I fell in love with feminism in college.
Truth be told, I had always been a feminist, but it was always just a background fact of life. Sort of the way some people are raised, say, Episcopalian. Not a big deal is made of it, but it’s assumed that you will believe in God and go to church on Easter. My parents didn’t go out of their way to indoctrinate us, but they made their values clear, and tried to live them as best they could.
However, I took feminism for granted and went off to college viewing it as somewhat fusty and irrelevant to my life, much as a rebellious teen might view the religion of her family.
But in college, I discovered the big world of feminist writers, art, music and activism. I was enthralled. I bought all of Ani Difranco’s albums, read everything bell hooks wrote, volunteered at Planned Parenthood and ran the campus feminist group (of course, being non-hierarchical feminists, I wasn’t the president, I was the co-facilitator). I had planned on being a psych major, but my sophomore year I took a women’s and gender studies class, found it far more intellectually stimulating than any other courses I’d taken, and changed my major.
I started college at the advent of Third World feminism, and in that generational upsetting of the apple cart, I really found my feminist identity. Third Wave feminism gave me a way out of (some of) the feminist dogma that didn’t fit my worldview, and gave me a way to understand my experience of being a girl and then young woman. It gave me my place in feminism.
There was one Third Wave feminist anthology in particular that I found personally revelatory. It consisted of essays by a variety of different kinds of women talking about their lives, and the place of feminism in those lives. These women were college students, lawyers, aerobics instructors, strippers, and punk rock scenesters. Some talked about their struggles both with sexism and the pressure of beng a “good feminist.” Some talked about how sexism intersected with racism, classism and homophobia in their lives. They all had different takes on feminism, and I reveled in the diversity presented.
I still have that book on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom, dogeared and well-loved.
There was something missing from that book, of course, and that was my own sexuality. I didn’t know enough at the time to know that was missing. Even today, I wouldn’t expect them to include an essay by a female BDSM practitioner, and I probably wouldn’t notice such an absence.
But recently I learned something about the secret history of this book.
(Interjection: I should be clear that what I learned is second-hand. I don’t have confirmation of any of what follows, which is why I’m not naming the book or any of the key players. I actually hope that this is false. If you’re reading this and you have first-hand knowledge of any of this, please let me know. My email is in the top right-hand corner of the page.)
This book actually was supposed to include an essay by a female submissive. The essay is “Violence in the Garden,” by Polly Peachum. But when a very prominent second-wave feminist who was involved in the book read the essay, she demanded that it be removed from the anthology or she would withdraw her involvement and thus her stamp of approval. The essay was removed.
I admit, I was both angry and a bit devastated when I learned about this. I was very young when I read this book and it gave me the framework for my feminist philosophy. I think this book is the reason why, for instance, I never thought that being a sex worker was at odds with being a feminist.
I wonder: how much of a difference could it have made for me to see a submissive, masochistic woman in this book? Part of me thinks it might not have made a huge impact. The relationship portrayed in this essay is, by the author’s admission, on the extreme end of the D/s scale. It might have scared me. It probably would have been a better idea for the anthology editor to have gotten an essay from someone involved in a “kinder, gentler” form of BDSM, as the recent Yes Means Yes anthology did.
But still. Seeing a submissive woman in this anthology would have sent the message that it’s ok to be submissive – that BDSM and feminism are not mutually exclusive. And maybe I wouldn’t have been ready to accept my desires then, but maybe it would have sped up the process. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so baffled and freaked out by my fantasies.
It’s impossible to know, of course. But it was certainly a missed opportunity for early Third Wave feminism to stake out this ground and claim that any sexual arrangement entered into with enthusiastic consent can be compatible with feminism. That it is possible to be that sexually-empowered Third Wave feminist and get off on being hurt or told what to do (or being the one who hurts or tells others what to do). That feminism is complex and sturdy enough to deal with seeming contradictions.
Sometimes I think I should have given this blog a different name. I worry that, by naming it Feminist Sub, I’ve limited my audience by alienating both submissives that feel unwelcome in feminism, and feminists who aren’t interested in BDSM. But stories like this remind me why I gave it this name. I wanted to carve out this identity, to say unequivocally that feminism and submissiveness could and do exist together.