Friday, March 11, 2011

Feminist anxiety and anxious feminism

On International Women's Day, the Globe and Mail published an extraordinarily frustrating and glib piece by Margaret Wente, who claims that "the war for women's rights is over, and we won." While I generally try not to take to take Margaret Wente seriously on any subject at all, and setting aside for a moment the fact that by 'we' she means upper-middle class white educated straight cisgender women living in North America (a vastly small subset of women to be sure), I found the following passage from the article particularly disturbing:
I owe everything to the gutsy women half a step ahead of me who battered down the barriers so that I could have it easy.
People who persist in looking for systemic discrimination against women in (name your field here) seem more and more desperate. They may as well complain about discrimination against male kindergarten teachers. We are finally learning that equality can also mean the freedom to make different choices. 
We're often told that feminists are strong women. Women who stand on their own making choices, without fear. Women who go out and get things done and don't let the world hold them back. Sometimes I feel like that kind of woman. But often I feel like a woman who can't always stand on her own, who needs to ask for help and support, and who spends undue amounts of emotional energy just trying to make it through tasks that other people find trivial. It took me almost an entire week to fortify myself before knocking on my advisor's door to introduce myself. It took me four long years to be able to eat in restaurants without feeling the need to bolt. And it still sometimes takes every effort I can manage to get up in front of a classroom full of students and talk to them about the sociology of sex. And there's a reason for that.

I have General Anxiety Disorder. This isn't an internet diagnosis, although the web did eventually help push me into a psychiatrist's office. I have a real life, no bones about it, certifiable mental illness. And often, before I started taking medication, it sucked.

Sometimes it sucked because struggling with terror over everyday things is frustrating. Anxiety the way I feel it doesn't feel like nervousness. It doesn't go away once something's been successfully completed or after I've had a good day. It just carries forward, transferred to the next thing that my amygdala has decided is deserving of my absolute and utter attention and concern. Depending on the day, I worry about work and school, friendships and relationships, eating in restaurants, the weather, and my health. On bad days, I worry about how much I'm worrying. On really bad days, I have panic attacks that relegate me to the couch or the bed, because doing anything but sitting and thinking my way out of a spiral of unreason is too much to contemplate. Or at least that's how things used to be. Medication, along with the support of family, friends, and a wonderful partner have helped alleviate the day-to-day vagaries of not being able to manage my own brain.

But sometimes my anxiety sucks for other reasons. Sometimes, it makes me feel like a bad feminist and a bad scholar. Neither of these things are true -- I happen to think that my struggles with anxiousness make me a better feminist and a better scholar most of the time. Like any other marginalized standpoint, I often feel as though I have the opportunity to see and empathize with experiences that are overlooked by much of the population. But that doesn't always transfer to how people see me. I know this, and it frustrates me.

The idea that feminism and disability intersect is certainly not a new one. The now defunct, but always excellent, FWD/Foward (Feminists With Disabilities) is an indispensable resource for understanding the various and complex ways that feminism confronts, supports--and sometimes clashes with--the needs and experiences of women with both physical and mental impairments. But we rarely hear these issues discussed in the press.

I was lucky enough to reach the height of my anxiety in an institutional setting where the costs of my seeing a doctor at one of the best anxiety clinics in the United States are covered for me. Moreover, I am fortunate to have parents who have never been anything but supportive of my decisions, and friends who I can turn to in times of need. But that I have these reinforcements available to me is a function of my privilege. This leads me back, once again, to an argument that I have made before: that the contemporary emphasis in public life on feminism as choice, rather than as justice, is harmful to the development of a feminist politics that advances the status of all women. For those women who do not have access to the resources I do, the choice to request and receive the tools necessary to improve their quality of life is not a choice at all. Similar to the difficulties that plague the quest for reproductive justice, the staggering lack of availability of mental health resources, particularly for women in marginalized communities is a roadblock in the ongoing struggle for women's rights. Moreover, the stigma attached to mental illness of in all of its forms, but particularly those illnesses that we tend to associate primarily with women and teenage girls, is a barrier to the idea that we need to take women's experiences seriously. Not only the experiences of those women who are in a position to expend their emotional, mental, and physical energies making leaps forward in the realms of business and politics, but also those women who spend their spoons on less public, more personal struggles.

Margaret Wente's unbelievably privileged assertion that feminism is over, on top of erasing the experiences of women worldwide, also neglects the fact that free choices can only be made in the context of a just society. For those of us who face the day-to-day frustrations and, yes, anxieties, of mental illness, the implication that we should just buck up and be happy because hey, if we could just manage to set foot outside the door we could be a CEO just like anyone else on top of the ongoing conflation of feminism with ballsy choice-making is unbearably aggravating. In order to move the cause of women, as well as other marginalized groups, forward, we need a reinvigorated public discussion that acknowledges that feminism is not just for go-getters. It is for everyone. And throwing the whole thing in the dustbin only makes living in this unjust society that much more anxious for the rest of us.

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