Activism and Ableism?

I’ve heard a lot of people claim that feminists ought to be participating in some sort of feminist activism (I don’t remember exactly what posts on this site I saw this claim being made, but I have noticed it a number of times, and I’ve also heard it frequently in books and by feminists I know in real life). This is a sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly in principle, but at the same time, I’ve been wondering exactly who may be excluded by this definition of feminism.

Here’s the thing. I’m disabled, in the sense that I have neurological issues that mean I will probably never be able to hold down a job outside the home, and I am extremely limited as to what I can do on a daily basis (lack of energy, need to avoid noise and bright lights, need very regular food and rest, etc.)

I do sign petitions and write letters and what not, and of course try to be as socially responsible as possible in my personal life. But none of this really fits the image I have in my head of activism. When I think of activ ism, it is, well, active. It involves things like community organizing, participating in marches and rallies, or volunteering at organizations you think help the community. It takes time, energy, and commitment.

But I absolutely do not have energy, time (I know no one has much time, but a small activity becomes very time-consuming when any activity requires several hours of rest before and after doing it), and the ability to commit to things. Some of the people I admire most in my life are activists who spend enormous amounts of time and energy involved in their activist work – but they are also the most energetic, healthy people that I know. So while I admire them deeply for the work they do, I also know that they are working from a certain amount of privilege (and that same privilege is operating when they look down on me for not joining them).

As I said earlier, I am wholly in favor of saying that feminists ought to be engaging in feminist activism. But I also know that such a definition of feminism necessarily excludes myself and all others who have similar – or more severe – conditions.

Am I the only person who perceives a preference for out-of-the-house, energy-consuming kinds of feminist work? I am fully willing (and would be quite happy) to learn that most people see writing letters and whatnot as perfectly adequate activism. I do have a tendency to feel a great amount of guilt about my limitations, so it is quite possible that I have imagined this preference from my own guilt and a couple of overly-judgmental friends. But if it is the case that work such as volunteering, organizing, and marching is considered the most important kind of feminist work (outside of what we do in our private lives), do people think there may be some kind of ableist bias in that preference?

This is my first post, and I’m relatively new to the blogosphere in general, so please be kind!

Join the Conversation

  • Marc

    By virtual of writing on this blog and simply being, you’re engaging in feminism.
    While it’s true that there are different degrees of effects within any types of activism, those of us who feel the need to call on others to be more of the types of activists like they are, need to check their own privileges.
    Back home, I have the time, economic autonimies, health, and forum on which to be feminists – others may not. I would never question another person’s dedication to feminist activism and whether or not they’re doing “enough.” ;)

  • alixana

    I definitely get that feeling from some of the older feminists when they complain that younger feminists aren’t “doing” enough, but I don’t get that feeling from my younger feminist peers.

  • Laurenms

    I really appreciated this post. I just read an article about ableism in conjunction with feminism, and it’s tragic that ableism is often one of the lesser attended to “-isms”. You made some really valid points, and while I’m sure there are differing opinions on how much of an activist one can be if the physical/mental abilities differ from others, I think letter-writing and blog-posting is a HUGE part of activism. Those two things are so much more than others EVER do. Everyone contributes in their own way, and I think however you can be an “activist” in a movement is important.

  • JoanOfArc

    I think the nature of activism is changing. Protests, while still great for somethings (Prop 8 protests mobilized the community and were great, for example) are not useful for all issues. The letter-writing and blogging you do is activism, the new-fangled way. Just by writing this post, you have drawn attention to an aspect of feminism many have not thought about before, which is an excellent act of activism.

  • aleks

    I probably shouldn’t try to speak for Feminism, but any successful movement needs to make the most use it can of the talents and resources of those willing to dedicate them. Marchers and organizers and letter writers and bloggers are all needed.

  • Zailyn

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    Your entire post feels as if you were looking into my head – I’m in an extremely similar position, and I’ve felt ashamed about my lack of activism pretty much since I started reading feminist blogs. But I honestly don’t see any way for me to manage anything more than occasional comments and blog posts (even letter-writing is unfortunately impossible for me as things stand). It makes me feel awful and as if I’m only pretending to be involved in the movement. I really, really want to change this and have been contemplating how I could get more involved in the future – but it’s really nothing but wishful thinking; I can barely keep my life from falling apart and expending the amount of energy on activism that many currently-abled feminists do is pretty much utterly impossible for me.
    And it’s incredibly frustrating to feel as if you’re a failure at being a feminist because of something you really can’t help.

  • cebes

    From each according to their ability, I’d suggest.

  • preppy

    i find a lot of times when someone is has different abilities they are viewed as ‘lazy’. this seems to especially happen when they do not show very obvious and stereotypical signs of being differently abled. sadly, this will affect how even some feminists or supposedly liberal minded people can view us. i agree with everyone above who has said that you are not failing the feminist movement in any way and you’re awesome as you are.

  • sbeath

    Expecting people to attend events to qualify as activists wouldn’t just be ablist–it could also be classist in the expectation that people can attend an event instead of working. I think that’s one reason that some community organizers have started giving participants small remunerations.
    Not only that, but I honestly don’t think that protests and similar events are very effective in the US, especially in the age of staged events and a 24-hour news cycle. It might well be that letter writing (especially to local officials and newspaper writers) is actually more effective.

  • Uppity Broad

    Never let anyone “should” on you.

  • jflyles

    I think that guilt is one of the most difficult emotions to overcome when trying to accomplish something progressive…and I think that any considerate feminist who thought twice about her or his convictions would agree that feminism is never intended to cause guilt, only progress and immediate, material results. Activism can take so many forms, and it takes considerable energy and thoughtfulness to compose a letter or a blog post. Maybe in a way your circumstances are helpful because they allow you to use your brain-your most powerful activist tool in my opinion. Many of us would benefit from slowing down and really contemplating and thoughtfully executing our activist work. Sometimes I feel like we feminists are so eager to accomplish things that we run out the door before we really have a plan of what we are about to do! Just because blogs, letters, and other creative works such as zines and essays don’t take drastic physical energy and running around doesn’t mean they aren’t just as valuable to an activist sensibility. Thank you for your work! It certainly IS important!

  • scarleteacher

    I agree that it’s hard to feel like one is doing enough activist-wise if it’s not the “get out and protest” sort of activism.
    I think an intersection of class plays into this too— many of the feminists I know who do non-profit low-wage work have wealthier families to fall back on, or minimal debt because their families helped them through college. I know that low-wage work, no matter how honorable, wouldn’t be an option for me because of my family’s income level—I need to be secure financially, for my sake and theirs. I know I’m far from unique in this regard.
    I think a lot of feminists whole-heartedly agree that the things you are talking about doing are important and necessary and most definitely activism, but I can see how our perception of what activism looks like, being colored by other ableism, would make you question if you’re being a “real” activist.

  • aleks

    Look at John Milton’s work for the parliamentarian cause in the 17th Century. He was a blind author in a time of warriors, but his letter and poem writing served his cause as well as anyone’s swordsmanship or gunnery.

  • Gular

    I think that doing what you can gvien your abilities still makes you an active feminist. People who tell you to do more than you can are being ableist and offensive. You’re doing what you can to support, and that’s all anyone can ask of you!
    I say, keep on keeping on supporting however you can! Any cause should be happy to have your support because you could also just choose to do nothing.

  • little

    thanks for this post. i used to feel this way, too, until I read “Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism”. While some of the activities suggested in the book are activism in the sense of being physically active, many are not. I think the main thing that I took away from it is exactly what everyone is affirming for you here: if you identify as a feminist, you are engaging in activism simply by having a conversation with someone (even if it’s not directly about feminism!). Activism has so many facets, and increasingly, letter-writing, blogging, emails/calls to senators, etc. are not only considered activism, but are really the focus of 3rd wave, progressive action.
    I’m a firm believer in doing what you CAN. If I can’t bring myself to read the news one morning, I don’t do it. I know that eventually (maybe later that week, maybe even later that month) I’ll have the energy to go back and do it. And if I never do, so what? I have to take care of myself so that I can be present when I am engaging in activism. If part of taking care of yourself physically/emotionally requires lots of rest, no one should ever fault you for taking it. It is because of that rest that you have time to do amazing things like write this post.
    You are most certainly an activist!

  • baddesignhurts

    to me, feminism is more a state of mind than a list of required activities. short of punching someone in the face (et al), there really aren’t specific actions i believe are “unfeminist” as long as one approaches one’s decision-making from a place of humanist empathy. having said that, we all have to balance what we do for others versus what we do for ourselves. i don’t get to engage in as much activism as i’d like, either, because i’m a full-time graduate student (in a field that isn’t specifically engaged in feminist issues, but, in my mind, is equally important), and a full-time single mom.
    so let yourself off the hook. we all do what we can do, the best we can. :)

  • dormouse

    I pretty much agree with what the others have said.
    Keep in mind that writing letters and blog posts is more than most people do. Even if you are unable to go out physically and protest/escort/whatever, you can still spend time working to advance equality. Your blog post shows that you are a pretty good writer, which is a talent you can use for the feminist cause without ever leaving your house (if you don’t want to). The feminist fight happens on many fronts. Who has the right to say one form of activism is better than another? Who can know what is having the most impact?

  • melissad884

    I have an autoimmune condition (basically lupus) which periodically flares up and sidelines me. For a long time I wanted to volunteer with my local rape crisis center. I was upfront with the volunteer advocacy manager about my condition and how it might disallow me from filling a shift I’d signed up for in advance. This was a scary thing for me to admit and nearly prevented me from making the commitment to begin with, but she was more than supportive of my involvement. There are others in the organization with limitations and there is a protocol for asking for help/coverage. That is not to say that it’s the right decision for everyone to be involved in “active” activism, but there probably are ways organizations can benefit from your involvement even if you feel your help might be inadequate. As a side note, I may never attend outdoor protests, marches, rallies, etc. (particularly if during the daytime) because “excessive” sunlight triggers a flare in my symptoms. And although I’m a major supporter of abortion rights and would like to serve as an escort, the effect of being outdoors would harm me more than it would help the clinic patients. I can’t imagine any justification someone could make for saying I “should” participate in these activities. Finally, to echo the others, thank you for posting this. It’s a conversation that needs to be had and it wouldn’t be happening today if you hadn’t written this lovely post. That’s activism.

  • Jadelyn

    I just did a post on my blog the other day, about “teaspooning” – a term I use, courtesy of Shakesville, for small activisms in everyday life. Here’s an excerpt:
    An email I send to my Congressperson is a teaspoon. A reply to an obnoxiously racist forward that lands in my email box is a teaspoon. A comment on a beauty blog, asking the blogger not to review AHAVA products, is a teaspoon. Being the visible feminist in class, drawing ire away from those whose feminism is still nascent and too delicate to withstand ridicule, is a teaspoon. Asking my brother for the nth time not to say “That’s so lame” is a teaspoon. Each and every post I put up on this blog is a teaspoon.
    All of these things, to me, are activism. They’re not huge-scale activism. They’re not organizing rallies, not marching on the White House. But they are activism nonetheless.
    Don’t feel that you can’t be an activist. If you stand up for feminism when and where you *can*, you’re an activist.


    It should be fairly obvious that, when activists are calling on other people to be more active in the struggle, they are referring to the able bodied community.
    It’s quite clear that your disabilities would make it impossible for you, and individuals like you, to be activists in the conventional sense.
    But, that is irrelevant for those who do not have those disabilities, they don’t need to rest for several hours after brief periods of outside activity, so – unless there are other work, family or other obligations getting in the way – they should engage in political activism.

  • EmberNight

    I think that whatever you can do, whether it be writing letters, signing petitions, blogging about it, or just commenting on someone else’s post, is helpful to the community. By putting your opinion out there you’re helping with visibility and contributing to the evolving ideas that make up feminism. In the long run, the little things count just as much as the big things.

  • Rachel

    The most effective and successful forms activism aren’t always the big think tank mega-conglomorganizations with big budgets and a paid full-time staff who can chase legislators around Washington all day throwing big wads of incentives their way; rather, its the thousands upon thousands of small personal choices individuals make every day that have the most far-reaching impact in producing changes in attitude and heart that truly make a difference. The personal is very much political.

  • EKSwitaj

    It’s problematic, however, to phrases statements as general when they in fact only apply to “the able-bodied community”. Doing so helps to make the disabled invisible.

  • Gesyckah

    Thank you so much for this post. There are more types of political/social involvement than marching. I can’t tell you how many people who worked on the “No on 8″ campaign are pissed at all the post-election marchers. Where were these people before the election? Really, a few hours of letter writing, phone conversations, data entry, and a slew of telecommut-able volunteer activities would have helped so much more before the election.

  • Mina

    “Expecting people to attend events to qualify as activists wouldn’t just be ablist–it could also be classist in the expectation that people can attend an event instead of working…”

  • Mina

    “I think the nature of activism is changing. Protests, while still great for somethings (Prop 8 protests mobilized the community and were great, for example) are not useful for all issues…”
    So 1960s and 1970s-style mass protests in the streets today are kinda like generals fighting the last war?
    Meanwhiel, blogs like this remind me a bit of what I heard about consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s and 1970s. :)

  • Nepenthe

    What are we the non-abled to do? Sit/lie around and wait for y’all to save us? This post isn’t about the able-bodied, so what they should do is really irrelevant. And it’s rather condescending to say, “when we say activist we don’t mean you and you should just understand that and not speak up for yourself”.

  • rebekah

    hey its great that you do everything you can in spite of your limitations. I want to say thank you for writing letters and siging petitions, if it wasn’t for your signatures and letter how do we know how many things would not have been passed. Activism and feminism are often two of the things that people tell you there are ways to do it right and wrong. I think that that is just a way to attack the movement in general and turn activists and feminists against one another. Do not feel guilty about your limitations, learn to do everything you possibly can, accept that you can do no more and leave it at that. Don’t apologize for it. Don’t feel guilty about and, and whatever you do, do not push yourself beyond what you really are capable of. maybe something that you could suggest is a local feminist organization meet at your place? Or somewhere near so that you could be more included and they may have more creative ways in which you could help. Also, you may be able to find someone who would be willing to come help you so it would make attending a meeting every once in a while less of an arduos task. But even if you don’t remember, don’t allow someone to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do, be proud of what you do now and take charge of that power.

  • JoanOfArc

    What I mean is big protests are great for legal issues and getting laws and polices put into place. But they aren’t as useful for the covert sexism that women experience on a daily basis. For that, education is more effective. Getting people to understand privilege is best done as a conversation or in essays than at a protest. Again, big protests will be needed to keep abortion safe and legal, encourage the courts to uphold the right to marry etc. But for other things, we need education.

  • veronikoala

    I don’t think anyone is ever fully satisfied with the amount of work he/she is doing for this cause. I’m sure even Gloria Steinem and Alice Paul felt/have felt as though they weren’t doing enough. Even if all you can do is share your opinions with others, you are doing something to help this movement.

  • pololly

    But Prop 8 passed. So maybe we still need some people to march ;-)
    And I think that describing 60s and 70s style activism as just ‘protests’ is pretty unfair. They did educate – they wrote most of the texts on which ‘modern feminism’ was built, they consciousness raised, they pushed for legal remedies and for social change.
    I think that we must also recognise the privilege inherent is suggesting that ‘feminist activism’ must now be well educated internet savvy bloggers persuading people through their words. Excluding huge numbers of people there.

  • Icy Bear

    Thanks a lot to all of you for your encouraging and thoughtful comments! I am glad to hear that other people have similar thoughts and concerns. It’s also very heartening to hear that many of you seem to think that more low-key forms of activism are just as effective as the high-energy forms…

  • Icy Bear

    I really like that term – it’s cute, and it describes very well what I try to do in my life. And I guess it’s basically what all of us do, even the most activist types, unless they’re some majorly influential figure… Your blog looks really cool, by the way, thanks for linking!

  • Icy Bear

    It’s reassuring to hear I’m not the only one who has these worries and feels at times like I am failing my ideals because of something I can’t help.
    I think we both just need to do what we can, and try to stop feeling guilt because of it. =)

  • Mina

    “…And I think that describing 60s and 70s style activism as just ‘protests’ is pretty unfair…”
    I wasn’t describing 60s and 70s style activism as just “protests.” When I said “1960s and 1970s-style mass protests” I clarified that I was talking about a particular style of mass protest instead of all mass protests.
    It’s like the way saying “Pharaonic era Egyptian-style pyramids” clarifies a particular style of pyramid instead of all pyramids, and isn’t pretty unfair because it doesn’t describe all Pharaonic era Egyptian architecture as pyramids. :)
    “…I think that we must also recognise the privilege inherent is suggesting that ‘feminist activism’ must now be well educated internet savvy bloggers persuading people through their words…”
    Did anyone here say that feminist activism must now be that, instead of now including that as well as other forms of activism?

  • aleks

    “I ain’t greedy baby, all I want is all you got.”

  • dakittehkorner

    Thanks-I’m disabled with Epilepsy, and I feel the same internalized ableist shame when it comes to not being able to go to protests, or even go to friends houses for letter writing nights because if I have one event that takes me out of the house in a day I pretty much need the rest to recuperate. How can we build feminist movements that fight ableism at their core? How can disability communities become feminist? I stopped going to a disability advocacy center because they were not trans friendly, assumed I was a woman, and treated me like an idiot because of it. Sometimes being trans, read as a woman, low-income and disabled is just plain exhausting-I feel like everywhere I go some part of me is left in the dust.

  • diana84

    “From each according to [her/]his ability, to each according to his[/her] need (or needs)”