Saying It Isn't Enough, You Have To Do It

Feminist man

It’s a casual, throwaway word in an otherwise benign Facebook post, but it hits me like a jab to the throat. I see his name right there on my very own computer screen, unceremoniously followed by: “feminist”.

It doesn’t all come flooding back at once, like our relationship flashing before my eyes – that would imply that I’d forgotten it, and I haven’t. It’s now been years since the day I ended it, not so much out of strength but exhaustion at being a squashed fly on his windshield for so long. A year and a half together that feels like a decade in retrospect.

How much has changed in those years? He has the same face, the same voice, the same charisma in public. (I know because I saw him at a party last week – the first time I’d seen him in a while.) So how could he have changed so much that he could now qualify as a feminist?

We can claim to be anything we’d like. I could say I’m an Olympic-standard bobsledder and you’d never really know if I was lying because you’d never see it in practice. But it’s still untrue (unfortunately).

I want everyone to be feminist. I want it to be a question to which the answer is: um, duh! But we don’t get there simply by wearing a t-shirt that says “I want all people to have the same opportunity to access all things regardless of race, class, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity”. Probably because no one could fit that on a t-shirt.

Inclusivity is important. But just like there are criteria for getting onto the Olympic Bobsleigh team (most/all of which I have learned from Cool Runnings), there are criteria for calling yourself a feminist. Unlike the Olympics, it’s very simple. You don’t just say you’re a feminist. You treat people like you’re a feminist. It’s an action.

The reason I was so affected when I saw my ex-boyfriend’s name and “feminist” in the same place was that he took my feminism away from me.

The independent spirit that I had grown up with, the extent to which I enjoyed my own company, the feeling that I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it – this was what my 20 year old self felt.

All of that was replaced with the fear that wearing that dress would attract the attention of people I wasn’t allowed to speak to (any other men), the fear that accepting a gift would put me in an emotional debt I would never be able to repay, or the fear of always being one beer away from hours of verbal spite and public humiliation.

I, a confident, nowhere-close-to-rich woman, had inadvertently entered into a power struggle with an insecure, rich man. The relationship was a battle in which I surrendered my autonomy in favour of peace – if you can have peace in a dictatorship.

When I eventually ended it after reaching the edge of my sanity, I was left with lasting damage. The outcome was that I was no longer confident, but he was still rich and, probably, insecure – he lost nothing, and I lost a part of me that I had spent so long building.

It took me years to regain it with the help of some wonderful old friends who stuck by me and a load of new ones, and I did – I got it back. It hasn’t made me a stronger person; he isn’t entitled to that satisfaction. I am where I am now in spite of him.

Identifying as a feminist is a much needed step forward, and the last thing I want is for it to be an exclusive club that people are too scared to enter. But there are entry requirements: using a relationship as a means to exert power over a woman negates any claim you make to the word.

Perhaps he’s changed, you say. Perhaps he has and perhaps I could give him the benefit of the doubt if he had tried to make amends or own up to his mistakes.

There is a reason “feminist” is something we ARE. We don’t show feminism or follow feminism. We embody it as a part of ourselves and we take action based on that. You can’t say it and mean it if you do not do it.

He’ll probably never know, but I’m not letting him have it. If I can’t deny him his own use of the word, I can at least deny him the satisfaction of taking my feminism from me.


Article by Zoe Rachael