Words and Photos by Alexis Gresh
I've long wrestled with the concept of feminism. The good and the bad that could come of ascribing to it, the difficult task of reconciling its rocky history with the modern movement, the fear of facing the strong perceptions and misconceptions from people I love, are all so heavy to sort through. I'll admit that after floundering back and forth on a pros and cons list for far too long, my mind went weak and I resignedly gave up on forming an opinion. Choosing not to have a say was easier than anything else.
I soon realized that when it comes to women's issues, my white flag cannot wave them away. Partially because along my journey I've discovered the hazards of my sex in society. I know that whether I promote them or not, inevitably, there are certain ethics that I value. And I am not impervious to a conscience. But am I feminist?
I once read about an amazing woman. She lived a remarkably unbound life. She was an engineer, an artist, a traveler, a writer, and she was a woman at the turbulent start of the 20th century. Addressing her role as a woman in that era, the book in which I found her described her this way: "She had never been a noisy rebel flouting the conventions for women of her generation; she had just quietly done what she felt like doing."
These words challenged me. I was inspired by the idea that she was unstoppable: could I be so confident in how I wanted to live that I don't even question my ability to achieve it? I wanted to live that way, but at the same time, I felt a tug of conviction. I had to question the integrity of the concept: if there were conventions worth flouting, wouldn't this method be coincident to turning a blind eye?
I know and respect women who live this way, quietly doing what they feel like doing. In fact, my favorite modern artist has, on many occasions, voiced that she is not a feminist for this very reason. Though in her field of work she's faced countless barriers because of her sex, she has chosen to combat prejudice simply with confidence in her own power. When curating a show, for example, she chooses not to dress in a feminine fashion so as not to draw attention to her gender. She'll wear cargo boots, loose-fitting clothes, and a bare face to demand respect. She lives by the mantra, "your power is yours to take; if you don't, they'll walk all over you." She denies the label of feminist because she doesn't need it to succeed. She's found success in being confident, capable, and assertive.
I admire this woman and her work and respect her success. She's a self-made icon who has opened doors for women in the art industry. However, I cannot say I stand with her rejection of feminism. I do understand it: feminism is hard for many western women to digest because we live in a society in which we often can succeed purely on our own motivation. We can make our way by claiming our own power. We've come leaps and bounds to win the rights that we have, but it's easy to lose sight of how fortunate we are. As we lose perspective of the value of the power that we have, the idea of rejecting feminism becomes more attractive: why be a "noisy rebel" when you're mostly satisfied with how far you've come? Western Culture has come miles and miles in women's rights. If the last inch is within our reach, why demand another mile? Do we need another mile?
Men and women of the 21st century, may I propose to you that, yes, we need another mile. Call me a noisy rebel, but I will call myself a feminist. The reason is this: I do have power. As an educated and employed caucasian American, I am privileged in ways that most people across the globe are not. I have opportunities that many people do not. I am afforded respect that many people are not. I have been allotted a power that many have not. The fact is, while I may be faced with the occasional prejudice for being a woman, I do not face the same oppression that many of my sisters face. Prejudice is a crack in the sidewalk to success; oppression is when the path is closed to you completely. I only face prejudice which can be combatted with my own power. But oppression is much too heavy a weight to be fought alone, especially by those with less power than I have. Believing that my power is mine to take and ending there is a selfish way for me to live when that same power is unattainable to others. I do not want to live life with tunnel vision that looks only at my own path to success. I want to be a part of reinventing the world to be a place where the path is open for anyone to succeed. And so it is not enough to quietly do what I feel like doing. I may need only another inch, but I want to use my power to demand a mile for my sisters who have been left behind.