In recent months people have been discussing the extent to which women who are new to feminism are potentially being "scared off" the movement by more seasoned feminists who are keen to tell them that they're doing it wrong and are, in fact, not feminists at all. The stereotype of the Evil Twitter Feminist has developed over the past year or so - you've probably heard of her. She's a better feminist than everyone else. She's a thought-policing bully who wants to dictate what words you use, is quick to jump to conclusions and quick to trample anyone who disagrees with her about the finer points of gender equality. She just loves declaring who is and who isn't a feminist, and she probably doesn't like you. Sounds a bit...exaggerated, right? That's because it is.
This stereotype has come about following a series of long, involved and drama-filled debates that have played out on blogs and on social media. In general, they've happened because well-known public figures who identify as feminists have said and done things that aren't so great. There have been arguments. There has been flouncing. And as a result, I've seen several people say they're feeling as if feminism's a secret society that they can't join.
All this is supposedly making women feel that they don't have a place in feminism and that if they don't say the right things and have the right knowledge, they'll never be part of some imaginary Special Feminist Club. This is really getting me down, and not for the reasons you'd think.
But as the myth of the Evil Twitter Feminist - henceforth to be known as ETFs - gets perpetuated, as articles are written saying "ETFs make me feel like I'm not part of their exclusive gang" or "ETFs are intimidating and they just seem to fight all the time", I think that people are beginning to believe it. They're beginning to see these feminist mean girls as exactly what's wrong with the movement and exactly why women don't want to get involved with gender equality activism.
I think a bit of perspective is needed here, so have put together some tips in an attempt to stop all these "ETFs don't want me in their crew" mutterings.
Try not to be put off by debate and disagreement
All philosophies and movements are the same. You'll find a range of opinions and from time to time there will be drama. People will argue. When I was a "baby feminist" and started reading feminist blogs, there was a lot of conflict surrounding the issues of porn and sex work - whether you were pro or anti. People were quitting and deleting their blogs; there was a lot of bad feeling. I thought I knew how I felt about the issue, but then I realised there was a lot I didn't know and a lot I didn't understand. I didn't try to wade into the arguments, but I didn't think "This feminism lark's not for me, thanks" either. I read the blog posts. I looked at sites that helped clear up my confusion and knowledge gaps. We are, after all, talking about the internet here - and the internet thrives on conflict. Different schools of thought within a movement are not just "infighting" or "a spat" - it's not a requirement that everyone comes to the same conclusions about every issue.
If you mess up, put things right
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people find this difficult. Particularly, it seems, high profile people. Everyone makes mistakes and often, we don't even realise what we've done. One of the main points to come out of the many feminist Twitterstorms of recent months is that a lot of people use words and phrases that are considered offensive by other groups of people. They get used because they're popular, they're slang, they're just what people say. And then someone calls you out on it and says "I'm not ok with that". When this happens, it's best to apologise, admit you messed up, and move on. Getting defensive and spending several days telling everyone that the racist/sexist/homophobic word you used was soooo not racist/sexist/homophobic and can't people just get off your case and stop trying to police your speech is not the best plan.
Be prepared to look at your heroes with a critical eye and accept that "big names" divide opinion
Let's say you're a big fan of a particular well-known woman. You think she's great and she's really influenced you. Maybe she's even helped ignite your passion for equality. Then you see some other women saying that they're not happy with something she's said or done. Actually, they think she's done something pretty bad. They think she's giving feminism a bad name. Fear not! This does not mean you are a bad feminist. You do not have to turn in your feminist card and slink off, shamed. It's possible to agree with some things a person has said, but realise that they've also said some pretty unfortunate things too. The key, again, is looking into what's going on and learning.
If you have a lot of privilege, listen to those who don't
Privilege. That old chestnut. If you're new to feminism you probably see it being discussed a lot. Where there is drama, there is usually an argument about privilege. This post has some great pointers for engaging with debates surrounding privilege - tips such as "learn to listen", "you aren't bad for having privilege", "it's ok to make mistakes" and "criticism is not hatred". Where a lot of people fall down is going on the defensive because someone has mentioned their opinion on something is coloured by privilege of some sort. It's easy for this to happen. You might think "This person appears to be hating on me for being white/middle-class/straight! I didn't CHOOSE to be this way! They obviously think I'm a bigot and I've done nothing wrong!"
Stop. Don't make it about you. Don't get huffy if they use words you aren't familiar with. Google is your friend. Part of the reason the stereotype of the ETF reacts with such anger to issues like this is because in general, feminists get a bit tired of people refusing to admit that someone might be better placed to talk about something than they are.
Remember why you're doing this
The answer is, of course, because you're passionate about gender equality and want to see it become a reality for everyone. You don't have to have the same areas of interest as all the feminists you know. You don't have to agree with them all or even get on with them all. You can align yourself with other movements and belief systems. You don't have to be out protesting every weekend and signing every petition and blogging about every outrage. Somewhere, you will find community and friendship and the things you feel most moved to act upon. And when you do, it will be awesome.
This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz, which sadly closed last week after four and a half years of great content and three and a half years of providing me with some wonderful opportunities.