Feminist Guilt

Terilyn Chen

Like many of us here at Manifesta Mag, I was “The Feminist” in high school. I made a point of calling people out, teachers included, when they said sexist things.

Out of the many identifiers I chose to embrace, “feminist” was the most important to me. It was so important to me that I sometimes felt conflicted over identifying more as a feminist than as an Asian-American or a teenager, two other labels I hold close-to-heart. But this doesn’t mean I knew or thought I knew everything there was to know about feminism. Most of the time, I was a jumble of opinions– so much so that it often felt like I had no real views at all.

This made me feel lost. In fact, I still feel lost. If I don’t even know what I stand for, how can I talk about those ideas in a useful, productive way? Third-wave feminism values personal choice and I believe that ultimately, the goal of feminism should be individualism. I hope that one day people will truly be able to make their own choices, without the burden of gender-based expectations. But now, making even some of my least significant choices is confusing at best and guilt-inducing at worst. For example, I reject the idea that women can’t enjoy dressing or adorning themselves and simultaneously embrace feminism, but I also have mixed feelings about makeup. A generic third-wave argument for makeup, (that it’s a personal choice that can be used for creative expression), sometimes seems logical but other times just sounds like an excuse to go along with what society has taught us to want. Still, I occasionally will don some cat eye eyeliner, and feel like a total badass doing it.

Because of my confusion, I harbor this notion that I’m not qualified to speak. I don’t know enough, I tell myself. I’m not smart enough. I have become considerably more shy about speaking out this past semester, my first semester of college. Admittedly, this probably has to do with what I’m told are standard feelings of insecurity most Harvard freshmen experience. Nevertheless, this is really disappointing. I hate that the first time I am surrounded by an entire community of feminists, with a bounty of resources available with which to do some serious patriarchy-smashing, I have dulled my fire.

This realization has been especially crushing because I believe in the power of voice and in the responsibility of speaking out. I know people do not cause change by being frightened and quiet.

After all, one of the largest offenses to feminism, to equality, is the silencing of women. And the silencing of women is a devastating and literally deadly proponent of victim-blaming. Despite my knowing this, sometimes it is still difficult to speak up. As a result, I know too well the shame that comes with contributing to our culture of silence.

This is my “feminist guilt.”

Contrary to what its name makes it sound like, feminist guilt is not an inherent problem of feminism, but a symptom of patriarchy that feminists specifically may experience. It comes from trying to reject patriarchal ideals and expectations of women while living in a world that has, since the day we were born, made sure we know our place and role. This guilt is dangerous not only because it can cause ineffectiveness in the movement, but because it assumes that “perfect feminists” exist and that all feminists must be “perfect feminists.” It promotes an all-or-nothing mentality and perpetuates the myth of the one-dimensional “strong woman” character. When we hold ourselves to standards of unattainable perfection, sooner or later, we start to “police other feminists,” too. As Jessica Wakemen writes in BITCH Magazine, “Women already have it hard enough making it in a man’s world, doubly so as feminists daring to go against the status quo… I want a feminism in which we dialogue about ideas and differences and mistakes, not trash or silence.”

At the end of the day, I have no answer. I know how dangerous it is to believe that “perfect feminists” exist. I understand that there is no “rulebook” feminists should live by, and I am happy one doesn’t exist, but I still sometimes feel guilty for not being a “perfect feminist.” I haven’t figured it out yet, and maybe I never will. But perhaps, despite its perils, this problem of mine can be a relatively good one to have.

After all, this problem comes from having high expectations of myself. The appeal of the myth of the “perfect feminist” is that it means I am forever trying to improve, to be more conscious of gender stereotypes and injustices. As long as this guilt drives me to continue fighting, and questioning, and learning, and doesn’t instead render me a feminist so lost she has stopped in her tracks, maybe it’s not such a problem after all.

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