where my experience is most useful and exploring which corner of this big topic I can most effectively support and champion. In the process, I’m analyzing my own story and using it to create opinions that are fully formed and worth expressing, knowing that when I am heard, the message will have a greater chance of resonating rather than simply resounding.