Recently, a friend of mine experienced some awful sexist dealings in her workplace. Without going into detail, I will just say that it surprised and enraged her. This prompted her to send me a text message at 2 a.m. that read, “OK, so I want to be a feminist. Will you help me? What do I do? Is there some kind of initiation ceremony?” This thrilled me and made me laugh, but it also made me realize that while the word “feminist” is all over the media these days, it has too often become reduced to a kind of trendy identity marker, a Facebook interest to click “like” on. But being a feminist doesn’t begin and end with a hashtag. Feminism requires creation, action—and work that illuminates, complicates, or seeks to advance the status of women, and all of those who suffer from patriarchal oppression. So then, how does one do feminism? Here’s a little list to get you started.
1. Awareness is always the first step!
A popular definition of feminism is the belief in the equality of the sexes. But more than just believing something to be so, feminists must also ask why it is not so. It is a duty of feminists to become aware of the institutionalized forms of oppression that create a world where these categories are not equal to begin with, but hierarchical, and then work to dismantle these systems.
A good and necessary exercise to get started is to do a privilege check. You might hear activists regularly say, “Check your privilege,” as in, put it in check. But before you can check your privilege, you might need to do a self-assessnent and check for the privilege you carry. For example, are you white? If yes, have you thought about what benefits come along with that? How is your daily experience different than a person of color? What you do to support the people of color in your life/workplace/community? Are you Cisgender? If yes, have you considered how your experience is easier than those of the trans women in your life? What you are doing in your daily life to support trans people? Are you able bodied? Wealthy? Heterosexual? Did you have access to education? These are just some of the examples of privileges you might carry. Those who do not have these privileges don’t have to remind themselves of these disparities because they already experience them every day. So, just take a minute and be aware. It will change the way you see things.
2. Learn this word and what it means: “Intersectionality”
It is a term first coined by brilliant scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, but you don’t need to be an academic to understand this. It means that identities don’t operate separately from one another in a vacuum. For example, my experience of being queer cannot be understood separately from my experience of being a woman. One’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability, for example, all interact with each other. This is why white feminism fails. One cannot truly be a feminist if they are not considering the experiences of all women, including women of color, queer women, poor women, and so on.
3. Train your eyes, ears, and brain to be feminist.
Start to take notice of advertising. Apply the Bechdel test to movies and television. Have you thought about the books you read, the movies you watch, the music you listen to? Do they illuminate, complicate, or seek to further the experience of women? Remember, awareness is key. You don’t have to immediately stop watching your favorite rom-coms, but take notice every time the lead female character engages in self-loathing activity for the sake of getting a man. Take note of how few black/queer/fat/disabled women appear in movies and TV. When they do appear, ask yourself if they are playing meaningful characters with depth and agency, or if they are performing stereotypes.
4. Read a book
What do you like to read? Biographies? Memoirs? Novels? Science Fiction? History? Self-help? There are feminist books in every genre. I could name a long list of recommendations here. If you are lucky enough to live near a feminist bookstore, go there! In New York City we have Bluestockings. Baltimore has Red Emma’s. Atlanta has Charis. Chicago has Women and Children First. Here’s a list Paste Magazine put together about the remaining feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada.
5. Learn about some feminist artists
In addition to being a political movement, feminism is also an artistic movement. There is a wealth of incredible work by feminist artists that should be explored that addresses topics such as ecology, sex, race, queerness, and violence. Last a bunch of feminists joined forces to update Wikipedia to include more entries about women artists. Check it out.
6. Be an ally to other women in your workplace
Once you are thinking like a feminist, you will realize that being competitive is not the answer. We still live in a world where white, heterosexual men hold most of the power, and getting to the top shouldn’t mean stepping on other women. So here is a feminist challenge for you: Be kind and patient with any woman at your work who is mean and competitive with you. Make an attempt to lift each other up, rather than fighting for scraps from the dudes. Yes, this is easier said than done.
7. Be a responsible consumer
Have you thought about how your favorite brands treat their female/gay/people of color/trans employees, or how they portray women/people of color in their advertising? If you find that certain brands have atrocious policies, consider boycotting them in favor of sustainable, feminist companies. This is a small thing that can make a big difference and encourage change.
8 Find an organization that is making a difference in your community.
Maybe it is the local Planned Parenthood. Maybe it is an after-school program geared towards girls. Maybe it is an LGBT Center. Consider making a monthly donation or signing up to volunteer.
9. Stop engaging in negative body talk and encourage your friends to do the same.
We all struggle with body image. But one small thing you can do is challenge yourself to not speak negatively about your body or anyone else’s body. By and large, the media and beauty and fashion industries want us to hate ourselves so we will buy things to make ourselves feel better, or so that we will be so distracted with going on diets and feeling bad about ourselves that we wont use our power to take over the world.
Make a painting of your vision of a feminist world. Write a story that features a strong and complicated woman. Make a Tumblr that raises awareness about sexism in advertising. Host a dance-party fundraiser to support your favorite feminist organization. Join a #BlackLivesMatter protest in your hometown. Research cures for diseases that disproportionately affect women. Invent something really cool that improves the lives of women. You get the idea. Do feminism your way. But do it. Don’t just sit there.