F word.

(Here’s the lengthy disquisition on my feminism, as promised!)

Lately, the corners of the internet where I hang out have had some really great things to say about what it means to be a feminist (and how to grow into a better one), making respectful online communities, and so many more that I’m sure I’m forgetting. And I don’t think I am the person to change anyone’s mind about these things, but I’ve been a very quiet feminist in the public internet for a while, and I think I ought to take at least one small stance, so I can point to it as needed. And it’s a hard thing to try to write: anything so close to the heart is.

Here’s a quick story, to start. Last summer, I was hanging out on a bar’s patio with friends, and we reached the subject of the word “feminist.” Two women refused the term for themselves, for various reasons – each had experienced it as something lorded over them, someone else’s club that they couldn’t join.

And I’ve felt some of those slights, too: like I’m not enough of an activist, not aware enough, not good enough at being outraged to earn that label. But I don’t think anything ever gets better because people decided to reject it wholesale, and I think feminism needs to keep growing. Many of the people who feel shut out of it are the exact ones who need to be there to make it better. It’s for everyone who cares about being kind to other humans, and being aware of what that means.

In that patio conversation, one of my friends said she wouldn’t want anyone to pull “raw-ass shit” on other women. It was pretty clear that she meant a wide variety of raw-ass shit, from street harassment and violence, to unequal pay, to misguided judgments… on and on. It can get really discouraging just to be aware of the sheer volumes of raw-ass shit that happen to women and girls. It can be absolutely dismal to notice inequality between genders, and it can make you angry every day, if you thrive on rage. I thrive more on other things: having badass lady friends and family, for one.

My feminism is a big circle of people – some I know, some I don’t; some who are still alive, some in history – all working to have each other’s backs when raw-ass shit happens, in whatever form it takes. Feminism is not a way to shame anyone, to hold them to impossible standards, and it’s not about feeling victimized in everyday life. It’s a source of strength: the strength that comes from thinking critically about the world we inhabit. Feminism is a place for questioning the way things are, and (most importantly of all) for practicing empathy, consciously and continuously, every day.

That’s the recipe for giving everyone an equal chance in this world: critical thinking about the systems we’re in, plus empathy for how those systems shape us and others around us. Patience helps in this recipe, too, and humor. Even when you’re tired or angry, even when you think other people have nothing to share with you and you’d rather write them off, part of being a feminist is that you have to treat them with respect and understanding. That’s the small one-person part in building equality into everything. That’s the standard to which I hold myself to become a better woman, friend, worker, writer, and person.

I know I’ll never be done defining it. I know I’ll never be done getting better at inhabiting it. I’m really glad I have that to work on.