by Quin Aaron Shakra
I am a white, lower-to-middle class, heterosexual, male graduate student engaged in the study of history and gender. I use these terms of social location self-consciously because I believe they matter in at least two specific ways: first, because they are terms through which I am socially perceived; second because they offer some clue of where I stand viz. a viz. material, cultural, and symbolic resources in this world. Beyond these generalities, I want to offer a bit of accounting — both for myself, and others — of how I got to where I am.
I write about women’s liberation movements specifically and radical political movements in general. I discovered feminism late in my college years. It was not through an intellectual text or a course on women’s studies, a protest, a rally, or an injustice perpetuated against my body — it was through music. The undeniably feminist lyrics of Ani DiFranco’s early songs, along with her skilled guitar playing, struck me, for reasons that I was unsure of at the time. After all, I hadn’t grown up within a family that had an explicitly feminist consciousness; I had no feminist friends who self-identified with or advocated feminism. In fact, at the time I had very few female friends at all. In hindsight, it was DiFranco’s honesty that I found compelling. Hearing lyrics such as “We don’t look like pages from a magazine but that’s alright / oh baby that’s alright” (“Imperfectly”) or “It seems like everyone’s an actor or an actor’s best friend / I wonder what was wrong to begin with that we should have to pretend” (“Anticipate”) pierced through a veil of conformity I had been measuring my own self-worth against for years.
My first feminist friend turned out to be the love and intellectual inspiration of my early adulthood. I followed her to a forest under threat of imminent logging, where we both climbed trees 150 feet above the ground and participated in the direct action that culminated in a judge legally blocking the timber sale from continuing. At the time, it was a great victory — one that stands to this day. I note my friend’s encouragement was not necessarily explicit; her mere action and courage to stand apart from the norms of society, to speak and act her truth — whether “legal” or not — catalyzed my own journey of self-discovery.
When I first engaged with explicitly feminist writings in my early 20s it was through an environmentalist lens. Feminism and environmentalism have never been separate to me. I wasn’t aware of the history of racism in the first and second waves of the U.S. feminist movement, nor the combative position that certain feminists have taken toward men and masculinity. My enthusiasm for feminism was undoubtedly related to my lack of historicism. I went looking for positions that matched my experience and adopted those as the feminism I lived my life by. Furthermore, because I was embedded in a subculture of men and women for whom feminism was taken seriously I was generally accepted as an individual that advocated these ideals.
I feel fortunate to have had this experience so early in my life. Yet in the years following my departure from these subcultures — years that have been simultaneously marked by both geographical movement and an eroding of idealism as I interfaced with the “realities” of the dominant society — I have learned some important and difficult lessons. First, feminism is in a permanent crisis of definition both inside and outside the academy; I know very few people who would agree on how “it” should be defined. Even common sense definitions — “a movement to end sexist oppression” (bell hooks); “advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality of the sexes)” (OED) — are contentious due to their foundational terms. For instance, what constitutes sexism? What is “oppressive?” “Equality” by what basis of measurement or which standard?
Second, spending most of my 20s in different social/geographical contexts — alternatively radical ecological/political (Oregon), academic (Oregon and New York), and rural agricultural (Southern California) settings — has allowed me to notice how the explicit use of the term “feminism” does very different kinds of work. In the first two contexts, I would characterize this work as productive: fostering conversations, provoking important disagreements, creating coalitions, etc. However, the latter context — which I believe most closely reflects the sentiments of the dominant culture — few people I socialize with explicitly identify with, or advocate feminism. Most would laugh, or be embarrassed by, a term such as “transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks). I find it even more disheartening when these people are women.
These same women may support ostensibly feminist goals yet the moment our conversion becomes explicitly about feminism, it’s commonly qualified with the response: “I’m not a feminist, but…” This reaction is stock enough to be cliché. In the past I might have assumed someone was just ignorant in refusing to identify with feminism; lately, however, I’ve started taking this response seriously. As we move farther into the 21st century is there a popular stigma that renders “feminism” far less capable of mobilizing significant political activism or does this stigma exist because, as eco-feminist philosopher Karen Warren has remarked, it carries a “critical bite” exposing a heretofore-invisible structure of power in society? And what of my own anomalous condition: how does being “male” condition these conversations? How can I “educate” without seeming pedantic? How can I appear as an intelligible subject in the midst of so many stereotypes (“Is he gay?”, “Is he feminist so he can pick up on chicks?”).
This leads me to the final lesson I’ve learned: I don’t believe feminism can be explicitly practiced without community. A community might be broadly defined as a group of individuals who desire to engage with new perspectives out of a sense of curiosity and desire for transformation. Of course I know many self-identified feminists. Some are my closest friends, and most are women. But we are spread far and wide across continents. While these relationships provide a great deal of support, this does not resemble a community practice. ▢
Quin Aaron Shakra is a graduate student in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. He is writing his master’s thesis about pornography and the feminist sex wars of the 1980s. When not at school, he runs Mano Farm, a 1.3 acre organic farm which he co-founded with two friends in Ojai, California.
 Karen Warren, Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It is and Why It Matters (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), 92.