Thursday, January 6, 2011

More Feminist Winter Term: The Education of Feminist Winter Termers

As a young, excited, and (probably ignorantly) idealistic feminist, being able to sit down with Shelby Knox and chat informally about comprehensive sex education, reproductive justice, Christianity, and making change as a fourth wave (!) activist was nothing short of heavenly. Shelby Knox is a young, idealistic activist herself, who is most well known for her campaign to procure actual sex education (with real pictures of anatomy and everything!), as opposed to the abstinence-only, dirty-toothbrush-vs.-clean-toothbrush-as-an-acceptable-analogy-to-a-woman-pre-and-post-coitus-out-of-wedlock bullshit that she and her peers received in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. You can watch a preview of the 2005 documentary that tells her story here. Shelby is so young, dynamic, and passionate; she has already taken so much incredible action, and made so much incredible change. And she is only 24.

It wasn't just that Shelby has a remarkable success story to tell. It is that she's exactly the kind of young person I want to be. She leveled herself with the group immediately by sitting with us at the big table at the Ms. Foundation instead of standing in the front of the room and lecturing. She was so warm and engaging that I almost felt like I was talking to an old friend. And she said some really amazing things about the importance of the movement and the direction in which she sees the movement heading. I hope I'm not making any giant assumptions here, but I think that her words can resonate with many many women with different experiences, different feminisms, different oppressors, and different experiences with oppresssion.

Something Shelby said that really struck me was that the moment she realized she was a feminist was the moment she realized that feminism is hearing your pain or experience in another woman's voice and realizing that: there's nothing wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with her. But there's something wrong with the world that makes us think there is. This seemed like such a perfect way to articulate the moment that many of us (myself included) came to feminism, but have been unable to put into words, or perhaps to fully comprehend so far. Many winter-termers described taking a gender studies class and feeling like everything "just made sense," or of having what one participant described as "latent feminism" throughout life, only brought to the forefront at a pivotal moment of emotional connection of the sort that Shelby referred to. I've recognized my own experience in the stories of so many people (not just the voices of straight cis women, but those of trans women, trans men, queer women, queer men, etc., all struggling with constraining gender constructs and our society's limited binaries, dichotomies, and stereotypes), and I owe these connections to feminism.

Although I think that any social justice movement can bring people together in an exceptionally beautiful way, I love that our generation of feminists is so inclusive and so wide-reaching. Shelby referred to us as the "fourth wave" of feminism, which terrifies and thrills me at the same time; it also confirms a lot of my thoughts about the way in which my peers and I differ from feminists just a bit older than us. I think that the proliferation of media and technology is changing feminism more rapidly than our feminist mothers ever thought possible - it's becoming more intersectional and more wide-reaching with every single tweet and every blog post. As Shelby said, you no longer have to be able to afford college to take a gender studies course, because it's all on the interwebs. I'm still pretty confused (and I think I'll continue to be confused) about where to draw a distinction between the third wave and the fourth wave, or if there is even a real distinction to be made. But it was cool to hear someone I really look up to make the distinction so eloquently and fearlessly. Aaaanyway.

Back to Shelby's lovely words about seeing your pain in another person. I spend so much time examining flaws and disconnects within the movement; the more I think about it, much of my time spent being a feminist is time spent criticizing feminism. But Shelby's seemingly boundless excitement and tangible awe at the simple fact that feminism connects people and legitimizes their experiences made me remember what's undeniably amazing about being a feminist. Which is not to say that there aren't huge flaws to address, within both feminist spaces and the broader cultural context. If there weren't, we wouldn't have anything to fight for. And really, where's the fun in that?

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