U.S. Department of State

Living up to the feminist ideal

How it feels to be a bad example of a good feminist.

First and foremost, being a feminist means believing in gender equality; but being a good example of a feminist is so much more. To be a feminist role model means being a ‘strong, independent woman’; one who stands up for herself and for others; one who doesn’t submit to the will of oppressive and controlling figures; and one who doesn’t accept the role that society has laid out for her unless it suits her desires. She is Emma Watson, Rupi Kaur, Beyoncé, and Elle Woods. She has a straight back, sharp eyes, and an even sharper tongue. Everyone looks up to the ‘strong, independent woman’ as an example of how to live one’s own life, and how to improve oneself. Becoming a feminist role model isn’t just about believing in gender equality: it’s a process of self-cultivation which requires one to reach the highest standards of female empowerment. But what does it mean to be strong, and how do I become it? What exactly is independence, and where does it come from?

Strength is a very broad idea;, encompassing the physical, mental, and emotional. When we consider a ‘strong’ feminist woman we refer often to the mental and emotional strength required to put one’s foot forward in a male-dominated world. It is a combination of courage and fearlessness – first of all the courage to speak, and second the fearlessness to continue to stand up to criticism, ingrained societal sexism, and the continual condescenion of others.

Becoming a feminist role model isn’t just about believing in gender equality: it’s a process of self-cultivation.

The emotional aspect of strength is a little more convoluted. Emotional strength first of all means that one should develop a type of ‘emotional backbone’ that remains resilient in the face of difficulties. This ‘backbone’ provides the foundation for bravery, and enables the ‘powerhouse woman’ to walk the streets with her head high. On the other hand, emotional strength also describes a capacity to be reconciled with one’s own emotions. It is the courage to cry and to be upset, to show and make vulnerable to others the most sensitive side of yourself. Balancing this on a public level is arguably impossible, for regardless of one’s approach criticism is inevitable. Whether for being bossy and masculine, or being regarded as pathetic and riddled with Premenstrual syndrome, criticism is a sad commonplace. 

Independence is even more difficult to determine. No one is fully independent – everybody relies on someone, whether that means friends, family, co-workers, or romantic partners. What, then, does feminist independence mean?

Usually we might think it denotes a woman’s ability to progress through life without relying upon a man to provide for her. We think that women nowadays should be entirely self-sufficient, a concept that promotes ambition and the pursuit of one’s own goals. This is, of course, immensly important; it implores women not to be discouraged or feel obliged to compromise their aspirations.

This sort of view of feminist independence has the potential to undermine those women who wish to pursue life as a stay-at-home mother or wife. A woman pursuing this lifestyle is dependent upon a working partner for life’s necessities. Yet in my view this is a misinterpretation, as these women achieve fulfilment in an area other than career and are therefore ultimately geared towards personal happiness and achieving a lifestyle which suits them. It is thus imperative that we consider freedom to pursue one’s aspirations as independence, rather than thinking of an independent woman as someone who does not ‘need’ other people in her life.

No one is fully independent, whether we deny it or not.

I fear so often in my life that I fall woefully short of what it means to be a feminist woman. I am no Oprah or Mary Beard. My strength and independence are in such short supply that I cannot portray myself to my peers as a powerful feminist role model, despite my fierce feminist convictions. I am so far from “fierce” that my passion is as laughable as a gerbil picking a fight with a bobcat. I am far too easily bullied, manipulated, and controlled. I have been trained to be timid, and it’s a habit that I cannot kick. Too much of my self-worth relies upon the opinions of others – in my romantic relationships in particular – as though my role as an object of the male gaze is far more important than my friendships. It makes me feel so weak, and makes me look weak in the eyes of my fellow women. Feminist expectation demands that I am something other than what I am, and although I strive to achieve it, I am in a constant state of failure.

Perhaps I should believe that the feminist role models that I have mentioned are there for the very purpose of helping people like me become more of a ‘strong, independent woman’. I am not at the right stage where I can be an effective role model to others. But that leaves me feeling like a hypocrite, because I do not practice the feminist ideals I preach. I have no right to advise someone else on how to view themselves and how to live their lives if I am the one most in need of counsel.

I know that I am a bad example of a feminist. I have not personally achieved the strength and independence of feminist role models like Emma Watson and Oprah. My struggle right now is self-improvement, a desire to transform myself into a person whom I do not despise, and of whom I can be proud.As long as I believe this is possible, and as long as I try to achieve it, I can continue to be a good feminist even if I am a poor example of one. Even so, I am a long way off who I want to be. So if this is what a feminist looks like, we need a new face for the campaign.