Colleen O’Connor is a Duke undergraduate studying Women’s Studies and Psychology. She is an intern for the National Judicial Education Program (NJEP), a project of Legal Momentum.
There has been a raging war in my head between feminist theory and political engagement in feminism. In trying to navigate feminist theory through my Women’s Studies classes at Duke, I felt as though I was ignoring my fiery activist spirit. I learned about Marxist feminism, black feminism, and studied Foucault, yet it seemed problematic to be an activist in such a flawed and restrictive system—Capitalism. Gender inequities engulfed me, yet I thought I did not have the knowledge or the tools to do anything about them.
Over the course of my seven weeks at Legal Momentum, I have realized that I am a girl activist, I am politically engaged, and I can make a difference. I am now just coming to realize that I have been a feminist leader all along, and I can effectively make change now and in the future.
What is feminist activism you may ask? For me, it is this desire to create change in something bigger than myself and to act for the good of communities to instigate systemic change. But wait. Systemic change? That seems like a lot for a 20-year-old college student to take on. What I did not realize, though, is that activism can take on many forms, chipping away at the power and oppression icebergs piece by piece.
I used to think that feminist activists could only be the radical, rebellious women protesting on the streets. I bought into the myth that feminists ripped off their bras and threw them into the fire as a sign of liberation from male oppression. But the reality is a million miles away from these mythical, man-hating, bra-burning radical “Feminazis.” I am a feminist because I believe in and aspire to equal rights and equal opportunities for all. What’s wrong with equal rights anyway?
My activism is a result of what I choose to study, how I have spent my summer, and how I interact with the world. My feminist activism can range from responsible individual behaviors, such as never again blaming a victim of sexual assault, to direct action, such as marching in the Pride Parade. It is within this community at Legal Momentum that activism grows. LM is a political organizing agency that supports oppressed women through advocacy, a very important piece to the jigsaw puzzle of activism. Focusing on the fact that ‘it is not my his/herstory,’ we will never be able to end all forms of violence and oppression that affect us. To end all of the ‘isms’—racism, heterosexism, classism, and sexism—we must embrace causes that are not our own. In doing this, we can finally penetrate this cyclical force of power. Like Legal Momentum, we must move beyond the focus on a single issue so that we are more effective at centralizing the margins and eradicating other forms of oppression.
For me, this includes taking ownership of my privileges and making efforts to be conscious of my privilege as a white person in every single setting I am in. It also means rallying with the LGBTQA movement, and in doing so, becoming an ally that is affirmative of people’s sexualities that differ from my own. In embracing stories of personal experiences that are not my own, I am reminded of why we are all connected and indebted to those who have also been silenced.
But what does activism mean for you?