As I’ve become more aware of the problematic aspects of female socialization, I’ve taken steps to actively work against what I’ve been taught is expected of me simply because I’m a woman. In some ways, the process has been straightforward: I notice my impulses, think about where they come from and who they serve, and then do the opposite. One aspect I continue to struggle with is figuring out how much kindness my feminism should include.
In patriarchy, a woman who correctly performs femininity puts the needs of others before her own. She takes up little space in the world, both physically and behaviourly. She is gentle and quiet, downplaying her accomplishments in order to not appear brash or threatening, and she decorates herself in ways she has been taught appeal to men. She is selfless, unthreatening and, most of all, she is nice.
In contrast, men who behave according to traditional rules of masculinity are competitive and dominant. Protecting their pride against perceived slights is a constant concern, one that justifies using violence when the situation presents a significant enough threat.
Examined together, it’s clear how both male and female socialization benefit men while actively disadvantaging women, so it’s no surprise that feminists focus on identifying and challenging gendered socialization, and freeing ourselves from the shackles of conditioned nicety.
What becomes more complicated for me is figuring out how geniality relates to feminism.
Since feminist activism involves consciousness raising and persuasion, is being kind simply the effective thing to do? Or, since recognizing and rejecting problematic aspects of gendered socialization is central to feminism, does gentleness reinforce problematic stereotypes? Is liberation freeing ourselves from the desire to be, or be seen as, nice? Or is rejecting socially-conditioned impulses to be mild and cooperative simply emulating aggressively masculine behaviour?
A black and white thinker who often has trouble discerning shades of grey, I often find myself vacillating between both approaches, usually depending on the audience and situation. Sometimes this seems like an effective middle ground, other times like insipid half measures.
Some of the more radical feminists I’ve encountered have been admirably raw, openly and mercilessly pushing women to ally exclusively with other women and avoid men altogether. Sometimes going as far as calling heterosexual women handmaidens of patriarchy, some of these feminists aggressively criticize women for allying with, marrying or having children with men.
Seeing these women openly flout the rules of feminine behaviour sometimes makes me uncomfortable, yet I tend to see that discomfort as a result of my socially-conditioned expectation that other women conform to the same version of femininity that patriarchy uses to control us all. Part of me admires these feminists, and believes they push us into the uncomfortable, raw places we must go to deconstruct our internalized misogyny. At the same time I wonder if this ferocity fuels and sustains the movement, or does it fragment the movement by dividing women who could otherwise work together?
On the other hand, does a feminist approach based in a gentler form of persuasion reinforce problematic stereotypes about what’s expected of women? Is seeking compromise just another way in which women continue to settle for patriarchy’s meagre crumbs? Is allying with men or groups who don’t explicitly prioritize women’s liberation selling out? Or is this approach simply a more pragmatic, longer-term journey towards liberation?
I don’t have the answers, but considering many women spend their lifetimes without recognizing or questioning their socialization, I’ve decided to cut myself some slack while I figure it out.
Looking for your input, sisters – on the continuum from scorched earth to sisterhood, where does your feminism fall?