For many years I did not consider myself a feminist. If you had asked me I would have denied that I was one; I would have equivocated about “not being sure what that meant,” about equal rights vs. exceptionalism, about the various particular feminists I’d met or read and disagreed with. The quibbles themselves were more and less legitimate, but it would be a long time before I learned that picking holes in the argument and finding a nuanced little isle of opinion for myself wasn’t the point: if I couldn’t admit to being part of that messy, difficult, and yes, sometimes humorless tribe in the first place, all of my equivocating added up to very little: I was refining myself right out of the conversation by pretending that my voice didn’t belong there in the first place. I still wouldn’t want a place in Feminism as I imagined it (somehow both monolithic and incoherent), but that was an edifice I constructed out of whole cloth because I found feminism compelling but embarrassing and I wanted a smart way out of it, thanks.
This is probably because I felt much the same way about Being a Woman in general: I didn’t understand makeup, I didn’t regularly brush my hair, and wearing skirts and dresses made me feel like a scarecrow in a fancy suit, all stray straw splitting the neat seams. Whatever it was the other girls were doing was not for me; I wasn’t going to be able to be a woman, so I didn’t call myself one, and I tried not to draw attention to the fact that, unavoidably, I was one like it or not. I gave up my claim to a spot at the debate and then sat on the sidelines, muttering to myself about everything that was said (and done, and worn) by those who would speak up; I made myself a spectator regarding my gender because I didn’t feel fit to get involved.
That stance felt safer to me than the alternative because to declare yourself a woman in the first place and a feminist one at that seemed like painting a target over one breast: tell me whether I’m pretty or ugly, whether you want to fuck me or not, and while you’re at it, tell me how you feel about my politics (and, by necessary extension, my body, my gender, my sisters). If I said I was something, everyone could prove I wasn’t that; if I never claimed anything for myself there was nothing anyone could take. It felt safer because, in a way, it was. But it was lonely and isolating, and it was stupid. I am a woman; I am a feminist. I am those things because I claim those things, and when I claim them, I get to help define them; I get to make Being a Woman and Being a Feminist into the kind of things I am pleased and proud to do each day.
(The trick, of course, being that I had all the privilege that made it easy to make those claims, once I finally got ready. I am upper middle class, educated, white, straight and cisgendered, which is to say female-bodied and female-identified, my basic sense of self matching up neatly with my biology: the kind of person readily recognized as Woman, and whose experience of oppression is as single-source as these things get.)
I wish that at some earlier point in all of this I had read Ellen Willis, particularly her writing on abortion, which is so wonderful on women’s bodies as a subject: she insists on those bodies’ coherence and inviolability above all else, the right to physical self-determination the only relevant point in the debate. She has no academic use for the mysteries of conception and the transformative magic of pregnancy—“every fetus grows inside a woman, making active demands on her body and mind, and there is no such thing in our legal system as a human right to appropriate someone else’s body for one’s own use,” she writes in From Forced Pregnancy to Forced Surgery, making it clear that “what right-to-lifers are really demanding is that we make an exception for fetuses—or rather, continue making the exception that’s always been implied in women’s traditional obligation to nurture life regardless of their own needs. It’s feminists who are insisting that the treatment of a class of people—women—be brought into line with accepted standards of human rights.” Or, more concisely, in Putting Women Back in the Abortion Debate: “To me, the fight for abortion has always been the cutting edge of feminism precisely because it denies that anatomy is destiny, that female biology dictates women’s subordinate status.”
Feminism can seem like a terrifying totality, forcing its adherents to see everything through a single warping lens; Willis’ feminism is just the opposite, attempting always to reassert the right of women to live in their bodies however they damn well please. It might mean lesbian separatism or long periods of solitude or, as in her own life, an early marriage and divorce, a long period of solitude, and eventually living with a man and having a child. The point isn’t that you choose as a woman; the point is that a woman is given the full human spectrum of choice. In Willis’ vision, a woman isn’t scared to acknowledge herself, her body, her priorities and desires, and she doesn’t fear being punished for doing so. Her femininity, whatever that means, is an aspect that describes but does not define her.
And that is what I was afraid of for so long, really: that once I became a Woman and a Feminist I wasn’t going to be allowed to be anything else—maybe I wouldn’t even want to be anything else. Ellen Willis puts the lie to this fear. She writes in the same slim volume about race and art and drugs, pornography, anti-Semitism, about the act of writing itself. She defines what she cares about as a woman and sets out from there: feminism is not the border but the space she has to clear for herself before anything else can be said. They called me a woman and meant these things, she seems to say, but when I call myself a woman, this is what I mean.