Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Excuses!

I just finished reading Gloria Feldt's latest book, _No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power_. And I've decided to blog about if for a couple of reasons:

1) She offers some great advice for aspiring feminist activists. _No Excuses_ definitely motivated me. But I knew that simply reading the book wouldn't be enough. I had to think about how what she was saying affected me personally; I read very slowly, and (nerd alert!) took a lot of notes. How many times have you read a book full of good advice, but then acted on none of it? I know I have. And I didn't want that to happen this time.

2) Likely because it was published so recently, this book contains a lot of information about how websites and blogs are changing the landscape of feminist activism. I'll elaborate on that in a bit. But suffice it to say for now that as as someone who considers herself a feminist blogger, I'd be wrong not to mention this book here.

Feldt's book _The War on Choice: The Right-Wing Attack on Women's Rights and How to Fight Back_ (published in 2004) totally blew my mind, so when I heard that she was coming out with a new book, I was eager to read it. But I have to admit that at first, I wasn't sure how I felt about the idea behind this one. From the inside front cover: "In _No Excuses_, [Feldt] argues that the most confounding problem facing women today isn't that doors aren't open, but that not enough women are walking through them."

It sounded a little like victim blaming to me. But given that Gloria Feldt isn't exactly the victim blaming type, I decided to read it anyway.

And I'm glad that I did.

She offers a lot of solid examples to back up her claim. For instance, women fought hard to win the right to vote in the US. But many stopped short of using their newly gained right as a vehicle through which to make further progress. Alice Paul, meanwhile, understood that winning the right to vote, though tremendous, was only one step along the road to equality. So she drafted the Equal Rights Amendment.

Feldt does not generalize about how women "aren't doing this" or "aren't doing that." Rather, _No Excuses_ is full of stories of women who, like Alice Paul, walked through the doors that were open to them. A huge part of her argument is really that those women aren't bringing enough people with them. And without a whole lot of us, we won't be able to achieve much.

She illustrates that by focusing on the idea of "power to," which she explains in contrast with "power over." The latter is force. Bad news bears. The former, however, inspires the solidarity that social justice movements are made of. So naturally, I was all over that.

Feldt does a really good job of emphasizing that everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, education level, party affiliation, or any other factor, can and should do their part to make the world better. I was particularly impressed with what she said about my generation of feminists.

There has been a lot of talk in the past couple of years about how "young feminist don't exist." The very first blog carnival I ever participated in addressed this very issue. More than forty feminist bloggers (myself included) posted in response to negative comments made by Gail Collins and Stacy Schiff in the New York Times.

But on page 276 of _No Excuses_, Feldt (who, at age 69, is a couple of generations ahead of my 22-year-old self) says, "Younger women's involvement and leadership in advancing women's rights to equality and self-determination are crucial because that's the only way the movement for equality will continue to flourish and grow. I fear for our future unless young women step up to lead a new wave of civic engagement--and indeed, one of my greatest delights is seeing how many young women are doing just that." She goes on to highlight work by young feminists such as Shelby Knox (24) and Courtney Martin (31).

But where to start? Feldt emphasizes that the best way to gain self esteem is to stand up for what you believe in. The first thing I did when I read that, of course, was compare myself to the activists highlighted in the book. And then I proceeded to beat myself up over what a shitty job I've been doing of standing up for what I care about. But I also realized that there are already things I'm doing correctly.

Like "wearing the shirt," for example, or, in other words, putting your beliefs out in the open. One need look no further than this blog to see that I'm already doing that. In the "about me" blurb, I say outright that I'm a feminist. And below that are badges to all the blog carnivals in which I've participated. From those, you can tell that I support LGBT rights, Planned Parenthood, and pro-choice/feminist issues in general. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are littered with similar posts.

And then there's my tote bag. I carry with me everywhere I go. There's an Audre Lorde quote ("Your silence will not protect you") pinned to it. And there's a "trust women" pin on it as well. And to support LGBT rights, I wear a "gayclet" that my friend Angela made for me out of rainbow-colored pieces of string. I've been asked about all of those. It's not scary to me, because those are topics that I love to talk about--even with people who give me dirty looks.

And in some cases, my vocal habits have paid off. A couple of years ago, I was driving with my friend Kevin from Saginaw to Kalamazoo, MI. As soon as we got onto the freeway, Kevin, who had been following my Facebook posts, asked me why I identify as pro-choice. Because he knew me to be a kind, compassionate friend, he wondered why I was so incredibly passionate about something with which he so adamantly disagreed.

And so, in our three hours on the road together, I explained why I care so much about it. I had all the time in the world to offer up examples and answer his questions. Neither of us were hostile about it; he was genuinely curious and willing to listen. In the end, he told me that he could see that there was good reason for supporting pro-choice issues. I realize now that the conversation would not have happened had I not been spouting off online.

Despite my confidence about certain issues, however, there's still this discrepancy between how I see myself and how others see me. If you use Twitter, you know that you can organize your "followers" into "lists." Followers of mine have categorized me this way: "feminist," "feminist bloggers," and even Gloria Feldt's favorite word, "power."

But in my head, it's a different picture entirely. I've always said that I'm a "feminist with a blog" instead of a "feminist blogger" because although everything I write comes from a feminist perspective, I don't write exclusively about feminist issues. Furthermore, although I've identified as a feminist for a number of years now, it was only a year or so ago that I got active in the feminist blogosphere. I make the mistake of comparing myself to women like Feministing's Chloe Angyal or Shelby Knox, the subject of a documentary on comprehensive sex education. And I get discouraged, because they, like me, are in their early twenties. And they are doing some pretty amazing stuff.

But just because I don't write for Feministing, doesn't mean I'm not a feminist blogger, right?

This got me thinking about all the times that I've underestimated myself, or backed off when I shouldn't have. Here's just one of many examples: A year or so ago, a "Facebook friend" of mine posted a status in which he declared that "feminism has gone too far." Obviously, it really pissed me off. But instead of responding to his post with reasons why feminism actually hasn't reached far enough yet, I just blocked his updates from my feed and got on with my day. Because I didn't want to deal with the inevitable backlash.

I regret that. And I don't know why I constantly talk myself out of speaking my mind when I know that I'm pretty well-versed on a lot of feminist issues. In _No Excuses_, Feldt refers to quite a few books--among them _When Everything Changed_ by Gail Collins, _The Means of Reproduction_ by Michelle Goldberg, and _Manifesta_ by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards--all of which I've read. She also refers to a lot of things that have happened recently in the blogosphere. She spent several pages on "abstinence porn," which is a term coined by Chrstine Seifert of Bitch Magazine to describe the genre of YA lit into which the Twilight series fits. I didn't need a refresher course from Gloria Feldt to understand that, because I read the Bitch article when it was published several years ago. To this day, I cannot think about Twilight without my internal monologue going, "Abstinence porn! Abstinence porn! Hahahahaha!"

So clearly, I know my shit. There are doors there. Gotta open 'em.

And I see this blog as the key to doing that. From page 331: "There are many reasons to keep blogs or maintain websites. To advance our professional lives by displaying portfolios of our work; the thrill of the open confessional; documenting a hobby, talent, or obsession; or simply as a place to document our daily lives. Just as my T-shirt is valuable real estate to proclaim my convictions, so is your online platform--you can wear the cypershirt. You can tell your story uncensored and find a community of people who share your problems and your passions."

As I mentioned, I'm already doing that to some extent. But there are still a few things that have kept me from having much of an impact. So I hope to use this blog as a vehicle through which to change that. I'm part of something great, and need to fully embrace it. This means recognizing that I too have a voice in the feminist blogosphere.

Now stop reading this. Go find a copy of _No Excuses_, and read it if you haven't yet already. Then figure out what your strengths are, and go get shit done.

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