Without community, there is no liberation. — Audre Lorde
It wasn’t until the “Hate Has No Home Here” sign vanished from my lawn the day my husband and I posted it, that it occurred to me that hate might have a home in my community, or at least my neighborhood.
The sign disappeared within hours of being posted, a sharp contrast to a neighbor’s “Lord of Life Church” sign that was on display for months. I read this different kind of “sign” loud and clear: It was going to take more than lawn messages to move national social justice movements into my community. If hate was going to get packing, locals like me needed to do some heavy lifting.
But were there locals like me? Two years in our quaint southeastern Wisconsin suburb was long enough to know that in our conservative, evangelical community, a feminist like me is a minority. This was clear when our city made statewide headlines for limiting high school diversity education after the mention of white privilege at an MLK Day assembly sparked parental outrage. It’s one thing to be a predominantly white, middle- to upper-middle-class community like ours; it’s another to be unwilling to admit our privilege exists — let alone discuss it with our children.
My city was again on display in the news when the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit group committed to preserving the separation of church and state, called for removal of two 50 year-old city signs. The signs feature the words “The Churches of ********** Welcome You” featuring the name of our city next to Christian crosses. People were generally disgusted by the suggestion that there’s anything wrong with the signs, insisting that they are welcoming and inviting.
I wonder whether those in favor would defend city signs that read, “The People of ********** Welcome You,” featuring Pride flags or Islamic symbols? Although I’d happily fund such an effort, I don’t think it would garner the same support. The truth is all are not equally welcome in their churches. For them, the signs send a different message. But maybe that’s the point and, either way, the signs still stand.
Before my fellow townspeople take offense and hurl the proverbial “If you don’t like it, get the hell out of here,” my way, let me say that despite our ideological and religious differences, I genuinely love and believe in my community. Not only is it picturesque and safe, it’s home to some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. If I didn’t have such affinity for it, I wouldn’t have spent the past five years making my own place within it. Ironically, my heart found a home in my conservative community when I found my feminism.
Well ... if not found, then rediscovered. “Found” makes it sound as if feminism was ever absent from me, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Feminism is me, and it has been for as long as I can remember. In the small conservative town in Illinois where I was raised, an adolescent feminist was as common as a unicorn. Yet there I was — a young feminist unicorn, attending parochial school while idolizing Gloria Steinem, playing “Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing” by Salt-N-Pepa through my school’s loudspeakers, and arguing with teachers about why girls couldn’t be clergy members.
I once heard that we practice our destinies as children. I don’t know if that’s true, but after the 2016 presidential election, I realized I had been less a “full frontal feminist” and more a hibernating feminist bear — faithfully feminist at heart, but dormant in the activism department. I returned home from the 2017 Women’s March on D.C. and thought, “What now?” I answered my own question by founding a feminist activism group smack-dab in my Trump-flag-flying, church-sign-bearing, white-privilege-denying community. Although I didn’t think it would be easy, I never anticipated how hard it would be.
Our group began like a feminist underground. Six women convened around my kitchen table, unsure of what to expect. I was nervous as hell. Every woman I invited was only a “suspected” feminist, so there was an 80% likelihood that any invitee I’d misjudged would never speak to me again. Panic set in the day before our first meeting, compelling me to make a desperate phone call to my mom begging her to attend in case no one else did. She acquiesced because she’s a good mother, and probably because she knows she’s to blame for my feminism.
Three years in, and our group, which I named Women Activists, has not only multiplied, but managed to bring feminist community, education and activism opportunities to women in our city. Through book clubs, political rallies and fundraisers, parade marches, legislative lobbying, reproductive justice action events and more, we’ve established a social justice voice in a place that would rather silence us.
We are reshaping the ideological landscape of our city by rewriting its narrative from narrow and exclusive to tolerant and inclusive. We are shifting it from a cultural closet that keeps those who defy “majority rule” hidden from view to a place where all are welcome. We are reimagining the “face of female” from culturally content and systems-supporting to socially subversive and patriarchy-smashing. We wear our feminism with pride so when people see us marching in our city streets, they see strong feminist women no longer willing to hide.
Women Activists is a feminist ride I can’t get off of. To say it’s been full of ups and downs seems a gross understatement for a journey that’s brought me from speaking to hundreds on the steps of the state capitol down to my knees in the same year.
I wish I could say that we all lived happily ever after in feminist euphoria, but I can’t put a period where life has placed a comma. Feminist activism in my conservative community isn’t storybook perfect. It’s actually really fucking hard. Not hard like I imagine fighting a life-threatening illness or living in poverty or in a war-torn country would be, but still, just ... hard.
It’s been harrowing, heart-wrenching and humbling. It’s forced me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, unpopular and unliked. It’s resulted in getting passed up for professional opportunities. It’s meant being dubbed a “rebel mom” (a label I love though it wasn’t meant as a compliment), losing friends and leaning into the role of lone feminist oddball. It has resulted in being snubbed by teachers at my children’s school and heckled in community parades. It’s caused serious self-doubt, wondering whether my family might suffer for my decision to speak out. It’s compelled me to reject a lifetime of internalized, misogynistic bullshit that kept me in line and off the feminist frontlines. It required me to exist in a place where the words “the personal is political” held new meaning because my existence in my community felt personal and political all the time.
So, I guess I shouldn’t have been so blindsided when the pain of difference finally caught up with me on the drive home from a meeting with a public speaking club I joined. This group is a chapter of Toastmasters International, a secular organization. However, my community chapter is brazenly non-secular, so much so that every meeting begins with a Christian invocation. Seriously ... I wish I was kidding.
Still, I can’t explain why after all of the above, feeling like a feminist leper at community speech club by some generally kind and well-meaning folks was the straw that finally broke my back. Even recurring nightmares about our house getting tagged with the words “baby killer” never pushed me to my max. But rational or not, the emotional floodgates opened. Suddenly, I was alone, ugly-crying in my dark car, questioning everything I’d done, whether it mattered, and whether it was worth all of this.
Every now and again, the judging without knowing, the “I like you, but”s, the closed doors I never had a chance to open, the smirks and eye rolls, the community parade marches sandwiched between church groups that were staring through me with disgusted sideways glances, the casual conversations heard around town by folks referencing God in one breath, then demeaning women and immigrants the next, all coalesce to create a colossal load of garbage I can no longer shoulder — let alone smile through, shrug off and swallow.
For so long, I wished I was one of those people who say politics “isn’t their thing.” But wishing won’t let this “raging, liberal feminist” leopard change her spots, and we all want to feel welcome and liked. If you’re a person who insists you don’t give any fucks what anyone thinks, I envy you. But although the fucks I give are way less than they used to be and my “badassery” has increased tenfold, it all still stings sometimes.
Being different from most of my community because of my politics while enjoying the privilege that comes with being a white, middle-to-upper-class, cisgender, heterosexual, nondisabled person cannot be a fraction of what those without similar privilege endure. It’s easy to wonder why I don’t just keep my feminism to myself sometimes. People don’t know my politics by seeing me on the street. But since I went all-in on feminism, I don’t hide it. I don’t turn my head when confronted by injustice because feminism isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am. Despite all the crap that comes with it, I wouldn’t do anything else.
So, why would anyone ever want to do this?
Because together, our group of Women Activists, which now has close to 30 core members, is building “a home” for feminism in a community where none existed before. We are localizing an abstract, far-away national movement by making it manifest in the lived realities of women in a part of the country starved for feminist education, activism and change. If we want to move feminism forward and improve America for all women, then we must understand that the personal is not just political — it’s local.
According to human rights advocate and founder of the nonprofit organization Girls for Gender Equity, Joanne Smith (as quoted by author Jessica Valenti in her 2007 book, “Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters”):
The future of feminism “starts at home on a grassroots, community level. There has to be an intersection of the ‘The Hill and The Hood’; the current disconnect of [feminism on the Hill] creates a false sense of achievement or advancement in a movement that must be sustained and felt by everyone, or at least a majority of the oppressed.”
Feminist change can’t just come from the top down; it must be built from the bottom up. We must make feminism at home in communities like mine where it’s least welcome.
For some of you, local activism will be a hell of a lot harder than it’s been for me. But if this introverted, “Midwestern nice” woman can find the chutzpah to tell my truth somewhere most people don’t want to hear it, so can you. Let us be the beneficiaries of your activism journey. There’s a good chance it will change your life the way it’s changed mine. When you find your inner activist, you’ll find you’re not alone. You might even find yourself, or welcome a new part of you that didn’t exist before.
While I don’t know how my activism story will end ― and my journey has been anything but easy so far ― I’m no longer the closeted, sleeping feminist I once was. I found a strength and faith in humanity I never knew through a community of women who aren’t just lifelong friends and Women Activists, but feminist family. Thanks to them, I’m no longer a woman who holds her feminist hopes locked away in her heart, but one one who wears her activism, values, and convictions for change on her sleeve — no longer fearful, but finally — free.
Ashley Jordan is a feminist writer, speaker, activist, and organizer. She is also a licensed attorney and former prosecutor who specialized in Domestic Violence cases. She has taught Gender and Women’s Studies courses at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. Ashley has researched and written extensively on issues of feminism and gender equity. In 2017, she founded Women Activists, a women’s rights activism group in Wisconsin. Her publication credits include Ms. Magazine, DAME Magazine, and Women’s Media Center. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband, three children, and beloved family dog, Libby. For more from her, visit her website, www.fashionforwardfeminist.com and follow her on Twitter at @feministforward.
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