Updated: Jun 12, 2020
How literature altered my identity as a feminist.
I used to feel hesitant to call myself a feminist. In the fall of my freshman year, an incident occurred that was really not an incident at all but just a moment, a mocking whisper that has stuck: “Feminazi.” This maladroit play on words lingered longer than the face that hissed it. I searched the term and found Rush Limbaugh’s derisive definition: “A feminist to whom the most important thing in life is ensuring that as many abortions as possible occur.” This comment, along with the weight of invectives that saddle girls during high school, compelled me for the rest of that year to bite my tongue whenever I witnessed small, but nevertheless inimical, acts and words of misogyny. Doubt and insecurity contaminated my perception of my social, academic, and personal abilities. I distracted myself with reading; Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Knausgaard’s My Struggle filled my mind with unfamiliar places and engrossing ordeals. Yet I still felt small and dismally silenced.
Then I read Andrea Dworkin. Her lucid writing, coursing with an unapologetic power, hit me like an electric shock. My jaw literally dropped at her discourse on how the idea and reality of the feminine are mauled by patriarchal design. In Women Hating, Dworkin argues that the concept of female inferiority is so pervasive in society that the representation of a battered-and-liking-it woman is the nec plus ultra in pornography, an industry “used in rape - to plan it, to execute it, to choreograph it.” Her attack of this platform and of the countless constructs imposed on women thrilled me, and so did her unflinching hope. Dworkin is scathing and relentless, especially when it comes to her vision of what women’s rights should be. With a renewed sense of my capacities, I devoured the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, Elena Ferrante, and Toni Morrison. Each astonished me, their reflections on the female condition so visceral and relatable -- clarifying how and why being a woman mattered. Many of the books I had previously read — most of them by men — lacked examples of female power. This makes blatant the educational system’s limitations; in the mainly male canon we are exposed to, a woman can be a great writer, but only a great female writer. The gendering of even language incenses me, and I call for modifications: why can’t the act of intercourse be described as one of “envelopment” rather than “penetration,” for example? Yet the power I now feel -- power nourished by Dworkin’s and de Beauvoir’s words -- can not be erased. Whereas before I felt angry and cheated, as if any fledgling hopes I have of being a writer would be promptly dismissed, now I finally feel my self, my physical and mental prowess as a woman, and am proud. “Woman” is a classification I want to shout, stomp out in morse code, clutch against my breast. This feeling makes me powerful. And it makes me a feminist.