What Does Living As A Feminist Look Like?

What began as a brief, insignificant moment ended up being an introspective one as I thought about what it means to live as a feminist. It happened this past Saturday as I was sitting on the train and a certain man stepped on at a stop almost halfway to my destination. He was about 6’3″ with a friendly disposition and a handsome grin to match. As he made is way to the empty seat across from me, he greeted me with a genuine hello. I noticed that his right arm was stretched out behind him and tiny fingers jutted out from inside his gentle grasp; turns out he was holding the hand of his adorable son who was ambling along behind him. He had to have been 5 years old.

But when the man sat down across the table from me, he made sure to extend his legs to the side as far as he could, both of them reaching the narrow aisle located on my right-hand side. He nearly touched my feet so my immediate reaction was to make myself smaller, bringing  my legs toward myself and way from him.

It was almost like rehearsed choreography; he moves legs forward while I move my legs backward. He enlarges himself while I make sure to make room for him. He marks his territory with his legs outstretched while mine fold at the knees. I did not think about how men often make themselves very comfortable in public transportation, spreading their legs as far as they desire. I am certain that the man on the train meant nothing by his actions and I honestly was not annoyed. But I could not help but think about how his action as a man and my nearly instinctive reaction as a woman was symbolic of the dynamic between men and women in the larger cultural context.

From catcalling to necessary confrontations, women are taught to put mens feelings first. It is not surprising to find women avoiding shooting straight with men for fear of looking rude when they are literally just being direct. And even when women say no or disagree politely, it is not uncommon for men to raise their voices, to retort with degrading remarks to put themselves above women. They make themselves look big while making women look inferior.

And then there is the idea of self-esteem and how it applies to women compared to men. It brings to mind a comment I made in an earlier post about what confidence looks like for women given the existence of the patriarchy:

[Women] are told to be bold but not too bold. Be straightforward but tone it down a little. Be assertive but not like that or else you will be intimidating. We socialize women into these constricting parameters of confidence that are generally smaller than that of men, leaving women unnecessarily apologetic and paranoid. –from Confidence vs. Cockiness. Is it Subjective?

Giving women confidence in its entirety is outside of the patriarchy’s budget. And as such, there will be women who will choose to exude confidence beyond the patriarchy’s boundaries. And in doing so, they will be met with opposition, with “women need to be put in their place,” and other rhetoric that begs for manhood to be dominant while womanhood is beneath them.

But despite the strides in our unlearning, in our willingness to empower our individual selves and other women, we find that there are parts of us that are still very much influenced by the patriarchy. From excessive “I’m sorry’s” to keeping silent in the face of sexism, there are times that our feminist flag is seemingly absent. Sometimes, it is out of ignorance. Other times, it is out of survival, recognizing that repetitively calling out misogynistic actions leaves you weary. Interestingly enough, many do not realize that a woman who prioritizes her self-preservation is practicing a feminist act. 

It is so important that we are real with ourselves in the way we live our feminism. We have to admit that there are possibly things or ideas relating to the empowerment of women that we do not know or have not yet explored. We should also consider how the patriarchy has brought about certain rituals we participate in. Body hair removal for women is one example and we see this practiced in many of their grooming habits; the patriarchy has made it clear that, in many Western cultures, being “womanly” includes being nearly hairless. And while the validity of a woman’s feminism is not contingent upon her decision to shave or not, it is insightful to acknowledge how the patriarchy is so normalized in our culture that it finds its way in our everyday habits, even as feminists.

In other words, while I am on this journey of unapologetic womanhood, I will notice how the patriarchy inevitably influences my behavior. From being uncomfortable with accepting compliments at times, to grooming habits, to the nearly instinctive habit of making room for the men around me–I realize that there are still parts of my behavior that are influenced by the patriarchy. And while I self-reflect, I make sure to be honest with what I need to work on. It is in doing this that I not only grow but I have the opportunity to encourage other women as they grow in their feminist journey.

But I wonder…

Is it possible to unlearn what the patriarchy teaches you to the point that you no longer succumb to its influence? Or does it inevitably control bits and pieces of our lives even as feminist women? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

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  • Patriarchy definitely controls bits and pieces of our lives. I feel sometimes you have to ask yourself, “What is the wisest actions I can take in this current situation”? Because when I am by myself or in other potentially dangerous situations it may not be the best time for me to wear my feminist hat.

    I learned this early on as a teen. As men would become belligerent with me because I didn’t respond to their catcalls. And I was once groped in public by a six foot, 200 lb. What was I going to do? Helpless I had to just keep walking. By the time I would have hunted down or called on the police he would’ve been long gone. And if I had decided to respond he could have became aggressive. So I have learned to at least smile and say hello as I keep on walking.

    On the other hand, a lot of it has to do with our socialization. The predominating patriarchal values has become apart of our subconscious. So we comply naturally without given our actions a second thought.

  • I agree, sometimes there are situations where it just isn’t safe to wear our “feminist hats.” Choosing our battles is important. I wait to say something until I think it will make a difference. If someone is even slightly open, if I think I’ll be bringing an unvoiced viewpoint, or if I think I can cause change. Arguing with a doorpost just makes me tired and angry, and the doorpost doesn’t change. I choose my battles in order to put my effort in the most effective spot.

  • Exactly Emileigh. You made a great point, “I choose my battles in order to put my effort in the most effective spot”. That’s exactly what I feel being feminist or standing up for any cause is like.

  • Totally agree that choosing battles is important. “Arguing with a doorpost just makes me tired and angry, and the doorpost doesn’t change.” So well said. Not saying anything can definitely be a form of self-preservation which cannot be overstressed. Thanks for commenting, Emileigh!

  • I am so sorry that you had to deal with something so disgusting. I appreciate that you were comfortable enough to share it here but it just makes me so angry that that guy did not get the punishment he deserved for violating you like that. 🙁

    You are so right that we are socialized with patriarchal tendencies, especially with how those narratives tend to dominate how we think of women (and men) and how it influences how we are “supposed to” behave. That’s why unlearning those things is definitely a conscious decision. Thanks for reading, Anekia!