When the F-Word Became Bad // Mae Adams Shirley, M.S., M.A.

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     I remember the first time it happened to me. I was participating in a group activity in one of my graduate classes- you know the type- in which all the students were asked to stand in a single, file line on one end of the room. The professor told us that this would be a game about identity and she proceeded to list different cultural, ethnic, religious, gender, etc. identity markers to consider as descriptions for ourselves as students. She asked students who identified as male to step forward, and then students who identified as racially diverse, and down the list. After each identity, she left ample time for students to take a step forward, separating themselves from the rest of the group. After each identity she listed, she would ask the students to turn around and face the rest of the class still standing in the line where they began. She encouraged them to consider what it felt like to no longer be a part of the single, file line that had once contained the entire class.

…I’m sure you can see where this is going. I could, too. I waited, with great anticipation, for the professor to call the one identifying marker that I had been waiting for: Feminist. Finally my moment had arrived! When she asked all the students who identified as feminists to step forward, I proudly broke free from the line and stood emphatically in my new place in the room. I expectantly turned around, excited to see my sisters rallied around me in what I assumed would be our united self-definition. But to my shock (and horror?) I turned around to find that I was the only female standing outside of the single, file line of my classmates. To their credit, I was joined by a few of my male colleagues, and this did not go unnoticed. But where were all the women? Confused and somewhat embarrassed, I faced the professor.

“What’s the problem, Mae?” she asked me.

     I was speechless. This was my very first semester of my doctoral studies. Did I really want to out myself as a feminist in a room full of women who clearly did not identify as such? Would doing so throw me under the metaphorical bus that was sure to lead to my demise as a competent student in my new graduate school career? I stood there for what felt like 20 minutes without any words available to me. Awkwardly, I finally squeaked, “I…I guess I’m just surprised. Where are all the women?” I looked back at the faces of a few of my male colleagues, who now looked at me with what appeared to be some combination of pity and perplexity. I looked again at my classmates still standing in the single, file line on the other side of the room and asked- this time with more confidence- “Why didn’t you come forward, too?”

     The answers started pouring out between stammers and pauses. One female classmate said that she did believe in the equality of women and men, but she didn’t like the word ‘feminism’ because “of what it represents.” She went on to explain that she and I probably shared the same ideals, but because of her negative association with this word, she simply couldn’t use it to identify herself. Students nodded, agreeing with her. Another female colleague asked, “Why do I have to call myself a ‘feminist,’ if I believe in the rights of women? Do I have to use that word?” More nods. My face grew hot. More rationalizations from my classmates. More reasons why the word ‘feminism’ is “too strong.” More my wanting to disappear in thin air.

     Flash forward 2 years later- and I am happy to testify that I did survive this uncomfortable experience as a lowly first year PsyD student. Never did I forget, however, the impact that this experience had on me. Coming from the notoriously conservative southern United States, I had assumed that I would be among theoretically like-minded peers in my new home of Oregon. It had not occurred to me that well into the 21st century I would be faced with the question of whether or not using the word feminist was an acceptable concept in any circle, much less in a graduate training program.

     When we fail to teach our sons and daughters about the true meaning of the word Feminism, we do much more than simply perpetuate misconceptions about the ideals that this word entails. Pop culture and the misrepresentation of Feminism in media is more than ready to illicit false portrayals of Feminism that conjure up images of bra burning, angry, man-hating women with an agenda to take over the world. (Hear me roar!) But these misunderstandings of the notions of Feminism have done more than simply create a caricature of the type of woman who would dare call herself a feminist in 2015. I would suggest that the result of our generational smearing of the word Feminism has had a dire impact on our daughters (and sons). We’ve managed to teach entire generations that the F-word has new meaning, rooted in outdated and misconstrued representation of its original intent.

     If you haven’t, I would encourage you to take back the reigns of your understanding of the word Feminism. Research the different waves of this social justice movement that have propelled us forward through the years. Do your own studying of Feminist concepts. Ask questions. Be brave enough to stand outside the single, file line with the rest of your colleagues. Let’s take back Feminism and educate ourselves about why it really isn’t the new, bad F-word.

Written by Mae Adams Shirley, M.S., M.A.

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