Feminism is a polarizing term.
You either fully embrace it as a way of life or want nothing to do with it.
Personally, I’ve always led a feminist lifestyle. But until recently, I would often start conversations about women’s right with the dreaded phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…”
Why was I so hesitant about calling myself a feminist?
The truth is: I simply didn’t understand what feminism was about, let alone how freeing it could be.
I had misconceptions that feminism was about usurping men’s power and dominating them.
I truly believed that being a girl required protection from harm, and that I should be content to have men that could offer me that security.
But more importantly, I didn’t think that I, as a woman, was oppressed.
For example, a household in which my father was the patriarch was the norm. When my sisters and I wanted to go somewhere outside of our neighborhood, my father would protest and say it wasn’t safe.
But it wasn’t just my father.
My mother and other female relatives all felt the same way.
“It’s dangerous for a girl,” we were told. “You’ll be safer here.”
Of course, I wanted to be safe and protected. Who doesn’t? And I felt that everything that my family did for me was because they knew what I needed best.
It never occurred to me that part of it was the result of sexism. And it certainly never occurred to me that part of it was the result of women’s internalized sexism.
We lived by strict gender roles, and this was just the way things were.
It wasn’t until I started reading about feminism out of curiosity that I understood how much of my upbringing was, in truth, the result of a patriarchal world.
But even after the realization that I could question these norms, I still felt like feminism wasn’t for me.
I wanted to be free of constraining gender roles, of course – exacerbated by relatives who were unhappy I was studying Engineering, a so-called “masculine” profession – but I also wanted to be liked.
Feminism preaches basic gender equality, but because we live in a society that posits the female and feminine qualities with weakness and docility, it only seems extreme.
But at the time, while I wholeheartedly agreed with feminism, it seemed radical and revolutionary.
What I realize now is: I was afraid of the label, not what it represented.
But that kept me from fully embracing feminism as a way of life until I was old enough to seek information for myself.
My entire knowledge of feminism, like many of us, consisted of a one-day lecture in high school about the Seneca Falls Convention. So, all of my life, I thought feminism was a movement created by and for white American women.
And that wasn’t a movement that I wanted to be a part of.
In an effort to reconnect to my Dominican roots, I read the book In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Álvarez.
The book is a fictionalized account of four women, the Mirabal sisters, in the Dominican Republic who fight for freedom while the country is ruled by a tyrannical dictator.
When I saw how we shared the same history, culture, and way of life, their story of bravery and strength served as a foundation for my feminism.
These women lived in an era where they were never allowed to overstep boundaries. The consequences of dissenting were more than just becoming a social pariah; they were killed for their actions.
The story of the Mirabal sisters stirred a revolutionary spirit in me. I saw their story as a way to fight for civil liberties with a focus on women and girls.
But their story taught me that it could also be dangerous to be a feminist.
Just like the Mirabal sisters were murdered for speaking out against a brutal dictator, in some places, women who confront and try to change societal norms put themselves in danger of being alienated by their families and peers or even face governmental retribution.
In Mexico, feminist, human rights advocate, and journalist Lydia Cacho has been threatened with rape and murder for speaking up about women’s rights.
In Afghanistan, two gunmen killed Najia Seddiqi, head of the Women’s Affairs Department and tireless advocate for the advancement of women in her country. Her predecessor, Hanifa Safi, was also killed when explosives left in her vehicle were detonated.
All over the world, there are stories of women who are punished for speaking up for women.
And yet, even for those of us who are fortunate to live in a country where we do not face persecution for being feminists, there are still a lot of boundaries to becoming a feminist.
Unlike the Mirabal sisters, Lydia Cacho, Najia Seddiqui, and Hanifa Safi not all of us are in physical danger because we call ourselves feminists.
But I understand that calling oneself a feminist is not always easy or feasible.
Some women attempt to embrace feminism, but feel disconnected to the movement.
Mainstream feminism has the tendency to concentrate disproportionately on the problems of white, middle class, cis women.
It’s impractical to focus on issues like whether women should change their last names upon marriage, when you don’t have enough money to feed your family.
Some women cannot leave their jobs to join a feminist rally, because that means their families could go hungry.
Women who are poor, single mothers, and immigrants, are oftentimes the same women who do not have the means to organize and protest due to lack of funds, time, or language barriers.
But these are also the women who need feminism the most.
Patriarchy has worked hard to convince women feminism is no longer necessary.
The claim that “we’re all equal already” is false.
The reality is that while men and women have achieved some levels of equality in our society, this is not the case in all parts of the world.
Even in the United States, women still earn less than men while doing the same work. Women are still expected to marry and have children, and those that are not interested in this lifestyle are seen as outcasts.
Meanwhile, in some countries, women can be killed by their relatives for being raped or for alleged promiscuity.
If feminism, like we’re being convinced, isn’t needed, these issues would be non-existent.
I call myself a feminist because I believe in what it represents.
But I am lucky to live in a society that allows me to express myself freely, to claim the label proudly.
But ultimately, the goal of feminism is not to boast about the number of women calling themselves a feminist.
A label may be important to enforce a feeling of community, but it won’t be enough to break down a patriarchal society.
Those of us who have the means to improve women’s lives need to empathize and work for women who do not have a voice – even if their cause is not our cause.
More important than saying “I am a feminist!” is doing the work necessary for women’s progress, and that is that what truly makes us feminists.
And I don’t see anything scary about that.
Patricia Valoy is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and STEM activist living in New York City. She writes about feminist and STEM issues from the perspective of a Latina and a woman in engineering. You can read more of her writings on her blog Womanisms, or follow her on Twitter @besito86. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.