What do you call a woman whose entire identity is wrapped around twenty-five years of radical feminist activism? A women who woke up one normal morning and taped up plastic bags filled with her collection of T-shirts and banners from every protest and Take Back the Night rally she ever marched in. A woman who sealed up boxes of pictures and press clippings and old video tapes that documented a quarter century of work. A woman who assigned all the symbols of her life’s work along with an armful of books she contributed to a dank corner of the basement, climbed back up the steps empty-handed and said, “I’m done.”
For over fifteen years I still called myself a radical feminist. Why not? My beliefs haven’t changed. But recent debate questioning what feminism is and who is or isn’t a feminist have given me cause to reexamine my identity. Feminism is a social movement led by women to advance women’s rights in a male dominated culture. This definition covers a broad agenda that isn’t limited to gender equality in the workplace or greater representation of women in government. It includes women having full control of their health care decisions including access to birth control and abortion. It includes ending domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault. It includes ending the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children used in prostitution and pornography. Put succinctly, feminism is nothing less than a social movement organized to end the social, sexual and economic subordination under patriarchy.
From that perspective, a feminist is a woman who is actively engaged in advancing women’s rights as delineated above. The operative words being actively engaged. Not just believing in it. Not just reading about it. Not just talking about it. Being a feminist is doing something about it. And when I held myself up to that standard, I realized that I am no longer a feminist, let alone a radical feminist.
My life has changed considerably since I left the movement. My work now focuses on collaborative efforts to create opportunities that empower the poor and build bridges across race and class divides. But by no stretch of the imagination am I a feminist by definition and I don’t get to claim so by resting on my laurels. If anything, I’ve evolved into a social change advocate in the broadest sense of the word. I no longer write theory, organize the masses or give orations at national conferences that poor and marginalized women couldn’t afford to attend anyway. Instead I raise funds for eager activists who are on the front lines and tireless advocates who are doing triage in the background. And it has demonstrated to me that feminism isn’t the only, or the most important work that needs to be done to build a just society. Working for the common good will enhance women’s lives as well – just not exclusively.