In the middle of seventh grade, I felt as if I were winning The Great Feminist Race. I was the one with a feminist book that at least four girls in my grade asked if they could borrow. Even my teacher, Elizabeth, commented on its title, “I love the title of that book you have Lauren.”
This feminist book and the feminist blogs I skimmed through gave me facts, statistics, and talking points to bring back to school each day to preach to my classmates and earn the social capital that came with knowing something that other people didn’t.
Today, we might call my middle school attempts at being a feminist as a stab at trying to be “woke.” But in seventh grade, it felt like it was this feminist knowledge that made me the smartest and the most mature too. My main “feminist” concerns were how women were represented in the media (I didn’t realize until I was in high school that I was only worried about how white women were portrayed), my school’s dress code, and raising awareness to those who disagreed with me.
In 1979, Black feminist Barbara Smith defined feminism as “the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women—as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” When I read this definition in my high school feminism class taught by Ileana Jiménez, I realized that my middle school feminism was actually a form of self-aggrandizement.
What I mean is this. In my majority white, liberal, private school, being a feminist was a way to gain social capital. My teachers would smile at me when I discussed topics related to equal pay or women in the media, my female peers asked if they could borrow the feminist books I brought to school and so on. I realize now that these books had glossy pink covers and the titles were written in large bold letters, all meant to attract girls like me and my friends. My form of feminism was a list of statistics and a lot of personal victimhood, plus the need for the affirmation that knowing these things would grant me “wokeness” in the context of a wealthy, white, liberal environment.
I realize now that my middle school feminism was all about ME. I spoke up in discussions about white women’s bodies, but chose to be silent when that discussion was extended to body image issues that affected women of color. I even considered the mention of women of color feminism as a threat to the legitimacy of the feminist issues I considered my own. In my naive and ignorant eyes, a more inclusive and intersectional conversation clouded the goals I was trying to pursue.
“This is an issue about Photoshop in magazines making girls feel bad about themselves,” I would think to myself, “why distract the conversation by bringing race into it?”
In her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Black feminist Audre Lorde poses the question, “what does it mean when the tools of the racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” When I read this essay in my high school feminism class this year, I was able to see my past self and all of my misdoings as a middle school feminist a lot more clearly.
My middle school feminism was both an extension of, as well as the result of, my want for attention and power. This is very white feminist. This is what Barbara Smith means by self-aggrandizement.
My middle school feminism denied conversation on important topics because I felt threatened by other people vocalizing their struggles. My tools for “fighting the patriarchy” were more about gaining the approval of my peers and teachers, which is again what Smith would call self-aggrandizement, and more disturbingly, it was a form of silencing others. I was being both racist and even sexist.
In short, I was using “the master’s tools.”
How could I fight the fact that I felt silenced, objectified, and ignored with the tools of silence, objectification, and ignorance?
Audre Lorde writes, “Too often, we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all.” These lines allow me to look back to the days of my earliest feminism, and I can really understand what I was doing wrong.
Take body image as an example. I actively tried to disregard topics that specifically concerned women of color within media representation because I thought it distracted from issues that pertained to “all” women, like how thin Disney Princesses were. I was erasing exposure to issues like colorism or the lack of representation of women of color in the media, because these were not my issues. I had the white privilege not to be negatively affected by racism and yet racism was connected to the sexism I was so fighting so hard to voice my concerns about.
I realize now that racism made me uncomfortable, and there was so much work beyond my own experiences that had to be done that would bring my analysis of sexism and racism together.
Looking back, my narrow-minded beliefs make more sense to me when I see the roots of my early feminism. My first exposure to hearing about feminism in a positive light came from Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls. I first learned about this show in 2012, which was a year after the show began and I was 12 years old. At the time, the show made me feel empowered, as I got to see young women who felt similar to me, even though I was only 12.
They were also characters that I looked up to. They were speaking freely and using their bodies in ways I hadn’t seen before. Looking back now it’s clear to me that a show I greatly admired was built with and could also be used as a “masters tool.” There was an all white cast and a mainly white team behind the scenes. The cast was built out of nepotism, and Dunham herself was in a position to create a TV show for a renowned network because of her wealthy, white, and well connected background.
But as a seventh grader, I didn’t consider any of that. My introduction to the show was that it was a new, “radical,” “feminist” show that rung true to many of the older white women I knew and admired. Why wouldn’t I want to seek out a show whose praises were sung by my successful, mature role models? Maybe Girls could put me on the path to what they had.
I don’t think my experience with my “feminist” introduction is that rare when I look at what’s presented as the most visible feminist faces in the media. When I ask my friends when was the first time they saw feminism presented in a positive light, they share the same examples such as the Dove body positivity ads, or hearing Emma Watson speak for the UN Women campaign He for She. White women are front in center in the celebrity version of the feminist movement, from Amy Schumer to Taylor Swift.
My early feminism was what I had access to, so that meant glossy pink books and Lena Dunham. Those were the tools I had to begin my feminist knowledge, and I was the product of my surroundings, as were many of my white peers. I didn’t even really know firsthand what my knowledge really meant. I quoted statistics such as “a woman makes 77 cents to every man’s dollar” and looked to white girls and women on TV for empowerment.
A tool I never had, and never even thought to consider was having an intersectional feminist analysis. I now see that my missing tool of intersectionality was the most important one that would remove me from the self-aggrandizement of white feminism.
Of course, I don’t just want to blame my self serving-ness on just the media and celebrity feminism, I just think these things played a large role in what kind of feminist I was when I was in the seventh grade looking for answers. At that time, I felt all of these negative things about myself. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t like the way I looked or why I felt disrespected.
The first voices I heard that gave me some assurance that I wasn’t the only one thinking these things were coming through from mainstream white feminist celebrities. But now that I am a senior in high school and have taken a class that focuses on women of color feminism and intersectionality, I have heard so many different voices, mainly those of Black feminists like Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, and some of whom I’d never heard of before, including Barbara Smith and Kimberlé Crenshaw.
I like to think that by this point in my life I have matured past my stubborn self-righteousness, but even now, reading and hearing Black feminist voices has brought to light activist issues which I never knew even existed. It has been in this class that I have learned intersectional feminist language that makes me recognize my self- aggrandizement and my past and present use of the master’s tools. Locating feminist genealogy, finding the roots of intersectionality, and hearing the power of the “erotic” have all helped me to feel feminism in my life more clearly and my need for intersectionality feel more urgent.
The feminism I had access to in middle school worked for me because of its focus on issues that were based on white women’s issues. It made me feel good and powerful, but I doubt it did the same for girls of color my age, who were also going through the same cycle of doubts about themselves and their bodies.
Let’s give young girls easy and early access to learn about all the types of intersectional feminism that exist so that they have the tools to realize the interconnectedness of oppressive systems.
It’s important that young girls see beyond what they are currently receiving through white celebrity feminism. Bring people like Amandla Stenberg, Malala Yousafazai, and Zendaya to the very forefront of feminist celebrity news. I had heard their names during my days of early feminism, but not as often as I saw Lena Dunham or Emma Watson.
From my personal experience, I can tell you that young girls want feminism, they want to share books and know all they can. Let’s give them books like bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody and include instructions on creating real tools for change in a world that needs girls to be feminists.