The Fallacy of Fair-Weather Feminism
I may seem like a Fair-Weather Feminist.
I must clarify that my understanding of “feminism” is an ever-expanding umbrella term that does not exclude based on race, sex, class, sexual orientation, or any other qualifier. I use the term synonymously with humanism, with a focus on remedying the long-term subjugation of humans who identify as women. The dilemma I describe speaks primarily to self-identified women, and most closely mirrors the dilemmas I face in my own community—one in which sexism, often dressed up in a new and more insidious form, has become widely accepted.
I was first called a Fair-Weather Feminist upon coming to Wesleyan, when friends challenged my identifying as a feminist. Yes, I admitted, I shave my legs. Yes, I like a chivalrous gesture sometimes. And yes, I listen to misogynistic music at parties.
As I explained to my friends, I am motivated to do these things because I genuinely enjoy them; as Judith Butler writes, acting on personal desire is a crucial component of feminism. I also confess that part of my enjoyment in fulfilling these acts is derived from abiding by gender norms, signifying that I am a woman, and gaining acceptance from my peers. Indeed, sometimes I choose to be damned (accept the sexist framework and receive a modicum of power) rather than doomed (reject the sexist framework and be deprived of power).
“So…you’re not a real feminist,” they concluded.
My response was to laugh, and then nod, and then feel shame followed by deep relief. The shame came from not appearing as a feminist despite my desperate desire to elevate women and combat patriarchy. The relief came from the fear of being held to the standard of maintaining such consistency. For years, this dissonance haunted me, but I have since learned that there is harmony in my ambivalence.
I recently read an article by sociology professor Betsy Lucal who—although she identifies as a woman—is often perceived as a man. She argues that gender is a social construct that was created in a heteropatriarchal context to oppress women, and that we must subvert gender norms to shake this system. Despite this viewpoint, to avoid the suspicious looks and offensive questions evoked by her androgynous appearance, Lucal takes measures to signify her femininity: she paints her nails and clips pink berets in her hair, because to not do so would bring endless difficulty and ultimate exhaustion.
Some Wesleyan students are quick to criticize feminists like Lucal for appearing to be inconsistent. However, for Lucal, who studies and endures patriarchy every day, the malice, rejection, and hatred she faces as a result of transgressing the prescribed bounds of her sex becomes so burdensome that she sometimes concedes to the very structure she so vehemently opposes. However, Lucal acknowledges when she concedes to patriarchy and explains her rationale. At those moments, she calculates that working within the system to receive some privilege is more advantageous than working outside of it and being denied privilege altogether. This degree of selectivity allows room for self-preservation and personal choice in her continued fight against a sexist system, while her self-awareness enables her to demonstrate how oppression functions and thereby mobilize others to fight against it.
While Lucal’s defiance of gender norms is highly admirable, feminists can also “do” gender in more conventional ways. It may seem that my high degree of conformity to gender norms disqualifies me as a feminist. However, if I strive for the same self-awareness that Lucal maintains, I too can begin to subvert the sexist structure, even while operating within it. I can choose when to play by the rules and when to reject them in order to position myself to change the game altogether. That’s not inconsistency; that’s skill.
Ultimately, I aim to speak to those readers who have been dismissively labeled “Fair-Weather Feminists.” First, I urge you to recognize that these criticisms are subtle yet deeply anti-feminist ways of undermining you. There should be no hierarchy in feminism. Second, I urge you to continue articulating the dilemmas we face to whomever you can, but don’t spend too much energy doing so for the disbelievers. Anti-feminists will see us dismantling their privilege soon enough.