So I recently shared with all of you my amazing day hobnobbing with feminists in NYC at Soapbox Feminist Winter Term. On our fourth day, we had lunch with the fab feminist activist Shelby Knox.
For those who don’t know, the documentary The Education of Shelby Knox follows Knox as a young teen and her awakening to activism. Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, she was an ultra-conservative religious teen opposed to abortion. Her school provided an abstinence-only curriculum. In her school, they had Sex “Ed” who did a demonstration for students. He held a dirty toothbrush in his hand and said now you wouldn’t brush your teeth with this, so why would you have sex and do this to your body? (OMFG…where do I even begin with what’s wrong with this?!) Knox came to realize the importance of supporting women’s health and sex education in public schools, advocating for reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. Now, she’s a young feminist icon.
Knox’s parents were GOP conservatives. Her dad loves Rush Limbaugh (yikes!) but he’s supportive of sex education and of Shelby (yay!). Her parents are now more liberal and support gay marriage. Her mom even serves on the board of Planned Parenthood (double yay!!). Lubbock is still abstinence-only but Sex “Ed” no longer “teaches” there with his misogynistic toothbrush demos. They also have a new superintendent, Linda Johnson, as well as sex-ed funding.
Knox shared her views on feminism. She thought she was alone at 15. Knox said,
“My story and your story are valid and we live in a world that tries to make you feel crazy…how wrong is that?”
Her words struck a chord; so many times I felt as if I was losing my mind…I mean how could other people NOT see that the world was sexist and fucked up?! In dealing with religious conservatives, Knox tries to find common ground with them. She will say, “I’m not going to change your beliefs so why try to change mine?” That makes so much sense…why didn’t I think of that?? Knox is still spiritual; she’s now interested in piecing together spiritual, historical, mystical stories of women.
Knox talked about her perspective on the differences between the various waves of feminism. First Wave feminists were the suffragists advocating for women’s right to vote. Many Second Wave feminists, who came about during the Women’s Movement in the 1960s, talk about how it felt like being reborn. Third Wave feminists (coined by Rebecca Walker), sparked by the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas trial as well as Riot Grrrl music, experienced less ownership because their mothers were feminists; they were born into a pre-existing feminist world.
Knox read Jennifer Baumgardner’s and Amy Richard’s iconic feminist tome Manifesta. She was struck by their infamous quote “feminism is in the water like fluoride” as her experience was the complete opposite. She grew up in the backlash generation. She remembers the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, that Lewinsky was called a slut. But she doesn’t remember Anita Hill or Riot Grrrl or zines (christ, now I feel old!). She also remembers 9/11 and a return to traditional gender roles in the media with shows like Desperate Housewives; Susan Faludi’s book Terror Dream talks about these themes. Fourth Wave feminists are trying to redefine feminism on their own terms as they’re removed from the pioneers of it. It’s interesting because I personally don’t feel like I belong to a particular feminist wave. In a liminal state, the boundaries blur for me as I’m old enough to remember the early 90s yet my beliefs and ideologies align with the latest generation.
Social media serves as consciousness-raising for young Fourth Wave feminists. Anyone who is literate and has internet access can write, read and become part of the dialogue. While for most jobs you still need a college education, social media eliminates the need to spend thousands of dollars going to college in order to voice your opinion. But as Latoya Peterson has argued, a clique of white feminists still exists; we have to be careful not to exclude people. Knox herself adeptly utilizes the blogosphere as well as Twitter to raise awareness on issues as well as build a community of activists.
Loretta Ross of SisterSong, a reproductive health coalition for women of color, coined the term “reproductive justice.” The Third Wave was the first to talk about intersectionality. Fourth Wave didn’t have to learn that. Knox asserts that gender is what this generation of feminists will pioneer. Feminists have marginalized poor women and trans women. But if we cater to trans women, the most vulnerable and marginalized group, then we will be protecting everyone. Mackenzie, one of the Feminist Winter Termers, talked about a fluid gender identity and a trans identity and how even if you come out as trans, people assume you will transition and become hyper feminine or masculine. Using pronoun “ze” in lieu of she/he can help towards eradicating gender binaries.
Morgan, another Feminist Winter Termer questioned how to deal with hetero men not getting feminism, particularly if they are your partner/significant other? Morgan said, “We didn’t know until we knew. We have to remember that.” Knox said that we can try to find common ground and use media images as “feminist teaching opportunities.” Language politics – “slut” – would you call a man that? Shelby wrote a blog post on a beer commercial utilizing the image of women as prey – do you really want women to think of men as predators?
But it isn’t just men subjugating women; women oppress other women. Through ageism (as well as other -isms), we are taught to internalize hatred but react and take it out on other women. Media and society constantly reinforce the notion that women are catty and divisive; that they can never be friends. The media perpetually pits women against other women. In Susan J. Douglas’s book Enlightened Sexism and in Jenn Pozner’s book Reality Bites Back, both discuss how institutional sexism affects media and how we internalize those conflicting, toxic messages. In films and TV shows (particularly reality shows), women become rivals, forever competing with other women for men or attention.
When Knox started talking to young women across the country, she would share her own story. Then she would ask others to share their stories. Someone would then share their activism in high school and then another and another…all while others nodded in agreement. Knox realized that we all have moments of activism, of standing up for what we believe in. I didn’t start calling myself an activist until recently as I didn’t feel I had the right to claim that title. Yet I realized (and Shelby’s hopeful words reminded me again) that many of us have experienced moments of activism…when we stand up to a bully, when we send an email to our legislator, when we blog, tweet or tell a friend about anti-choice legislation or a movie that demeans women, when we say enough is enough, when we voice our opinion for something we believe in…in those moments, we are all activists.