No one can “speak for all women.” It’s time to let this verbal contortion go without blame, shame, recrimination — let’s us this feminist community take this rhetorical device and flush it sweetly and swiftly like a live spider, somehow misplaced indoors, that doesn’t need to be throttled to the death by our bare hands.
Not everyone does it, but many do. I have done it myself. See, there! Before you think I’m attacking you and ruffle up your collar, you can just smile and say I’m a hypocrite. Except I’m not attacking you, and I’m not a hypocrite. I’m evolving. If this topic affects you, you are capable of it, too.
Changes within feminism are cause for celebration, proof that the struggle for women’s human rights, is a living, breathing thing. It is honor, not rebuke, to our feminist foremothers and fathers to adapt our calls for justice to the times, to make them more inclusive for more people, to update our tactics, to think freely for ourselves and trust our ability and others’ ability to do so.
Indeed, speaking your own truth with confidence — embracing the confidence to know that you are the foremost authority on yourself — is a feminist act, a radical act in a society that continues to second-guess women and girls and tell them at every corner to jettison their judgement for what they should be doing better, which is usually BE MORE SEXY or BE MORE VIRGINAL or BE LESS BITCHY or FORGET ABOUT CHILDCARE AT WORK AND EQUITABLE PARTNERSHIPS AT HOME, YOU JUST NEED TO LEARN HOW TO MANAGE YOUR SCHEDULE AND BUY THESE NEAT CLOSET ORGANIZERS or STOP BEING SUCH A FUCKING SLUT (the magazine headlines put most of this a little more nicely, but the substance more or less holds).
To think freely, to take up space, to believe you have a right to your own truths in a world still so toxic toward women is a compliment to Alice Paul and every feminist who came before you.
Having spent a lot of time in feminist spaces and perusing feminist media dominated by the “speaking for all women” bug, I can attest to having seen first-hand how, as I said in another post reflecting on Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, people can speak profoundly well for themselves, and do themselves and others a disservice when they try to speak for others at the same time. I have seen how, through probably no intent of the speakers, “speaking for all women” smashes what should be kaleidoscopic perspectives of women’s lives. Specifically, I’ve seen how the self-imposed and unproductive pressure to “speak for all women” tends to:
- Discount or stand in opposition to the actual lived experiences of non-dominant groups within the in-group (if they’re even there), especially women of color, women of faith, women in other countries and cultures, younger women, younger parents — working within a religion means you are “oppressed,” teen motherhood is a “tragedy,” the classic lie that “young women take feminism for granted”
- Redirect diversity efforts from expanding perspectives/strategies/work to focus only on representational diversity (important, but not sufficient in itself) — “we need a [black woman/young woman/immigrant woman] to sit on this panel or sign this letter we’ve already put together”
- Trash women who do their part to move feminism forward within their realm of expertise — last night I went to a networking and mentoring event for undergraduate college women, many not so sure of themselves, and the first introduction to Sheryl Sandberg from the panel was an apology: “I know she gets criticism, but …”
- Shift focus to “choices,” an insistence upon picking at and policing women’s personal lives rather than acknowledging we’re blamed for our second-class status no matter what we do, a dos and don’ts feminism if you will — suggestions that the fate of feminism (or at least your enlightenment) rests on whether you get married or change your name
- Lead some speakers to apologize for who they are and taking up space — “I’m not a younger woman, but I’m really supportive of younger feminists … am I still allowed to help?,” and other concerns that not being exactly like others around you means you “can’t be a feminist”
- Shame feminists who are trying to get by as much as all the other women on the planet — whether that means wearing revealing clothing, not caring about your clothing, or enduring life events that are no fault of your own, including having low self-esteem, dealing with abusive relationships, being underpaid
- Discourage the evolution of ideas and leadership within the women’s movement — if you can’t speak for everyone, well then you should just sit down and listen to someone who does it anyway (see concerns above, this is exactly why we need more voices, not fewer!)
So okay, what can we do next? Speak for ourselves. Speak for women. Acknowledge that speaking for women means also helping to lift up the voices of women with different races, sexualities, abilities, different perspectives, different views. It’s all feminist fair game if the discussion rests on revealing our own individual truths and moving forward societal actions that expand justice for other women — under this definition, we can quickly discard the few on the fray who suggest that taking away reproductive rights from women and awarding them to church and state is feminist, or that what we need isn’t the Violence Against Women Act, but more gun proliferation.
Change is good. Believing in yourself and your right to be present is awesome. So is listening to others without judgement or pressure to be more like you. Diversity is strength. Honesty is revolutionary. Good feminists, let’s not try to “speak for all women” anymore.