I am a feminist and I am also a human being

I’m not sure if it came from Naomi Wolf’s critique of ‘victim feminism’ or if it’s simply another painful part of the backlash, designed as an attempt to further weaken and silence women’s voices and experiences, but somewhere in there we’ve managed to develop an understanding that to be feminist means you must be flawless.

I imagine most of us have encountered people who’ve tried to take away your feminist card because they decided that your thoughts or behaviours or actions didn’t fit with their understanding of what a feminist should be like in real life. And I’m not talking about actions that perpetuate patriarchal oppression or misogynist behaviour — I suppose you could (at least temporarily) lose your feminist card for that — I’m talking about the idea that somehow feminists are or should be able to avoid the regular old life crap that everyone else has to deal with. That we don’t make mistakes or bad choices or end up in less-than-feminist relationships. That we don’t experience the same feelings of heartache or sadness or pain or depression that everyone else does. Because we are supposedly ‘strong women’, displaying or admitting that we are weak or vulnerable at times is often used against us.

The Is This Feminist tumblr gets at this concept in a particular kind of way, mocking the idea that every single move a feminist makes must be judged as either a feminist or an insufficiently feminist action, including laundry and drinking alone. But what I’m talking about goes beyond all that, is much more painful, and is far more difficult to overcome.

I’m a feminist, yes. But I’m not perfect. I still make mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. I still feel hurt and angry and sad. I still fall in love, I still feel heartbroken, and I am still vulnerable. I am a feminist and I’ve still been victimized, I’ve been lied to, betrayed, threatened, and abused. I’ve been cheated on, I’ve been called a cunt, a whore, a slut, and a bitch. And even though I’m a feminist these things still hurt. No matter how feminist you are, you are not impermeable. I make bad choices sometimes, I say things I don’t mean, and sometimes I act like an asshole. I’m not perfect. And yet still — I still get to be a feminist.

Recently a woman I hardly know felt it necessary to shame me for having feelings that differentiate me from a coffee table or a sociopath. I went through a painful breakup this year. It was very complicated and very horrible. I know I’m not the only person on earth to have experienced this and I know I’m not the only person on the planet who felt unsure about how to cope or who fell into a long depression as a result. I’m not the only person who has felt heartbreak and not been able to quickly move on, place everything tidily away in the past and come out unscathed. It has been a difficult year and I’m not ashamed to admit that. But somehow, this person felt that this experience, these feelings, and the difficulties I’ve had coping were particularly shameful because I ‘pretended’ to be a feminist.

It wasn’t just that I was had been hurt that was so pathetic and wrong, but it was because I purported to be a feminist that made this pain particularly shameful. As a feminist, I was supposed to be ‘strong’, ‘independent’, and know everything. Weakness, love, sadness, heartbreak and, yes, even a little instability and irrationality were not, according to this woman, things that feminists were allowed to feel. If we did fail so badly at being appropriately ‘strong’ and unfeeling feminists, if we admit to not knowing all the answers and perhaps flailing a little bit in the process, there is something wrong with us, we should be ashamed, and we are clearly not truly feminist.

Feminists know all the answers. Feminists are always strong. Feminists don’t flail.

I’ve heard this kind of thing before – from men and women in my past who felt that there was something terribly wrong with me that, as a feminist, I could end up in an abusive relationship. That it was either unbelievable or that it was a failing on my part — that I was living a charade. These people acted as though I’d been caught in a lie: “Aha! You aren’t a feminist after all! You have a flaw. You allowed yourself to be abused. Give back your feminist card!”

There was a great post over at Feministe this past week about when feminists face abuse and the extra helping of shame and embarrassment that comes along with that experience. The author, Lila, writes:

“How could a self-proclaimed feminist come to this point? This is what abused feminists hear every time they speak out, and this is what they learn to ask themselves. The same women who march at SlutWalks become dedicated victim-blamers. They learn not to talk about it, because admitting to it challenges their feminism.”

In other words, this kind of imposed shame is a silencing technique. And women do it to other women all the time. As feminists we aren’t supposed to admit that we make bad choices sometimes, that we fall for abusers sometimes, that we’ve been manipulated, or lied to, or fucked over, or hurt. We are supposed to somehow be above all that. We are psychics and we are gods. We don’t get to be real, sometimes fucked up, sometimes shitty, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes confused, human beings.

Lila asks herself the same questions I’ve asked myself:

“How did you come to this point? You, the self-proclaimed feminist? The one who always talks about independence, and red flags, and women’s rights? The one people turn to advice to? The one no one would ever believe this could happen to?”

We all have the inner voices that participate (enthusiastically at that!) in this attacking and shaming and victim-blaming. We already have to fight, as women and as feminists, to stop blaming ourselves and hating ourselves for being victims, for being vulnerable, for being imperfect, for ending up in situations that don’t feel particularly feminist. We don’t need other women to do the shaming for us. I don’t need to hear from anyone what they think I should be feeling and why it is particularly pathetic that, as a feminist, I would somehow fall in love with the wrong person. I’m already right there with you.

Being a feminist doesn’t mean that I am always strong, always independent, that I always make the right choices, or that I know everything. I can pretty much guarantee that I will continue to make mistakes for the rest of my life. I hope to learn from those mistakes and not make the same ones again, but I can’t even guarantee that much. If being a feminist means that I can’t feel pain, or that I can’t be hurt, that I can’t feel angry and out of control and depressed and heartbroken, then I will never be able to call myself a feminist. I am a feminist but I am also a human being. And I wish that women would stop shaming each other for that.

If feminism is going to be a movement that any woman feels comfortable aligning herself with, we’re going to have to give each other a break and start admitting that we are flawed. Every single one of us. We need to stop telling other women that, as feminists, we can never be hurt, never make mistakes, never be vulnerable, and never be weak. I’m not always strong. I’m not even strong half of the time. And I’m certainly not perfect.

Feminists aren’t perfect. We are people.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Sargasso Sea

    You know what? Not a single one of us is a “human being” allowed to have foibles and make mistakes feminist or no.

    This is male dominance, this is patriarchy and you are female; the more you defend yourself the more fault will be found.

    There will never be ANY slack for you unless you make it, for yourself, between your own ears. Much easier said than done but it’s the only so-called *choice* you have. My sincere best wishes to you Meghan.

    • Meghan Murphy

      So true, Sargasso Sea. The outside silencing and attacks will always be there…That said, I think it’s important to talk about this in the hope that maybe women (and men) will think twice before doing this to other women/feminists.

      • Sargasso Sea

        You’ve missed my point, Meghan. I’m not talking about “attacks” (everything is a goddamn *attack* these days), I’m talking about female reality and our reality isn’t nice or pretty or fun or liberal. It’s not something that we can change by appealing to Everyone’s Better Nature, by hoping that they “think twice before they […]”.

        This kind of message that is often labeled “mean”. And this is the message that radical feminists have been bringing for the last four decades. Yes it’s bleak, but at least it’s the truth.

        • Meghan Murphy

          How is it “mean”? In any case, I don’t think I’ve missed your point – I think you are saying that it’s systematic. And I think you are partly right but I also think that many people simply don’t realize that this kind of behaviour is oppressive and, in fact, I’ve had conversations with people who have reconsidered and changed their behaviour as a result. So I am hopeful in more than one sense. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

          • Sargasso Sea

            You’re welcome.

          • Julie

            Systemic

  • Barbara Di Bari Visconti

    So with you on this one, Meghan. I had this done to me year ago in “therapy”, by a man. I call it “strength mongering.” I think it is done with more than a small dose of cynicism. I’m not black, but I think it gets done a lot to black women too. You know, the “strong black woman”, she can take anything. It’s an oppressors’ tactic. They don’t have to feel a need to treat us with care and sensitivity. We can take care of ourselves, all of us. It’s oppressors’ bs.

  • Ciara

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve been berating myself for being a feminist who is also queer but in the closet. how could this happen to me? I go the marches, I attend anti homophobia marches, I read the blogs of dozens of lesbian feminists, how could i be so far in denial for so long.

    I’m not perfect and I’m subject to the same fear of being rejected as everyone else.

  • Ciara

    that’s supposed to be “campaigns” not marches – the second time.

  • ned

    I pretty much stopped paying any attention to Naomi Wolf after the Julian Assange madness happened.

    Hang in there, Meghan.

  • Jessica

    Very true. Also, I’d like to believe that I’m still a radical feminist even though sometimes I drink alone WHILE doing my laundry.

  • Thanks for this post. It’s been hard enough for me to reconcile my feminism with the fact that I was in an abusive relationship for the better part of a decade without my so-called allies throwing it in my face.

  • Missfit

    ‘If being a feminist means that I can’t feel pain, or that I can’t be hurt, that I can’t feel angry and out of control and depressed and heartbroken, then I will never be able to call myself a feminist.’

    I think all these feelings is what makes us feminists in the first place. Being a feminist is being human.

  • insolence

    Thanks for your honesty and for the opportunity to share my favorite Chrystos quote:

    If you ever
    again tell me
    how strong I am
    I’ll lay down on the ground and moan so you’ll see
    at last my human weakness like your own

    • Meghan Murphy

      Beauty. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sabrina L.

      Thank you thank you.

  • Jenny

    This post is brillant! I feel very much represented.

  • Naomi Wolf is definitely part of the backlash.

    Some of Twisty’s fabulous words on women-as-victims:

    “Largely because of the success of the funfeminist movement, which argues that women do too have agency, dammit! (as long as their choiciness stays perfectly aligned with male interests), to view women as victims has become passé and unpopular. Women aren’t victims anymore now that we can own property, vote, and have the right to pole-dance in our boyfriends’ apartments. Furthermore, the argument goes, if we traipse about the countryside exaggerating the sorry plight of women (when in fact the plight of women, though admittedly not quite as awesome as men’s, is at least not as sorry as it was), we’re just buying into that unattractive, unempowerfulized, hysterical “victim mentality.” We freely choose to wear 6-inch heels, and if we author this choice, we cannot therefore be victims of it. If we don’t think we are victims, we won’t be victims.”

    here

  • NMR

    What a relief…Besides the pain of loss I’ve felt after ending my relationship I’ve kicked the shit out of myself for not being strong enough, not knowing better, for trusting and believing in love as though doing so had been a character flaw for a feminist mind set and attitude. I may be feminist and yes…I too bleed and ache for my lover and wish desperatly we could have been good for each other. I am a feminist who loves men. It’s not gender that I have trouble with it’s mysogonistic attitudes but loving a man makes me feel like a traitor. and being heart broken by one a fool…forgive ourselves…we can be our own worst enemies.

  • NMR – isn’t it a bit contradictory to say ‘we can be our own worst enemies’ at the same time as saying ‘forgive ourselves’? Sounds more like self-blame than forgiveness to me…

    • Meghan Murphy

      Well, I think that’s the problem. We blame ourselves, other people blame us. We do need to work to forgive ourselves but that is ‘work’ – it isn’t what we do automatically – our training is to blame ourselves…

      • I’m not saying it’s not work, I just thought it was kind of ironic to say, ‘oh we must forgive ourselves and we don’t, oh, look at us, we’re our own worst enemies for not forgiving ourselves!’

        Like, not forgiving yourself became one more thing to bash yourself over!

  • Like, I have done many things, even after I came to feminism. But I didn’t blame myself. I just took a long hard look at how things were, what I’d been doing and said, well that was a bloody bad idea so I won’t do it again. Every time it made me realize new depths of my own internalized misogyny and what I needed to do to get rid of it. End of story. To me, that is what forgiving yourself means – realizing that you have been complicit in your own oppression, and working to change it, but that does not make me my own worst enemy. The awful men I was with were far greater enemies to me than my own self was for staying with them.

    It makes patriarchy my worst enemy, and I am just learning to fight it a little better, a little harder, every time.

  • K

    Meghan, I think a lot of us can relate to your experience. For me, I was the one criticizing myself for being so weak to trust someone so untrustworthy, to love them, to let them take advantage of my trust several times, realizing it would be over soon and still allowing them to have the power to decide when things would finally end. I was so upset with myself for “allowing” myself to be a doormat. But, being a human being and not a robot, I know that at the time I was feeling things like love and was hopeful for things to change for the better with this person. So sue me, I stayed with someone shitty and they finally broke my heart as it was easy for anyone on the outside to see that they would. And it hurt like hell, and I felt silly about how much I was hurting. Although I’ve moved on now, I still sometimes have dreams about this person that bring me back to good and bad moments, and I sometimes wake up from these dreams with tears in my eyes, feeling everything I did then.

    And even though I can be vulnerable, and maybe even naive sometimes, I’m also still a feminist.

    I hope you’re doing better now. Breakups can be awful, awful things.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh my how I can relate… I cry about once a day still, but who’s afraid of a few tears, eh? Know it will be better eventually and that somehow these things seem to make a lot more sense in retrospect. It doesn’t ever seem to get any easier, though does it? I fooled myself into thinking it did. Thanks for sharing your experience. Very much appreciated.

  • Donna

    I loved your post and just wanted to share a quotation with you that popped up on my facebook feed …

    “Feminism is the radical notion that women are actually people”

    I think this is a great saying that means that as women we are entitled to exactly the same things as men – the right to our feelings, the right to screw up big time and feel bad about it as well as the ‘important’ stuff of equal pay and the right to say what/who is allowed inside our bodies …

    • Camille

      Wow, such a great quote. It perfectly sums up what feminism is about for me.

  • Hi Meghan,

    I think that it’s a complete misreading of “feminism” to say that feminists have to be “strong”, “independent”, “above it all”, and all that kind of thing. All of these demands that feminists be a certain way, presume that feminism is a LIFESTYLE. But feminism is not a lifestyle; it is an UNDERSTANDING and basic analysis of the situation of women–of our oppression. It is an understanding that many of our problems as women are not caused by our individual flaws, but by a system of male supremacy in which we are “bottom dog.” Once we “get” this, hopefully it should give us MORE tolerance of what we and other women face, and should make us less judgmental.

    The goal of a feminist is to not to find a way to be perfect, but to understand what women are contending with daily and try to make the world a less sexist place (such changes are only made through through movements and not by each one of us exhibiting the ‘perfect’ lifestyle). I think it is telling of how much feminism has devolved to “individual lifestyle-ism” from what it was–movement building.

    Your “friends” who are criticizing you this way, are the ones not being truly feminist. It’s like the ridiculous phrase “liberated woman”. You can’t be “liberated” in a non-liberated world. Liberation demands a social surround–if we could reach out and just do it, we wouldn’t need a feminist movement in the first place!

    • Meghan Murphy

      So true, Fran.

  • Tina

    A friend linked me to this article today and it really spoke to me, as someone who has been in a few abusive relationships before and in the process of getting out of there,heavily questioned her own feminist beliefs. It helped me more than you might think, to read that someone else has been there (although I don’t wish it on anybody).
    You rock!

  • All I’d add, and I’ll try to make this clear and concise, is that I have this feeling some people think we call ourselves feminists *because* we feel these things. As if we use them as some excuse for somehow allowing ourselves to be victims in the first place, and then we want someone else to take responsibility for us… therefore we call ourselves feminists to blame someone else – men, for example. Or always men. Since, right, we’re always blaming men for being abused or victimized or ostracized or whatnot, instead of taking responsibility.

    And that’s completely missing the point – that kind of view. We feel these things and have these experiences as people, with the understanding that we are *all* capable of feeling these things and experiencing these things… and our fight for equality is something else – the notion that we all experience these things is what makes us ALL human, not what we use as an excuse or to blame someone.

    Not sure if that made sense, but great post, nonetheless. I’ve been through the shite breakups, too. Time heals, it really does.

  • manup

    Thank you for this post, it means a lot to me to read it (and the comments, too). A while back a found myself in an abusive situation at work, and the hardest thing was indeed the feminist-bashing/shaming voice in my head. Which, now that reason has returned, is not surprising – patriarchy is abusive, and for as long as we’re in it, we cannot entirely avoid abusive situations and abusive ways of thinking. They’re all around us.

    I think it’s also important to look deeper into the notions of ‘strength’ and ‘independence’ and what kind of strength is being advocated for and asked of us. So that instead of defending ourselves against accusations of weakness, we challenge the very notion of strength and the assumptions behind it. Feeling and showing vulnerability, allowing for interdependence, these also take courage and require strength. Just not the stone-faced-conqueror kind of strength patriarchy advocates for.

  • Surf Diva

    Thank you for posting this Meghan. I can’t imagine that there are any of us who haven’t run into this dynamic.

    Having been on the receiving end of apparently disappointing folks (or making them cruelly gleeful) for my lack of perfection, I’ve given some thought as to why this happens. And I think it does for a multitude of reasons.

    1.) It happens because the naysayers want to validate their own lack of idealism, activism, whatever else-ism…pointing out that someone else who is actually involved isn’t perfect is a form of self-justification for their own lack of involvement.

    2.) For some of us, our identity comes from being THE single source of expertise on any particular subject. Those people (and one of the few times, you’ll hear me use ‘those people’ in any context) are so threatened by someone else’s leadership and expertise, that they will take them down at any cost…even if it is hurtful to their own cause. They will alienate allies just so their sense of self is not threatened (and most often, these folks are often seen as (and often are) good people who realize not what they are doing.)

    3.) Some people hold those they know to unrealistically higher standards than they do the “poor masses,” and this often happens within a movement as is given by the example of the victim blaming that can occur by those that are leading the feminist and anti-sexual assault movements.

    4.) Folks transfer their own feelings of persecution on to others. They feel victimized themselves by someone who has proselytized in the past – and in return, get really angry at some random person who they perceive as being involved in the same ideals/movement/activism/etc.

    5.) For me the saddest one – is that people have so little ideals in their lives that when someone who they see as an idealist falls slightly short, they are incredibly disappointed. This can come out in all sorts of demeaning ways, but mostly stems from a childlike view of wanting superheroes, and the subsequent disenchantment of finding out that we are all filled with the foibles of being only human.

  • gayle

    “But feminism is not a lifestyle; it is an UNDERSTANDING and basic analysis of the situation of women–of our oppression. It is an understanding that many of our problems as women are not caused by our individual flaws, but by a system of male supremacy in which we are “bottom dog.

    Right! I always thought a feminist understood and fought against the oppression of women.

    I don’t know where all the rest of this “feminists can’t get hurt” crap came from. Feminists get the fact that women are human beings and therefore we make mistakes, get hurt, etc., and so forth.

  • copleycat

    Good post Megan and I’m sorry to hear you had a rough year. I have run into people with this attitude too and I’ve got to say when it’s coming from folks who either don’t identify as feminists or do but only when it’s convenient for them; they don’t bother with marches, demonstrations, petitions and forget about volunteering but they will say things like, “I’m a feminist and I don’t find that [inherently misogynistic remark] offensive”, it is pretty much always an expression of smug, petty, malice and ultimately coming from a dark misogynistic cess pool in their barren hearts. As for when it comes from others who claim to be feminists who for the most part walk the walk, well, sadly I have run into some feminists who do not want to let anyone on their team (anyone they have identified with) admit to and unpack their issues. They don’t allow for self reflection even though that the only way to root out internalized misogyny, simply because they don’t want to acknowledge that such a thing ever happens even though it does.
    As for Naomi Wolf, she was sounding pretty hateful ages ago in her book “Fire with Fire” and when I saw her on Democracy Now debating Jacklyn Friedman (who I’m not so happy with for her support of Slutwalk but in this particular debate she was great and I was very glad she was at bat) she kept saying that feminism shouldn’t be about “…giving women the home court advantage” does that strike anyone else as a big red flag or what? Anyway Wolf seems like Roiphe with slightly more brains and a hold on the bath salts.

  • You are certainly a human being but the next question is, where the heck have you been?

  • Mel

    thank you.

    i feel quite alone, often, as I am viewed as this woman with no emotions. no hurt. no pain.

    i am seen as someone who needs noone.

    and i facilitate this.

    … its the only way i can survive …

    thank you

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  • M. Lisa C.

    Thank you, Meghan for sharing such an honest and open post. It took a tremendous amount of strength to share something so personal and painful with us all. Sadly there are too many women out there that claim to be feminist and completely nullify the cause with that kind of attitude. To me Feminism is an understanding, a belief. You must truly know yourself to know whether you are a feminist or not. Too many women view feminism like that cute cashmere sweater in the window, let me try it on and see how it fits. Feminism is not the latest fashion statement. As we are naturally a feeling creature, we react to what pains us. We are human. I hope that by sharing your experience it has helped you heal. Once again thank you for your candid honesty.

  • Safron

    There are weak womin. There are dumb womin. There are cold womin. There are cruel womin. I would like to live in a world where every womyn was safe from male violence. Where she is not blamed or shamed for what was done to her.

    Sometimes you really are a victim and there is nothing you can do about it. Being victimized does not make you “bad” or unworthy of being called a feminist, it just means “shit happens”. Or more accurately, “men happen”.

  • Ghost

    Oh yes, we are all human, I, an ardent feminist have gone through shit; heck, even Andrea Dworkin has! I believe this is what makes us strong, we learn where our insecurities and vulnerabilities lie. And then we know better what our insidious enemy looks like.