So after a few weeks of looking at the intersection of feminism with academia and human sexuality we’re back to examining the relationship between feminism in (largely White) academia and feminism in Indigenous communities. Theresa Lightfoot explore the way in which feminist activism manifests in the activism of Indigenous people even when it isn’t named as such. “So what if we didn’t call it ‘Feminism?’ ” is her quasi-rhetorical query, which I want to pick back up in earnest at the end of my chapter notes: Why is (or isn’t it?) important to name “feminism” in action?
SO WHAT IF WE DIDN’T CALL IT ‘FEMINISM’?!: FEMINISM AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLE by Theresa (TJ) Lightfoot (pp. 105-109)
p. 105 – “What I have seen is that feminism within the university system seems so passive and theoretical.” We could probably debate endlessly about whether, in fact, all manifestations of feminism within academic settings count as “passive” and/or “theoretical” by virtue of their context. What I think it interesting here is that “passive and theoretical” are paired together in a way that juxtaposes them over and against … a feminism of lived experience perhaps? I know everyone isn’t a theory junkie like I am, and I’ve made my peace with that, but I do think it’s important to remember that not everyone experiences theory as abstract or passive. Theory often has incredibly useful applications outside of academia for making sense of lived experience and considering options for forward movement.
p. 106 – “While mainstream feminist issues are prioritized by the movement, Native women get the typical ‘oh, those are Native issues’ response.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of margin/center issues for movements lately. Another example of the dynamic might be the question of DADT and queer service members, which Lola wrote about a couple of weeks ago. When you’re a person whose core passion and issues doesn’t line up with the issues of mainstream movement X (however you choose to define that), it can be super frustrating and alienating. But I also think that it’s sort of inevitable that you’ll get, in a political sense, “mainstream” feminism that is … playing to the lowest common denominator? The most watered-down version of gender equality? The concrete equality issues rather than the more radical questions about how to dismantle the kyriarchy and/or how to blow the gender binary out of the water?
Maybe this is just me feeling exhausted about trying to communicate my more radical ways of thinking to people who don’t see the world like I do. But sometimes I have this “Well, what the fuck do you expect?” response to people who argue that “mainstream” movement X is missing Y or Z aspect. I’ve rarely felt like I belonged to the “mainstream” part of any community or movement, so I wonder sometimes why people seem so slighted when they, too, find themselves on the margins. It’s probably more mature, though, to actually advocate for the inclusion of marginal voices in center-mainstream discourse.
p. 107 – “There were public legal battles fought for Indigenous women’s rights, but for some reason this never gets mentioned in the list of what ‘feminism’ looks like today.”
p. 108 – Our people talk about it all the time, but it is never mentioned as the ‘check out that feminist philosophy in action’ because as I mentioned before, it gets ‘othered’ and lumped into the category of ‘Native issues.'”
So I’m not going to pretend I had a perfect experience in Women’s Studies at college. But one of the things I’ve been eternally grateful for was that my first-ever exposure to feminism in an academic setting was at a symposium on “Feminism & Faith,” and that the first Women’s Studies class I took — inspired by that experience — was Christian Feminism. Both the symposium and the class were undeniably Christian, Protestant, and U.S.-focused … but because (I would argue) they were grounded in liberation theology I came to the academic exploration of feminism from a social justice perspective that was insistently holistic. Far from perfect, but global and intersectional.
I guess what I’m observing here is that, prior to college — as a white, middle-class American girl from a pretty homogeneous community — the feminist history and theory I’d encountered ad hoc from books in the library was white, middle-class, liberal feminism. It was academic feminism that opened up alternatives to me. Imperfectly, yes. And probably if I’d continued to explore feminism outside of school I’d have discovered non-mainstream feminism soon enough (though this was before feminist blogging was really a thing, so someone would have had to introduce me to zines). So sometimes academic spaces feel too constraining for folks who are more radical and experienced than the norm … but they can be eye-opening and life-changing for those who’ve been raised in a conservative culture or who’ve just passively absorbed more mainstream notions of what feminism entails.
If you experienced feminism in higher education, did it feel confining or eye-opening to you? What were its strengths and weaknesses? If you’ve found your way to feminism outside of the academy, what were the strengths and weaknesses of the feminism you discovered? Have you found ways to address the gaps?
p. 109 – “My point is that the essence of feminism has always been there [in Indigenous communities] — so what if we never called it that?” I want to close with Lightfoot’s own final sentence/question: “So what if we never called it that?” What are the advantages of naming certain actions or ideas “feminist”? Are there downsides to identifying things as “feminist”? I know in my own life that, despite having been feminist-in-action for many years, the language of feminism was incredibly useful for me as a way to talk back to the figures of authority at my church and school who wanted to continue deploying ideologies of gender difference in the name of God.
In what ways have you found feminist language and framing to be helpful or less-than-helpful in your own work?
Join me next week for the fourteenth installment: two poems by D. Cole Ossandon, “After the Third Wave” and “Challenging Your Textbook-isms” (pp. 111-113).