My inability to spell the word privelege privilege manifested itself in such a real way this week. I am writing my philosophy senior thesis this year on global feminism and international feminist interventions, and I’ve been reading up a storm this semester. The last thing I read was a piece on Cosmopolitan Feminism that used a lot of the language and ideas I had read about before, and I was sort of bored with it, so I took just one part of the article and wrote my response paper on it. The author was examining the work of international bodies and groups and claimed that their work could be justified by the philosophy she was advocating, but not that the groups necessarily held the notions she said their actions reflected. I ended up pondering the link between consciousness and activism:

To what extent do people need to be aware of what motivates them to act in a certain way if that certain way creates positive outcomes? Does the extent of one’s knowledge about what one is doing make an action more ethical? Consciousness has always been valued by feminism, and during American second wave feminism it came before everything else, both action and scholarship. Now it seems as if it is more common to become involved in activism related to women’s standing in the world (especially if it isn’t called “feminist”) without really thinking about structural inequality first. It seems possible that individuals could be passionate about an isolated issue, like a lack of funding for medical research on women’s health, without it changing the way they think about the world in general.

I ended up sending out a late night email to some people I regarded as feminists asking them about this. Here’s what I said in the email:

which came first for you: reading/learning about inequality or volunteering/working on/doing something related to equality but in a less specific way, like maybe running race for the cure or volunteering at an organization for underprivelged girls?

or was it entirely different, like one day you realized you only read two women authors in your entire 10th grade english class and that seemed wrong? was that the first glimmer of "feminist" in you?

were you acting like a feminist before you became one? if so, why did you become one?

(look I couldn’t even spell privileged privileged up there.)

Three of my friends said they were doing feminist things before they were introduced to Feminism, which they found out about just before and during college, and that they wouldn’t have called themselves feminists in their past because it was an uncommon thing where they grew up.

When I went to my meeting with my professor she turned my questions on their head. She pointed out that I hadn’t acknowledged that it is often things that happen in a person’s life that makes them a feminist. Like being sexually harassed, experiencing assault, or general misogyny.

And I said "Wow."

I completely forgot about this option. Why did I forget? Because I haven’t really experienced any discrimination because I’m female. Sure, I think that I was influenced by attitudes about gender that dulled my appreciation of sports and math (both which I regret now). But I never was deprived of anything. My (white, upper middle class) privilege helped me along in the world and made up for the times when being a girl was an issue. (And sometimes it feels like if you don’t claim to have experienced discrimination based on sex/gender then some critics will claim that you shouldn’t bother with feminism. But that’s a whole other post.)

I voiced this to my professor in fewer words: "I guess I forgot about it because I’m me, and I never experienced that sort of thing."

And she said, "Yeah, that’s my problem too," because she occupies the same space in society as I do, except she has a PhD.

I consider myself to be well versed in intersectional discussions of race, gender, and class. I feel aware, and that I might even be capable of seeing how privilege serves others. But here I completely missed how my own privilege shapes my thinking and questioning. What’s even more ironic is that I’ve been concerned with women’s movements this semester, and those always start when women experience things – not read or volunteer.

So privilege. That’s how you spell it!

(I could make an a corny joke about how "I" is in privilege, but I won’t.. or I just did. Oops)

originallly posted at typical leigh.

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  • Comrade Kevin

    Well, yes, and you are right, but I don’t think you necessarily have to have a horror story to tell to be a Feminist.
    What often gets forgotten is that most Patriarchal offenses are not glaring or dramatic and as such they usually go on under the radar. Of course, we can’t forget the undeniable instances of outright sexism, misogyny, and discrimination and we rightly seek solidarity and support for those who have suffered through horrendous circumstances, but I think that Patriarchy wouldn’t be so tenacious if it created a tremendous amount of pain in everyone.

  • Marc

    Thanks for writing this. I think it’s the most thoughtful article I’ve read on Feministing in quite a while.
    I think that for the privileged, feminism is about altruism. For the underprivileged, feminism is about self-empowerment.
    There is no “moment that clicked.” Rather, it is a series of events that will, if we’re privileged, move our hearts to act for gender equality, or, in the cases of the underprivileged, make us so fed up of inequality that we do something about it – for ourselves, and for others.
    I’ve always told other feminists that “feminism isn’t about [them]” but about “less fortunate” women.
    But a critical examination tells me that I came to my conclusion only beause of my privilege, as a man, and someone who grew up in a whie neighborhood and middle-class family.
    I think my feminism came from my own privileges, in being able to see the injustice of gender inequality, and at the same time, having the means to be committed to feminism.
    But as I grew in feminism, I also became more involved because of the sexisms I saw the women in my life faced.
    So, in the end, for each of us, I think our commitment to feminism is in part because of our privilege, as well as personal experiences and compassion – which can be attributed to the environment in which we grew (another example of privilege, perhaps?)
    To “do” feminism – on its own – is a privilege – but the work of doing such, I don’t think, ought to defined to just helping “others.” Sometimes, in helping others in feminism, we’re helping ourselves.
    Again, awesome, thoughtful, great post!