Finding a voice in feminist discourse

On the first day of my Feminist Cultural Theory class this semester, our professor asked us to introduce ourselves and explain our “relationship to feminism, culture, or theory.”

As we went around the room, I was floored by my classmates’ prior knowledge and their ability to speak eloquently about their everyday experiences with feminism, reference theorists like Judith Butler and her ideas on gender performance, and name-drop essays I’ve never heard of, like the influential 1985 piece “A Cyborg Manifesto.”

Being a feminist myself—someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of all genders—I tried to claim my experiences confidently. I’ve taken classes towards my Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies minor since my first semester at Emerson, but it was hard not to feel like I paled in comparison.

It can feel intimidating to jump into discussion about gender, even at a liberal college that, by and large, invites such conversation. At Emerson, where many people seem so well versed on social justice issues, it can be hard to find your footing when you’re trying to learn more about feminism. And sometimes, the zeal of other student feminists can act as a deterrent.

Today, anyone can get instant access to feminist discourse and information about current feminist issues—it’s particularly prevalent on the blogging platform Tumblr—which is amazing but also overwhelming. Attempting to understand years of feminist theory—writings on gender performance, intersectionality, the male gaze, and the like—on top of the intense emotions surrounding feminist issues is an incredible task. It’s encouraging that feminism has such a huge impact on Emerson’s campus, but it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Plus, among many Emerson students, conversation about prevalent issues can become so heated that it’s frightening even to dip your toe in the water. I’ve walked through the dining hall and overheard raucous discussions about topics like abortion or campus rape. Facebook newsfeeds frequently host debates about feminism and social justice. Sometimes it’s tempting to dive in, but I also worry that I might ruffle feathers or lose friends.

At Emerson, the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies minor features a robust variety of class topics, including how society affects the way we dress, roles of power and privilege in society, and queer dreams. The Emerson professors I’ve had in my gender studies classes are the kind of life-altering, perspective-widening teachers you see in cliched college movies.

For me, feminism becomes less intimidating when I realize we are all still learning and there are those out there who want to teach us. Wonderfully, it’s also not necessary to take a class to seek out feminist discussion with student groups focused on the topic, like Emerson Feminists, Lash (formerly Isis) Magazine, and the filmmaking club Women in Motion.

On that first day of class, our professor, Claudia Castañeda, taught us about the idea of “situated knowledge” in relation to feminism—knowledge specific to a certain situation, like being a feminist and a woman of color. Some of my classmates had questions like: “Does this relate to situationist theory and the idea of rerouting yourself?” and, “How would you compare situated knowledge to positionality?” (I later learned this term refers to the idea of understanding power in relation to positions of gender, race, class, and age.)

As for these student feminists who always seem to know much more than me, I choose to see them as another opportunity to learn. The best way I know to become a better feminist is to listen to what others have to say, hear about their experiences, and understand what they want from feminism and what it gives them.

I’ve found this to be true on a theoretical level; in class, despite how confusing it is to hear academic terms specific to feminist theory, becoming immersed in this discourse has helped me better understand it, little by little. On a practical level, when I listen to the ways others have applied feminism to their lives, I learn better ways to live feminism in my own life.

Practicing feminism, bringing those social and political beliefs into daily life, is not as challenging as it may seem. Once you decide to be a feminist, you are one. You can get involved in the feminist dialogue at your own pace. It might still be intimidating, but if we can all add just one comment to the discussion—if we can speak up, not just listen—then we’re still continuing the conversation and contributing to the greater feminist movement.