A few weeks ago, I witnessed a teenage couple verbally fighting on the subway. The girl looked like she was on the verge of tears as her boyfriend prodded her to open up about why she was upset. At one point, he threw out a taunting hypothetical, “If I was in a room alone with ___some other girl’s name___, would that bother you?”
“Well, would anything happen…?”
“I mean, we’re alone. So say something does. Would that bother you?”
As I listened to this conversation, I’m thinking (1) what an asshole (2) someone needs to tell this girl that she is worthy of better. I could feel the same hesitation emanating from her that I felt years ago when I attempted on multiple occasions to break up with an ex. My problem was that I feared I was not worthy of someone else.
At the next stop, the boy got off the subway. My heart raced as I pondered my place in this situation: say something or not? Subway conversations are rare especially in New York, where people (usually) avoid talking to each other. Eventually, it was the knowledge that if I was in her shoes, I would have been thankful for some validation from the universe. That, and I could feel the regret building within me if I stayed silent. So I turned around and said, “Hi, I overheard your conversation. I hope you know that you are enough on your own and you deserve better.”
There’s a combination of factors that contributed to this moment: my Catholic guilt, my Jesuit education’s call to social justice, my growing courage, and most of all: my identity as a womxnist.
It was my journey to womxnism that re-empowered me to speak my own truth and uplift the womxn around me. This journey has been a long challenging rollercoaster full of heartache, lots of unlearning, and growing pains.
My journey started with feminism. For a long time, I intentionally stayed away from feminism because mainstream media made me associate the term with mxn-hating. I knew I was not a mxn hater despite my growing frustration with the mxn in my life, their entitled attitudes, and the way they dominated spaces. Overtime, my attitude and understanding toward feminism changed. Three key experiences contributed to this shift and subsequently led me to womxism.
First, I encountered the term toxic masculinity during a film screening of The Mask You Live In. That film made me realize that mxn act the way they do because of their socialization. Many mxn grow up surrounded by messaging that tells them not to cry and that their self-worth is based on how much they can dominate in terms of womxn, money and power. It’s no wonder so many mxn take up space without checking themselves (ahem, Trump and his white cabinet). Too many mxn are taught they can have whatever they want so long as they go for it.
Then, my friend — who was taking a sex and gender class — explained to me the academic difference between sex and gender. Sex is dictated by the biological traits that we use to assign folks into the categories of male and female. Gender is more fluid and although partially dictated by biological traits, is also dictated by societal norms, attitudes, activities and an individual’s feelings. Soon after, a genderfluid friend of mine shared with me their dysphoria with their body. Gender became personal. I started to realize the weight of emotional labor that a person experiencing body dysphoria feels. Since then, I’ve been working to look at gender as fluid and beyond the binary that we’re socialized to see.
Amidst my crumbling socialized understanding of sex and gender, I went through a break-up that opened windows for me. After many rounds of the five stages of grief, I learned to embrace the independence and space the break-up gave me as an opportunity for self-growth. I took myself out on dates (literally, I grew fond of people watching as I treated myself to dinner), sang more in Chapel Choir, spent a summer in the Philippines through Kaya Collaborative, and expanded the types of books I read.
I learned a lotduring this time not only about myself but about the patriarchy. I learned from a media class that the media industry is led by old white cis-gendered mxn. I recognized my own internalized sexism as I fed into the pressures womxn encounter. (For instance, maintaining an image to fit an unattainable beauty standard or the way womxn fight over mxn.) I witnessed male nepotism in the workplace, in the form of female co-workers getting paid three times less despite the fact they were working three times harder than my male co-workers.
And then, I discovered Stephanie Gilmore’s definition of feminism, which resonated with me at the time.
The notion that females and males are inherently equal but…structural and cultural forces damage, disadvantage and disempower females in a way that leaves them unequal to males. Feminist activism and feminist movements are collective efforts to improve the situations of women and girls.”
Gilmore’s definition resonated so much with me that I embraced myself as a feminist. Her definition put into words my own growing realization that oppression against womxn is a systemic issue.
PAUSE ON MY JOURNEY TO WOMXNISM STORY
Similar to accepting an identity as a feminist, I struggled to accept an identity as a womxn of color (WOC). I thought that to be a WOC, I had to be black.
I didn’t feel “colored” enough to call myself a WOC.
A combination of events and lessons led me to embracing my identity as a womxn of color. Working for a place that treated WOCs poorly. Going to the Philippines then coming back to a country grappling with the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Putting two and two together and recognizing that the deaths of Muslims in the Philippines are connected to the growing Islamophobia of the United States and the deaths of Black folks at the hands of our police force. Learning about how Filipinx and Black organizers mobilized together on civil rights issues in Washington. Learning about the ways that Asian American communities are socialized to be anti-Black. These events and lessons helped me to realize that even though I’m not Black, I am oppressed as a Filipinx American womxn — as a womxn of color.
Over time, I developed a longing to see women of color specifically Filipinx feminist role models amongst the masses of the first and second wave feminist movements. Then it hit me. Filipinx womxn were left out of the feminist movement — during the first wave of feminism, the second wave and even now. And not just Filipinx womxn but all womxn of color. I realized, though Gilmore’s definition of feminism resonated for me, it fails to include an intersectional analysis of the oppression against womxn of color.
Womanism identifies and critically analyzes sexism, anti-black racism, and their intersection.”
Since discovering this definition, I’ve begun to embrace womxnist as part of my identity.
And I’m still learning. Currently, I’m reading Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. Before her, I read Audrey Lorde’s Sister Outsider and bell hooks’ Communion: The Search for Female Love. And though cringeworthy at times, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be Woman helped me to start asking questions and reflect on my personal womxn-focused experiences. So much to read, so little time.
I’m also learning through my everyday life. I’m learning to observe and name the ways that society oppresses me on the daily as a result of my identity as a womxn of color. I’m learning how to resist that oppression, whether it be by supporting womxn-owned businesses, choosing to dress in a way that makes me feel beautiful even if it’s not according to society’s standard, speaking up when I’m expected not to and uplifting my fellow womxn instead of tearing them down (in the ways that media tells us to).
My journey to womxnism has been a long journey of healing and recognizing. Recognizing the agency and power I have that the patriarchal world wants to strip me of. Recognizing that I am worth more than my body’s ability to make babies. Recognizing that my monthly release of blood does not make me subhuman. Recognizing that I am enough as the womxn I am. And recognizing that I should not have to cater to patriarchal thinking to survive in this world. This is why I speak up, take a stand when I can (white feminists, I see you), and celebrate my fellow womxn, especially my fellow womxn of color. Rise up, ladies and let’s heal together.
Shoutout to my friend, Mary for taking that beautiful photo.