I’ll always remember the condescending smile on the face of my interlocutor as I finally walked away.
The argument was, unbelievably, about the continuing need for feminism, which my adversary contended was out of date. “Can you name a single instance in your life where you’ve been discriminated against?” My failure to come up with one was her moment of triumph: I couldn’t name any personal discrimination, therefore feminism as a concept is dead. Hail, hail, a toast with the cheap white wine at this policy event where we so blithely celebrate our achievements in assessing and passing judgement on the lives and work of others.
It is true that I live a life of privilege and it takes meticulous thought on my part to identify times where my gender has negatively impacted my work or my education. Out of the heat of the moment, a little heap of these moments has collected in my brain, fodder for a cannon I’ll never fire. And those are only the ones I actually recognise, not the ones where others’ or my own unconscious bias played a part in leaving a door closed, an offer ungiven.
The thing that left me speechless overall, the thing I wasn’t able to get out of my mouth to this triumphant woman, is that the mental and emotional work I put into feminism and other -isms isn’t to advance my own personal status or position but to understand the experience of others.
Doing that work might indeed help me advocate for myself, directly or indirectly. But its most important role in my life is to help me appreciate the difficulties that others go through, sometimes at my instigation (directly or indirectly), and to mitigate those inequalities to the best of my ability.
More than ever I believe in the importance of this work. Something that had become a noble yet abstract ideal was brought back into sharp and personal focus by this moment, renewing my zeal for personally working in every way that I know how for a more equitable society. If you see me smiling triumphantly, it is a recognition of this opportunity to renew my commitment.