“I am a feminist” versus “I advocate feminism”

There is a significant difference between the two declarations above. The following suggestion from bell hooks helps clarify: 

To emphasize engagement with feminist struggle as political committment, we could avoid using the phrase “I am a feminist” (a linguistic structure designed to refer to some personal aspect of identity and self-definition) and could state, “I advocate feminism.” Because there has been undue emphasis placed on feminism as an identity or lifestyle, people usually resort to stereotyped perspectives on feminism. Deflecting attention away from stereotypes is necessary if we are to revise our strategy and direction. I have found that saying “I am a feminist” usually means I am plugged into preconceived notions of identity, role, or behavior. When I say, “I advocate feminism,” the response is usually, “What is feminism?” (from Feminist Theory from Margin to Center)

bell hooks argues for a de-personalization of feminism by replacing “feminist” as an identity category with “feminism” as a philosophy of action and movement that anyone can advocate. It would be difficult to argue that the identity “feminist” does not override the meaning of feminist movement, at least if we are arguing with those who might always already disagree with feminist politics. Any women’s studies teacher who spends her/his first day of class debunking myths about feminists knows that some ill-intentioned representations of feminists, and the consequence of people not thinking critically, can get in the way of feminism(s).

My curiosity lies in whether these representations (and distractions) would exist in the same way if those who advocated feminism did not associate or even conflate their philosophy with initiation into an identity category (“feminist”). Realistically, the term “feminist” has a history that won’t be forgotten, and misrepresentations of feminists will linger. But I do think that our actions become re-oriented when we divert attention away from ourselves (“feminists”) and re-direct it toward what we are about (feminism). 

At the same time that I believe emphasis on feminism rather than on myself as a feminist is more beneficial to feminist movement, I can’t deny the incredible and complex feelings attached to the term “feminist.” We all have our stories about how we came to be or become feminists – they can be intense, emotional, and life-changing stories that inspire other people to look at their lives differently. But, as I focus on bell hooks’s suggestion that we need to prompt more questions and envision new directions, I have to wonder what the ultimate goal is when we attempt to inspire many other women and men to become feminists, too. What then? 

Yes, people often need to look into their own lives before they can see patterns that are wide-spread, constructed, and sometimes beneficial for only a few. But I think people can still be prompted to take this intense look without being asked, “Are you a feminist?” And I believe that more focus on advocating feminism and less on ourselves as feminists removes distractions we experience by continually cultivating a feminist identity. We could be more focused on improving lives with feminist politics and having a greater reach into the world with feminism.

hooks makes a good point when she writes that “undue emphasis placed on feminism as an identity or lifestyle” has resulted in making feminists vulnerable to stereotyping, but that emphasis on identity has also created a huge distraction for feminist movement itself. Laboriously, some of us wonder if what we are doing is “feminist.” And we place large burdens on conscious women and men to associate themselves with the term, at times believing that if they don’t identify as feminist, they are either in denial about gender oppression or they have heard the stereotypes. We don’t usually assume that they have chosen not to identify with the term because they feel it excludes them in some way, or because emphasis on identifying as a feminist can distract them from doing feminist politics. 

For instance, if we recognize feminist politics mostly when they are performed by feminists, we ignore that anti-sexism exists out from under our banner. At times, someone’s anti-sexist actions or words can be dismissed because that person may also have a history of sexist actions and words. Because of this contradiction, we may say this person is clearly not feminist. The pretense of identifying as “feminist” seems to be that we ourselves have few contradictions. We know the boundaries of sexism and anti-sexism.

Because feminist politics are so closely tied to who we are as feminists, we are pressured to demonstrate these boundaries and embody feminist continuity. If this pressure were lifted, and anyone could do feminism without the pressure of being a “feminist,” we could focus more on identifying feminist action independent of whether someone identifies as a feminist. Rather than pointing out to a person that, whether they know it or not, they’re a feminist because of their actions, we could instead have a conversation about the positive impact of anti-sexist actions. Similarly, we could re-direct our attention to sexist action and words rather than to “sexists,” as if they are never anything else. 

These terms can give the illusion of perfect boundaries such that a “sexist” can never do anything “anti-sexist,” and if someone is an anti-feminist, we don’t have to recognize when they may be anti-sexist. We all embody contradictions, and recognizing feminist actions outside a feminist identity could encourage people to notice sexism and incorporate feminist politics into their understanding of the world without giving them the impression that only feminists can do so. 

So my question is, do we believe that feminism and feminist politics can exist without “feminists”?

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation