Feminism as an Ethics of Accountability

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I am angry. I am angry and I don’t care to wait until I “cool off” so that I can be “more rational.”

I am angry and I am exhausted.

These are two separate incidents, but they’re related.

Scene 1.

Two days ago I called out a man that I’d had a sexual and romantic relationship with. We were now attempting to be friends — but he had broken my trust by not disclosing some pretty crucial information and thus didn’t give me the opportunity to consent to the terms of the relationship. I gave him an opportunity to rebuild it — an opportunity he told me he wanted and was grateful for.

Two weeks go by and he is anything but accountable. When I tell him how his actions have made me feel his response is “I know. I’m an asshole. I’ll only continue to disappoint you.”

For so many of us, we’ve heard a statement like this before. Many times before. 

These are choices that you are making. It’s not as though this is some sort of tragic flaw that you cannot change. You are making a choice not to change. You are choosing to not be accountable. Because you can. Because the patriarchy has told you that you can do the bare minimum; in fact, go even lower than the bare minimum and that will be fine too.

As I’ve been teaching a course called Feminist Approaches to Literature, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I define (my) feminism.

When we talk about feminism we often speak of it as a politics — and that is true. Feminism is a political movement. But it is more than that. It is an ethics: a way of being in the world in which you acknowledge your failures, take accountability for the ways your actions have hurt others, and you do better.

You cannot call yourself a feminist one second and then say “I’m an asshole. Too bad” the next. That is a cop out. That is your privilege talking. That is the misogyny you’ve internalized that you need to work through.

Interlude. 

Ever since reading Erin Wunker’s Notes From a Feminist Killjoy, I continue to think about this quotation:

“So where do we begin?

I’m thinking of the questions students have asked me and the question that I ask myself: Where do we begin when the work of deconstructing, dismantle, and burning down oppressive systems seems so immense?

First, we situate ourselves. Then, we widen the scope of our looking. Then, we situate ourselves again. And repeat.”

Wunker’s response speaks to the ways that feminism isn’t just a politics — it’s an ethics. 

To situate oneself is to take accountability. It is to say “here I am and here’s what I’ve done. And this thing I’ve done has hurt you. And I just can’t feel okay about that.”

When we widen the scope of our looking, we are looking for ways to do better. But we must always continue to situate ourselves because our power and privilege is so ingrained in us that even when we do our best to practice our feminism — which should always be intersectional — we often fail.

Because we are human.

And so we commit ourselves to this ongoing process because living ethically is an ongoing practice.

Scene 2. 

Last night I chose to engage in a FaceBook conversation in which a man said things that are misogynist and transphobic.

Of course, he doesn’t think they are.

Of course, he attacks the women who call him out on it. Tell me that I’m “radical” — I’ve heard it before. Please tell me how you don’t care about my “female biology.” Get in line. Because I’ve dealt with your misogyny my whole life. And I am strong.

Of course women are the only ones to do the work of calling him out.

Of course, the dude who started the thread — who is someone that I consider a friend and an overall good dude — expresses his desire to be neutral.

I want you to see that your neutrality is a privilege.

Choosing to remain neutral is not an option for those who have to fight against systemic oppression every. single. day.

If you want to call yourself a feminist, you need to say to other dudes “that thing you said, that’s just not okay.”

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed discusses how “Living a feminist life does not mean adopting a set of ideals or norms of conduct, although it might mean asking ethical questions about how to live better in an unjust and unequal world; how to create relationships with others that are more equal; how to find ways to support those who are not supported or are less supported by social systems.”

Feminism is about relationality. And relationality isn’t easy. Because humans are messy. Because we’ve experienced different traumas. And so you might slip up. You might fail. I want to stress that THAT IS OKAY. It’s what you do after you slip up that matters. 

This thread has since been taken down. But before it was I asked the one other woman — who I didn’t know in the thread — if she wanted to be pals. That way, something good could come from the dumpster fire of misogyny.

My feminism will get me called all sorts of names. But it will also help me build community. And that community will hold me accountable. And for that I’m grateful.

Please let’s keep holding each other accountable. 

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This post was written by Margeaux

2 Comments

  • Accountable and open to hearing what the other person is saying–literally and below the surface before jumping in to react, implore, or argue.
    On another note: your essay in Puritan on Grief Forms really touched me. Thanks.

    • Margeaux says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words Evelyn! And yes, I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we need to dig beneath the surface in order to understand where the person is coming from. It’s all about cultivating curiosity!

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