Feminist Principles to Live By

22 Aug

A strong feminist practice must be based on a solid foundation. To that end, we present some of the key principles that inform and guide our day-to-day lived feminism.  The overarching concept tying these principles together is a commitment to practicing a self-aware, intersectional sisterly solidarity that underpins our struggles to unlearn, address and correct the oppression present in ourselves, our circles, and our societies.

We note that the personal is political and no position is innocent. Thus, not only do we acknowledge the ways we ourselves are conditioned by the WMPS, but we also actively seek to 1) identify oppressive forces in ourselves and in our communities, 2) work to understand them with an anti-oppressive feminist analysis and re-visioning of each situation, and 3) actively re-figure our roles, responsibilities, and relationships so that they are honest, healthy and free from patriarchal oppression and other systems of domination.

Read these principles, digest and share them with fellow feminists and allies, and particularly with anybody who claims that they are feminist yet continues to cause suffering due to misogyny, sexism, or other oppressive practices. We hope they will be of use to you in your personal feminist praxis. In the comments, share with us and other readers the feminist principles you choose to live by, so we can continue to learn together.

1. Whatsoever is done to any of my sisters is also done to me.

A radical rethinking of the Christian concept, this is the principle of sisterly solidarity. Living by this principle means you fully reject the oppressive, sexist, patriarchal categorization of women into “good” and “bad” girls, “hos” or “housewives” as well as the labeling of any woman with any perjorative term, e.g. “bitch,” “slut,” “slag” or “lesbo.”  This dichotomist thinking, founded on misogynistic untruths, has historically demonized women put into the “bad” category, and set women in the “good” category up against those considered “bad.” And yet women who accept or embrace the “good girl” stereotype are not only participating in the oppression of their sisters, but are also allowing their own oppression to continue, as the requirements for being a “good girl” are so strict and so subjective that we are always at risk of being thrown in with the “bad.”  So in addition to the external policing of our bodies and behaviors, we internalize our own oppression, self-policing in an attempt to safeguarding our “reputations” and maintain our precarious status.  

Rejecting this thinking means freeing yourself from the cages of these categories as well as rejecting the belief that any other woman, because of her assertiveness, sexuality or choices in performing her femininity (or not), is essentially different from or inferior to you. Instead, you work to acknowledge, respect, and encourage others to respect the equal status of all women, whatever she wears, whoever/how many people she has slept with, her relationship status, whether or not she has/chooses to have children, or however else she chooses to perform (or not perform) her gender. You recognize that, since no universal “female” experience exists, the label “real woman” is misleading, and you accept that any person who identifies as a woman is indeed a real woman. You reject gender essentialism and victim-blaming, critically address sexist portrayals of women in the conversations of which you are a part, and listen with an open mind to women’s experiences that are different from your own.

Adhering to this principle does not mean you view all women uncritically; in fact it encourages the opposite. Rather than simply going along with the male-centric portrayal of a woman’s behavior or attributing a woman’s problematic attributes to the fact that she is a “bad” woman, this principle encourages a more critical reading of this person, the social or economic pressures she may be facing, her socialization, peer group and social position, and how her behavior and choices may be limited or influenced by the same. It also means recognizing that any sexist judgment, oppression or violence done to a woman because she is a woman could also be done to you, and so you commit to resisting it for the sake of us all.

As feminists, we also respect some women’s decisions to identify with the word and archetype of “the bitch” or the “bad bitch,” although we ourselves do not choose to self-label or label others with that term. Read Josie Picken’s (@jonubian’s) insightful article on this.

2. Your sexist mind tricks will not work on me

Patriarchal thinking, like any other kind of mental or social conditioning, works on a system of rewards and punishments. In order to be free of its nefarious clutches, we must continually scan ourselves for the ways it is at work in our lives and refuse to buy into this system – even when it seemingly “rewards” us for “good behaviour.”

Developing a practice of mindfulness (of which yoga and meditation can be essential components) is necessary to begin unlearning the mind tricks of systems of domination.  When you catch yourself responding positively to the rewards or negatively to the punishments, talk yourself through your initial responses and how unnecessary they are. They are attempts to influence and control your behavior, and you have no need for them. Then work on creating a set of new responses that you can use in similar situations. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be a useful tool for this.

All mind tricks, even the rewards, will hurt you in the long run by causing you to be reliant on others who do not care about you for your self-esteem. Instead, it is important to develop your awareness to the presence of this system of rewards and punishments while cultivating your sense of self internally and with the help of those who love and support you in your feminist practice.

Part 1: Rewards

Level 1 rewards come from external sources, and are often in the form of positive feedback for dressing/acting in a “feminine” manner (e.g. being docile, acting prim and proper, sitting in a “ladylike” manner, keeping your mouth shut, not expressing your wants/needs/frustrations/desires, doing your hair, wearing makeup/earrings/heels or otherwise “prettifying” or “getting dolled up”). They include such things as catcalling and other forms of street harassment, overheard conversations, and problematic comments from family, friends, co-workers, or strangers.  These rewards may make you feel alternately: good, nauseated, or even both at the same time.  And since, under patriarchy, we are expected to seek, appreciate or be grateful for these kinds of petty compliments, rejecting them may result in attempts at oppressive silencing.

Level 2 rewards are somewhat more complicated, as they emerge as a result of our own sexist conditioning. Because they come from the inside and often make you feel good, they can be tricky to spot.  They include such things like feelings of smugness, self-satisfaction, or even pleasure when you are judged “good” or “better” than other women (e.g. on the street, in the club, compared to your partner’s exes), when you participate in gossip, inhibit other women’s success or otherwise try to keep them down, or rank yourself above other women, such as those of whose manner of dress or behavior you disapprove. Mindfulness and coming up with alternative feminist readings of the situation are essential to unlearning this type of oppressive behavior.

Part 2. Punishments

Defenders of patriarchy utilize numerous methods to punish people who are resistant to patriarchal conditioning in their thoughts, attitudes, actions, gender presentation or performance. These punishments are intended to control or at least express severe disapproval of feminist ways of being, Punishment may occur directly or indirectly, with such tactics as reproach, abuse (verbal, emotional, mental and/or physical), exclusion or invisibilization, gaslighting/crazymaking, and violence. These are exacted as consequences for such actions as standing up for oneself/beliefs or exhibiting non-sterotypically-“feminine” or “masculine” dress, language, or behavior. Punishments may also be exacted on those who adopt a fluid, androgynous or genderqueer presentation.

In addition to outright displays of sexist judgment from both men and women, punishments may also come from women who, having been conditioned into a competitive, patriarchal logic, feel compelled to establish and maintain a hierarchy amongst themselves and other women, often for male attention or approval. Anger and jealousy, of which fear is at the heart, is bred into this logic and fuels much of the fighting (derogatorily known as “cat-fighting”), put-downs and harmful gossip that arises within groups of women, and in which we may find ourselves participating. Although we do not agree with this behavior, we do not attribute it to any kind of essentialist “womanhood.” Instead, we place the blame for this phenomenon squarely upon misogynist and patriarchal conditioning. We also wholly reject hierarchical thinking and the concept that any women are by nature “evil,” “gossipy,” “backbiting” or in any way inferior (see Principle 1).

Being aware of the common methods of reward and punishments enables us to identify them when they are used against us, which in turn engenders the perspective we need to temper our immediate responses to this type of behavior, reframe the situation from a feminist perspective, distance ourselves from the perpetrators and seek feminist support, thus lessening and eventually eliminating their negative impact on us and our communities.

3. Meet at the intersections

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Due to the intersecting nature of systemic oppression, it is crucial to develop and integrate a dynamic understanding of intersectionality into your feminist practice. Originating in Black Feminist thought, the concept enables us to theoretically link seemingly disparate systems of social and economic oppression, such as race, class, sexuality, and gender.  An understanding of intersectionality allows us to articulate the various structural oppressions experienced by, for example, a queer disabled woman of color, a two-spirit First Nations person, and a working-class trans white woman. First articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and eloquently developed by black women writers and scholars like Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, who helped to illustrate the intersections in the oppressive forces of the WMPS, an intersectional feminism identifies and resists systemic oppression in all forms, whether on the basis of race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, body type, or dis/ability.

In more recent years, the term kyriarchy, coined by feminist theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, has been used to describe the “interconnected, interacting, and multiplicative systems of domination and submission, within which a person oppressed in one context might be privileged in another…[she] describes interdependent ‘stratifications of gender, race, class, religion, heterosexualism, and age’ as structural positions assigned at birth” (Wikipedia). Thus, under a kyriarchy, no matter our backgrounds, we are socialized into many intersecting discriminatory attitudes and practices both in relation to ourselves and others. An awareness of this, combined with a practice of mindfulness and the willingness to listen and learn from others allows us to catch and correct problematic thoughts, language and actions in ourselves and in others.

It is not enough to only fight sexism and misogyny when our world is also subject to the negative effects of racism, Western capitalist imperialism, religious fundamentalism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, homo/transphobia, ageism, ablism, and violence against animals and the environment, and especially since issues like sexism and racism are seen to be prominent even within so-called “activist” communities. Allyship, based not on liberal conceptions of “tolerance,” but instead in a radical compassion that challenges us to confront our own privileges, is one of the most effective ways that we can combat the learned forces of oppressive silencing and marginalization. Some basic principles of allyship can be found here, and some common oppressive arguments encountered by targets of oppression broken down here (this is explained in the context of racism, but can be applied to other oppressions – thanks, People of Color Organize!). Ignorance `is no excuse, and self-education is key – a more general resources and reading list is available here.

The goal of allyship is that we work in solidarity to ensure that all voices, bodies and stories are seen as valid and worthy of love and respect.  As @tashasuri put it, “the systematic dehumanisation of queer, trans, poc (people of color) & women’s bodies makes the war on one relevant to all.”

“For to be free is not to merely cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela

4. Keep it out of your inner circle

Fighting oppression takes a lot of energy. You have enough to deal with in the circles you cannot help but be a part of: your family, workplace, classroom, etc. without also having to deal with it in your personal life as well. Therefore, this principle encourages you to keep the oppression out of your inner circle, aka your intimate relationships, close friendships and chosen family. You have the right to choose whether or not to admit people to your inner circle, and a responsibility to yourself to make this decision on the basis of whether they are a help or a detriment to your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, not to mention your feminist practice. Although it can be a very hard decision to make, this right extends to your family members too.

In order to keep it out of your inner circle, learn to pay close attention to whether interactions with particular individuals nourish or drain you, emotionally and/or energetically. Set firm boundaries with those who drain you, and recognize that some people may need to be cut off altogether. This is a cornerstone of self-care. Your energy is never well-spent on intense personal disagreements, and you are better off communicating with those who may actually hear you rather than wasting your time and effort on those who do not deserve it. If you have the energy to speak to them regarding why you are deleting them from Facebook/Twitter or not dating them/meeting for drinks them/calling them back, you are doing them a favor; you do not owe them anything. Think of misogyny as a poisonous gas – you can remedy it when you are exposed, but it takes its toll, so limit your exposure as much as you possibly can.  Because it affects the mindsets of those around you, it will doubtlessly affect you too, so work on keeping it out of your circle and helping those close to you learn to fight it. This will help to establish your position of solidarity, so that you are not poised against one another, and so that no sexism can seep in through the cracks.

5. No such thing as fair-weather feminism

“Radical simply means grasping things at the root.” – Angela Y. Davis, former Black Panther, feminist and educator

Feminism, especially radical intersectional feminism, is hard work. Because of its manifold challenges to the dominant power structure/kyriarchy, it means there will be many people who will not accept or understand your position. There will be awkward, uncomfortable, difficult and challenging moments when you may be judged, silenced, or ridiculed with attempts to quell your dissent. This is flak generated in response to the challenging of oppressive systems, and it is to be expected. Do not let it allow you to be shaken from your foundations; do not forsake your commitment to the struggle.

Challenge oppressive attitudes and behaviors with measured, informed responses grounded in intersectional anti-oppressive knowledge. Develop your strategies and tactics, keep them at the ready, and do not shy away from putting them into practice.  Learn from experience where your opponents may stand, and arm yourself with appropriate responses. Take courage from radical role models and remain grounded in your principles; develop your knowledge and gain femininspiration by collectivizing knowledge and best practices, discoursing and collaborating with other feminists, and continuing to study and review radical resources.

The road to freedom is long, and you are needed for the duration. Thus, not only must you know where you stand and how to fight, but also when to walk away, both for your own safety and so you have the energy needed to fight another day.

 What are some of the feminist/anti-oppressive principles you choose to live by?

How do you put your feminism into practice?

 

8 Responses to “Feminist Principles to Live By”

  1. HystericalHymen September 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    I think intersectionality is so important and great to see it written about here. I’d never heard the term “kyriarchy” before so looking forward to reading more about it. Understanding women’s rights in the context of wider oppression, and making a conscious effort not to collude in my own and all of our oppression by judging other women, and pitting myself against them from a patriarchal mindset, are two of the feminist principles I try to live by.

    • Sista Resista September 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

      Thanks so much for your response and comments. It is very necessary to share with and learn from each other in order to develop our understanding of not only our own oppression, but that of others as well. The patriarchal judging of and “pitting” women against each other, as you put it, is a real problem, and even more so in individualistic/capitalistic societies. You are right to call attention to them and to try to counter them in your practice. Good luck!

      In solidarity,
      SoR

  2. tikara October 23, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    Great article, thanks!

    • A Man November 20, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

      I commend the sentiment of your article; equality is something we should strive for in all walks of life and try to stamp out inequality were it is based on sex, age, race etc. I find the content of your article a little insulting to women though, they should not have to conform to your concept of what a woman should be or anyone else’s, they should not have to be a certain ‘type’ of woman to deserve equality, it is their natural right to have it.

      • Sista Resista November 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

        There are no “types” of women who deserve equality more than others, and that’s not at all what I was saying. Think you might need to practice your close reading skills a bit more.

  3. Yahya Shabazz November 26, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    This resist mentality, or division between male/female has its origins in same roots as Jim Crow. Just another tool to separate what God has naturally joined together.A house divided cannot stand.While we know the injustice that’s been done to women,you don’t cure it by hating on each other. You cure it by finding the source of the oppression, and exposing it. This is the real conversation that needs to be had. Otherwise Sista, you just playing into the hands of the one who created this mess.

    • Sista Resista November 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

      You seem to misunderstand our concept of resistance. At no point does this article recommend “hating” on each other; it appears you have sadly misread it. The “real” conversation is being had, and no blame or finger-pointing is taking place. And we do not subscribe to your concept of God “naturally” joining us together – there are biological realities, and there are social realities, and there are spiritual realities, and they are different for every society and individual. “The one” who created this mess is humanity, and we are the only ones capable of fixing it. This is why we resist.

      • Yahya Shabazz November 26, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

        Perhaps you’re right, I may have misunderstood your concept of resistance. If so, please explain to me just what the concept is. The term ‘hating’ on each other was only figurative as relating to some of the friction we find between male/female these days. All the realities you mentioned are true, but you are mistaken when you say they are different for every society, they are not. Humanity did not create the mess either. Humanity is the natural spirit to treat each other as human beings, and with justice. It is our ‘inhuman’ characteristics that has brought this mess on. We all want social justice, biological realities are not what identify us as human beings. Spiritual growth is what we all aspire to. There are different cultures, different traditions, etc, but they are all human in their natural order. It is only when those who want to manipulate others influence these orders, that the confusion comes into play.As for the idea of God joining us together naturally, you didn’t create yourself, I didn’t create myself, nor did any of our ancestors, regardless to how far back in history we travel, we all have an origin. The process for procreation between male/female was due to “natural attraction.” We weren’t attracted to animals,plants, rocks, etc, we were attracted to each other as men and women, and this was a very natural process. We didn’t create it, because it was here when we got here, so a power that is greater than ours must have created it. Now we can call that power whatever we wish, God, supreme being, whatever, but bottom line is, it something above us. Now then, please tell me if you don’t mind my mis-understanding of your resistance?

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