A missed opportunity for feminism

23 Sep

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.

6 Responses to “A missed opportunity for feminism”

  1. acquiexence September 25, 2011 at 5:14 AM #

    I probably won’t be notified of any response you might make to this comment, but in response to your last paragraph:

    I’m normally scared off by feminists. They tend to come across to me as brash, outspoken, overbearing, almost angry in the way they approach life. Not only do they have a cause, they want to fight for it, and beat down anyone who gets in their way. Whether I should have or not, I ended up associating the term and idea of ‘feminism’ with such angry, scary women.

    So when I saw the title of your blog, originally, I didn’t think I was going to like what was here.

    But I read a couple of posts, and then a couple more, and before I knew it, I was hooked on your intelligent, probing, honest, always curious, and sometimes baffled writing style. You don’t shy away from your own struggles or confusion, or the fact that you don’t have it all worked out yet. More than almost any other submissive blog I read, yours feels like a journey — one that we as readers are privileged to witness and participate in.

    So please don’t feel that you’re alienating anyone. Any of us who give enough of a damn to read your posts will see what it is you have to offer, and appreciate it. 🙂

    Thank you for continuing to write, and share, your story with us.

    • feministsub September 25, 2011 at 10:14 AM #

      Well, in case you DO come back to look: thank you for such a kind comment. This really is a journey for me, and it’s so helpful to have a place to write about it.

      I’m sorry you’ve had such bad experiences with those who call themselves feminists. Your comment reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write a post about this topic, so thanks for that as well.

      Also, I’m glad you commented because it led me to look at your blog, which I’m liking already.

      • acquiexence September 27, 2011 at 4:40 AM #

        Ha. Right when I went to send it, I saw the checkbox for “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”, but I was in a rush and had to just send my comment regardless. So yes, I got yours! Success!

        Glad you’re liking my blog, which I’ve … neglected, somewhat. I should have taken the opportunity today to update it, as I took the day off work, but didn’t get around to it. Well. Sometime this week?

        *hugs and flees to bed*

  2. Jennifer September 28, 2011 at 11:44 PM #

    Hey! Just wanted to say that I really like your blog! I appreciate it as a feminist and someone who has submissive tendencies. However, I’m really surprised you didn’t address the stereotyping the other reader did by saying this:

    “I’m normally scared off by feminists. They tend to come across to me as brash, outspoken, overbearing, almost angry in the way they approach life. Not only do they have a cause, they want to fight for it, and beat down anyone who gets in their way. Whether I should have or not, I ended up associating the term and idea of ‘feminism’ with such angry, scary women.”

    I mean, there are a couple of ways to approach this comment. First, even if some feminists are angry, loud, and oustpoken–what’s wrong with that? Feministsub, didn’t you say in your previous post that feminists come in many different personality types? Also, don’t we have a right to be angry? Secondly, no addressing of how our culture largely paints any woman who has an outspoken opinion as a “bitch”? “Overbearing”? “Angry”? These are obvious cultural memes that have spread throughout society and don’t often come from an individual’s experience. Also, isn’t it just the WORST thing to call a woman such “unfeminine” words? I mean, really, I would hate being called “outspoken”!

    And it’s obvious that this isn’t so much about submissive sexuality in contrast with feminism, considering I’m a staunch feminist who definitely enjoys being submissive in bed, as well.

    • feministsub September 30, 2011 at 1:23 PM #

      Thanks! Sorry it took a while to approve this comment – wordpress just decided to stop emailing me when I have new comments.

      As for the feminist stereotyping, this is something I’m wrestling with right now, and actually planning to write a blog post about at some point. On the one hand, I obviously disagree with that categorization and find it very problematic. And I don’t want to tacitly agree and “accept” that I’m different from the “angry” feminists.

      But I have had a shocking number of people say similar things to me lately, and this makes me think that a broader response is necessary. And I don’t necessarily think it’s the most productive tactic to assume that someone’s opinions come from cultural memes – I know that I instantly go on the defensive when someone tells me an opinion of mine is based on stereotypes or ignorance.

    • acquiexence October 5, 2011 at 1:13 AM #


      “First, even if some feminists are angry, loud, and oustpoken–what’s wrong with that?” –> The word ‘wrong’ didn’t come from me, if you care to re-read my comment. Neither did the word ‘bitch’, which you used later on as if quoting me. I have a personal reaction to angry, loud, and outspoken people (see further below), but it doesn’t stem from a notion of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

      Additionally, FeministSub was right. My responses don’t come from cultural memes. Anyone who knows me in person knows that I am barely aware of what society thinks of most stereotypes.

      I am speaking out of my own experiences. I am not a confrontational person in general, and I am easily scared off by people who are angry. And as a person who values discussion and the sharing of thoughts (in a less volatile environment), I also don’t appreciate those who are narrow-minded (in any environment). Every single feminist I have ever met or spoken with in person or online, with only one IRL exception (plus FeministSub herself), has been overtly threatening and/or violent, with no interest in any other views but her own and her “sisters”‘.

      That kind of person makes me want to steer clear, and that “flee” reaction isn’t restricted to meeting feminists. If a man who had no feminist leanings was like that, I’d avoid him. If a woman who was against everything feminism stood for was like that, I’d avoid her. It’s not unique behaviour on their part, and it’s certainly not a unique response on mine.

      My point was merely that in my own experience, feminists have almost always been *that sort of person*. Hence why I’ve avoided them. And when you meet ten, twenty, thirty feminists who all exhibit the same behaviour, it begins to form a proven pattern in your mind. I try not to judge people before I’ve had a chance to get to know them, and even then to suspend judgement because hey, that’s not my place — but these are factual encounters from my own life. Not projections, not assumptions, and not accusations. Just observations.

      People can behave the way they want to, sure. I’m not here to control any of them or say that what they do is wrong just because they’re angry and aren’t willing to listen to others.

      They’re just not the sort of people I want to hang around. You and other feminists may have a ‘right’ to be angry. But by the same token, it’s *my* ‘right’ to avoid that anger, and seek calmer company. And I would appreciate it if others respected my decision to do so, instead of taking it as an attack that requires some form of defense.

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