My Bad Feminism

Once you commit yourself to social awareness in your politics, words, and actions, it can be easy to think everyone around you has had all the answers forever and you’ll never catch up.

The truth is, however, everyone has been through phases that we’d now reject, and we’re all still growing and making mistakes and trying to learn to just admit our own errors without getting defensive. Most of all, we’ve all internalized problematic ways of thinking, and it’s hard to shake those mindsets while living in a world that frequently rewards and perpetuates them.

At SkepchickCON last month, Secular Woman vice president Elsa Roberts introduced me to Roxane Gay’s amazing essay, “Bad Feminist”––an exploration of the tension between feminist ideals and the complexities of real life, which she’s since expanded into a book. And at the excellent Science of Irrationality panel that weekend, Jamie Bernstein made the point that positive storytelling––using one’s own discoveries as a way to convince others, rather than causing them to dig in their heels with a barrage of “Well Actuallys”––can be the most effective way to be persuasive. She suggested approaching the conversation by trying to find common ground, using the “feel/found” script: “I used to feel the same way, but what I found was that…”

I was reminded of that good advice this week when Josh Spokes made an insightful Facebook post addressed to “Jaclyn Glenn and Others Like Her” who have hateful misconceptions about bisexual people. Instead of attacking, he admitted that he used to think the same things. This inspired many who saw his post to offer their own stories of mistaken attitudes and internalized sexism and bigotry, and what they learned. Josh suggested compiling the powerful thread, and here, beginning with his initial post, is the result. I hope it inspires more people to recognize how easy it is to fall into problematic patterns, and be proud of how they’ve grown.

To Jaclyn Glenn and others like her–

When I was much younger I said ignorant, vile, stupid things about bisexuals. Out in public. I said they weren’t real, that they were all posers who couldn’t admit being gay, that they were just ginning up controversy and no one should take them seriously. I gleefully echoed the most uncharitable, mean-spirited sentiments from people who cared more about shooting their mouths off than about the real people whose dignity and treatment by society was already threatened.

Yep. I said that with all the brash confidence of a 21-year-old. Some older people tried to persuade me to think more deeply. I didn’t listen. Because I was Young And With It and fuck them.

And it contributed to my popularity among that set. Everyone loves someone who’s witty and can turn a sharp phrase that echoes their personal prejudices.

In the real world outside the fan club in my head, I hurt a lot of people who didn’t need any more shit. Especially from ME and people who should have been allies. My behavior was *appalling*. It shames me to this day, and it should.

That’s you, Jaclyn Glenn, and others like you. That’s you, babe. Talk to me in 20 years.

– Josh Spokes

Growing up, the only time I really heard the word “feminist,” it was something my mother was griping about. For instance, “Feminists are the reason I have to pump my own gas.” In my twenties, I espoused the whole “Lean In” thing. I was seriously privileged and blind. I had no problem with the fact that a woman in my profession had to be three times as good as a man for half the recognition. Frankly, I was, and could see no reason anyone else couldn’t be too. I did not object when I found out that my base salary was a little over half as much as the males in the same position with the company. Instead I prided myself that I earned more because of commissions and bonuses.

– Becca Thomas

When I was in my late teens to late 20s, I was a triple threat; a Chill Girl, a the Token Non-threatening Black Friend, and a Poor Libertarian.

“Ugh, girls are icky, backstabbing, gossipy little twits who want accept me in their little club anyway.  And if they’re feminists? Please, buncha whiny girls who don’t have anything else to complain about. We got the fucking vote, right? You can own land and not have to get married to get laid.  If they’d just have sex like guys do, they’d be fine, right? Aren’t we supposed to all sex-positive?  That means fucking like the men! Don’t be such a prude!  I once read about some big name feminist named Dwakin, Dwo… whatever, who claimed that call heterosex is rape! Can you believe that shit? I’d never be a feminist.  I’m one of the boys! Bitch! Cocksucker! Cunt! Hah, hah rape jokes are so funny!”

“Man, black people are lazy whiners, I’d never be one of them!  I’m an Oreo, get it?  All of my white friends act blacker than me!  I don’t “do” black––unless it’s for a joke.  If you need someone to turn up the AAVE and act like an Angry Black Girl, I’m your girl!  Mm-hmm, sho’nuf. Slavery was, like, 300 years ago, we got the vote, and they need to get over it.  If I knew I got to college under Affirmative Action, I’d drop out.  I’d be offended; how dare they treat me like some number in a quota?  I got here all on my own, and fuck them other folk.  Oh, oh! I know this really funny joke: Why is aspirin white?”

“Yeah, I could qualify for food stamps, health care, maybe even some section 8 for a place to stay because I make minimum wage and I’ve got a chronic illness, but I’m not going to do that.  Nope.  I’m not some leech sucking the government teat.  I grew up on government cheese and projects and all that, and I’ll never stoop to that level again. I’ve got my pride.  None of my friends are on that mess. That’s just offensive that you would even suggest it! Leeches are the worst. Just you wait until the Libertarians gain more power. Everybody won’t pay a dime in taxes and we’ll shrink the government, and if you can afford to live, too bad!”

– Niki Massey

I used to parrot the lines “all girls are crazy” and “all my friends are guys because I couldn’t deal with all the mean girls and drama.” I blush at that thought because it was based on a model of female behavior that was enforced by the very guys and some of the girls I was hanging out with at the time. Ugh, I was so embarrassing.

Cait Quinn

Oh god, I did ALL the things. “If you wear low cut shirts, don’t complain if guys look”; “I’m not like other girls”; “I’m a girl but I prefer hanging out with guys”; “Girly things suck” etc. unto death.

Soooo much internalized sexism. So. Much.

Jade Hawk

I used to think bigoted things about trans people when I was that age. I only knew one and considering it was at least 15 years ago, she was pretty stressed out. I’ve since learned I was wrong, and I was an asshole.

– Deanna Joy Lyons

I was an engineer. Engineers are logical. Engineers don’t feel. Engineers just get the job done. Engineers (at least in Silicon Valley) make it work, no matter what the personal cost. Counting personal costs was unacceptably feminine. Feelings were unacceptably feminine. What’s really shocking is that I believed all of that garbage for an unconscionably long time, while I worked myself into a severe depression. Even on good depression meds and thinking more-or-less clearly, it took years more to fully shake it out of my system. Ultimately I had to escape the engineering culture altogether; I was getting too much reinforcement of unhealthy attitudes. I admire the women (and men) who can work in the field and not succumb to the BS.

Karen Locke


I transferred from a women’s college to a co-ed one. I immediately got a boyfriend, let my entire social life revolve around him, and after two years when we broke up realized I had few women friends or even just friends of my own.

In fact, I still don’t have close women friends like I used to. I’m trying to learn to nurture that again. I had kind of a bias against closeness with women for a while or something.

I always identified as a feminist, but for periods in my life I liked to make sure guys knew I was one of the cool women who don’t get upset about certain things like other women do.

Even a few years ago I was mad at a woman in a meeting who pointed out that the men were all talking over the women and not letting them talk. Not because I didn’t recognize that dynamic (and I had studied it in psychology), but because I took her efforts as patronizing to women. I can still understand my point of view back then, but now I’d more likely be the one trying to equalize the conversation not just think “well women just need to learn to be more aggressive!”

Ginger Pierce

I was always a feminist and never trusted women that said that they didn’t get along with other women. I think my most problematic issue with women when I was younger is I was terribly jealous of the way other women looked, painfully so. I was very jealous with my partners, wondering if I measured up to women that they were friends with or even women that were on television. That ended when I got out of a long-term abusive relationship and discovered myself. I found my own interests and passions in life and the jealousy ended.

Melody Hensley

I’m going to confess one of the worst things I did, which, funny enough, I was just thinking about yesterday. A group of guys I knew would play what they called “meat market” where they’d sit on a wall on a busy part of VCU campus and basically street harass women for hours. I PARTICIPATED in this a couple of times. I feel horrible about it now. This was one of the ways I proved I was “one of the guys.” I also equated feminine as weak and presented very masculine for a couple years. This is all so strange since I was immersed in the punk scene and very into women being tough and equal. But my picture of that was so fucked up.

Nicole Harris

I used to come up with nicknames for all my female coworkers (cupcake, muffin, cheesecake, cinnamon bun, etc.). It was moderately well received at the time to where every time a new girl was hired they’d always ask me what nickname I was going to give her. Ultimately I came to the realization that I couldn’t really reconcile it with my burgeoning feminism and just generally I didn’t want to be “that guy” anymore.

Tim Branin

My story is more about what I dismissed as “boys will be boys” in the 1980s, didn’t report or complain about to anyone, but which made enough of a negative impact that I remember it like yesterday––they were in fact sexual assaults. The first instance I had my tube top pulled off (and I was bra-less) at the freshman party at my residence. I was thankfully able to quickly get it back on. The second instance occurred also at the residence where some fellow male students were grabbing women’s crotches, including my own. I kept pushing them away, but laughed it off as I thought that’s what I should do. There was a third incident that was much more dramatic, which was being held at knifepoint by an angry ex-boyfriend of my roommate––angry because “she belonged to him,” according to him––until she promised to give him another chance. All of these things went unreported. There were many more instances of being grabbed, threatened, followed, but those are the ones I remember the most. I hate that I let them go, and normalized the first two in my mind and many others too. In essence I objectified myself. I’m glad young women are not doing that as much today.


I used to claim to hate bands fronted by women musicians because they were “less talented” than men––WTF? I still feel embarrassed to acknowledge I said that.

Melanie Elyse Brewster

I was extremely fem-antagonistic––looking down on “girly-girls” and seeing male-dominated activities as more worthy of respect than female-dominated ones.

It was sort of a confused version of rejecting imposed gender roles and admiring women who were pioneers; it got very twisted around until it morphed into full-blown misogyny.

I was involved in the Noise music scene for a while and routinely tolerated pretty horrid treatment as some sort of badge of honor that I could “take it”; and once asked if a band had any “power electronics” CDs primarily to impress them as being the exceptional woman who likes the harshest of the harsh macho-blah-blah stuff.

Eventually I realized that taking their crap wasn’t actually giving me the cred and respect, and place in the boys’ club, that I thought it was.

It did give me some insight into toxic masculinity though––routinely having people treat me nicely privately and treat me horribly publicly, because treating me with respect in front of other guys was considered demeaning.

M. A. Melby

I used to spout libertarian platitudes as fact. Seriously. Ugh. Ick.

– Jon Childress

To my great shame, I have not always supported marriage equality.

It wasn’t because I looked down on same-sex sexual activity, because I have been with numerous men, women, couples, and groups.

I took care of and buried a lot of friends in the ’80s and ’90s long before their time. They were far better people than I was, and the truth is that the world would be better off if it had been me that left it rather than some of them.

I don’t know why I felt that way, but I would give anything if I could go back in time and change that.

Rogelio Tavera

I saw that feminine was considered weak and I knew it was wrong. But instead of declaring feminine to not be weak, I declared that I was not feminine! I eschewed all things pink and “girly.” I held disdain for things girls did, like shopping and makeup. I became “one of the guys” and, to prove my worth, talked locker room banter as much as or more than they did.

At this same time, the only way I saw my own worth was through the eyes of men. Garnering sexual attraction was the number one way to measure self worth. So I did that as much as I could, which was a lot!

I objectified women right along with the men.

I referred to women as “females” while trying not to call them chicks or girls.

We all can have incomplete ideas about feminism, especially in the beginning stages of learning about it.

Monette Richards

In addition to trying to be “one of the boys” I used to think that sexism didn’t exist in the states, and women should just “suck it up.”

A few years ago I worked in a place that focused on social justice. I was hired before I even knew what those words really meant, but it was at a time when I was starting to learn about inequality and didn’t know what to google to explore it in depth. My job required a social justice 101 class and training where we learned about sexism, racism, ableism, etc.

My workplace was also extremely conscious of filtering out all the subtle biases and overt “isms.” Prior to that year I claimed that I had never been cat-called and had never experienced sexism, but now that I had a space to compare it against I became aware of all the cat-calling and subtle prejudices that I was receiving daily.

Earlier I would have told myself to suck it up––that cat-calling is just part of being a woman. But I realize now that it shouldn’t be a part of my experience; it doesn’t have to be something I learn to deal with; I shouldn’t accept that it is a consequence of being a woman.

– Michelle Huey