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What Is Feminism? It’s No Longer a Useful Question

PUBLISHED: December 17, 2012


Monica Byrne

Monica Byrne


Editor’s note: During Fall 2012, VQR has been running a series called What Is Feminism?, in which a diverse range of women writers discuss their definition, idea, or experience of feminism. For more background, take a look at our Fall 2012 issue, which features “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay. You can find other pieces in this series by clicking here.

Toward the end of the series, writer Monica Byrne (@MonicaByrne13) responded via Twitter, objecting to the premise of the series. We asked her to elaborate, to which she responded with this essay.


What is feminism?

This is no longer a useful question in American discourse.

But it’s one whose kin I keep noticing. This past summer, a prominent nonprofit theatre company launched a campaign asking “Why Are Women’s Voices Important in the Arts?”, which joined the perennial “Why Does Women’s Health Matter?” or “Why Is the Education of Women Important?”

Here’s a more useful question: Why are American media still posing questions that ask women to qualify their participation in the human race?

And moreover: Why do women still rush to answer them, as if they do?

Answer: because women are still conditioned to think of themselves as a special kind of human. The easiest way to see this—and, like an illusion, once you see it you can’t un-see it—is how the default human being is codified in the English language. No one addresses a group of mixed sex by saying “hey, gals.” If someone begins a joke with “A man walks into a bar,” you wait for the punch line; if someone begins a joke with “A woman walks into a bar,” you assume her sex is itself the punch line. And as writer Nicola Griffith pointed out, if the word “mankind” truly encompassed all of humanity, then all the textbooks should say that man nurses his children at the breast and menstruates once a month.

They don’t.

Language encodes the values of a society and then, in a feedback loop, shapes its cultural output. So we end up with a society where it seems absurd to launch a campaign that asks, “Why Are Men’s Voices Important in the Arts?” (though I’d dearly love to see one). In American media, as in the English language, the default human being is defined as male, and the female is the exception that requires special qualification.

So, how shall we regard ourselves? Every female around the world, in every culture, constructs her own toolboxes to deal with the world. They may well not be the same as mine, nor should they be. But they’re necessary to negotiate the sex-socialized terrains we’re born into.

Speaking for myself, a white American cis female (with all of the privileges the other identities admittedly confer), I navigate the world with two toolboxes, the absolute and the contextual. When I use Toolbox #1, the absolute, I believe I’m simply human, and act accordingly. I try to explain this to male friends who get frustrated with me when I get angry about street harassment or tell stories about confronting harassers. They call me naïve. I call it reacting as though I’m human—not a special kind of human who must accept the constant possibility of verbal and physical abuse based on having a female body. So I will continue to fight back until the day it stops, which I well understand may not be before I die. That’s fine with me.

But this example illustrates the limitations of Toolbox #1. Though I carry myself as human, I can’t ignore the historical, present, and global implications of having a female body, whether by birth or by presentation. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t leave the house. It doesn’t mean I should get used to street harassment. It just means that I must balance that natural human outrage with the awareness that, on the whole, females are fucked over all over the world and have been for millennia. Want examples? No, I’m not going to do that work for you. There is a feast’s worth of fury for anyone willing to pay attention. I don’t pretend for a second, and neither should anyone but a fool, that female humans, in the world, on average, enjoy the privileges of sex, money, power, and agency to the degree accorded to male humans both by culture and law.

This is where my second toolbox—the contextual—comes into use. In this mode, I understand that in present American society, I’m constructed, conditioned, and viewed as female, and make appropriate concessions because of that. Toolbox #2 is appropriate when I apply for an artist grant specifically for females, because sex bias is proven to exist in the art world, and I want compensation for that bias. It’s appropriate when I find myself mentoring and championing younger female artists, which happens by gut inclination, but also results in compensation for that same bias. Toolbox #2 is appropriate when I’m traveling abroad and ask other women for help, or vice versa. Sexist? Sure, in the long view, if we lived in societies where our sex didn’t so strongly determine our socialization and status. But it does. So if a woman asks me for help because I have a female body, which means it’s likely I’ve been socialized to be nonviolent, and am therefore likely less violent than the nearest man, of course I help her and don’t begrudge her.

However, I could well be violent. I could be anything.

I was lucky to be reconditioned at an early age. I went to a women’s college. Women performed every function. They were our presidents, deans, coaches, chaplains, judges, senators, friends, mentors, advisors, counselors, math professors, history professors, and chemistry professors. We fell in love with men, women, trans, and no one. Among the student body, because the variable of sex was removed, we were free to express any of a spectrum of genders, and did. I knew women who were quiet, affectionate, sensitive, warm, companionable, supportive, and emotive. I also knew women who were forceful, aggressive, loud, controlling, cruel, ruthless, and violent. I knew women who were promiscuous and women who were celibate, women who provided and women who expected to be provided for, women who protected the weak and women who sought protection, women who were abused and women who were abusers. I knew women who wore leather jackets and ripped jeans and miniskirts and flannel shirts and cargo pants and basketball jerseys and go-go boots and pajamas to class, women who transformed themselves into works of haute couture every day, women who bound their breasts, men who had been born women, and women who had been born men. All the plays I saw—Corpus Christi, King Lear, Fat Men in Skirts—featured women playing every role. To this day I don’t understand the theatre world’s resistance to cross-sex casting in plays wherein sex isn’t essential to a role. My favorite Puck of all time was female.

Women are human. That means there is nothing in the spectrum of human identity and behavior that we are not. And I’m hardly the first person to make this point. I’m tired of making it. I’m tired of having this conversation. I’m tired of seeing exclusive language in American media that should know better, let alone questions like “Why Are Women Important in X,” which proceed from the assumption that females must justify their humanity. We don’t have to justify. We just are. And as for the question “What Is Feminism?”, that question has been answered beyond the point of meaning in America this past century.

This is a new century. We deserve better questions.


About the author: Monica Byrne is a writer and playwright based in Durham, N.C. At present she is living in Belize to research a new novel. You can find her at,, and on Twitter (@monicabyrne13).


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