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Battling Feminist Burnout | The Nation

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Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

Battling Feminist Burnout


Pro-choice activists stand outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization Inc., Mississippi’s only remaining commercial abortion clinic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Feminists got two great pieces of news on the violence against women front this week. First, the Violence Against Women Act was passed—and not the watered-down Republican one either! This version of VAWA contained protections for the LGBT community and allows Native American courts to prosecute non-Native perpetrators on tribal land.

Then we learned that Girls Gone Wild—the exploitative porn empire that targets young intoxicated women—filed for bankruptcy. As I said on Twitter, I’m pretty sure a feminist angel got her wings as proprietor Joe Francis signed on the dotted line.

But in the same week we got this great news, a rape survivor at the University of North Carolina was threatened with expulsion for “intimidating” her rapist by becoming an anti-rape activist, there was another attack on Planned Parenthood, a Kansas bill moved forward that would allow doctors to lie to pregnant women in an effort to prevent them for getting abortions and a 9-year-old girl of color—a child—was called a “c*nt.” One step forward, twenty steps back.

It reminds me of a question I get asked a lot when I speak to younger feminists: How do you continue to do this work when it’s just so depressing?

Every day, there’s another piece of bad news. A lawmaker says something egregious about rape. A sexist law passes. A movie or television show or viral video promotes an awful stereotype about women and sexuality. That doesn’t even get into the outrageous number of women across the United States who will be sexually assaulted or had violence done to them by their partners. (And that’s just in this country!)

On top of dealing with the sheer awfulness of the way misogyny operates in the world, those of us who do feminist work—from writers and nonprofit workers to everyday activists—have to deal with the people around us insisting that we’re imagining the whole thing! Lindy West at Jezebel calls it “sexism fatigue”:

I am tired of being called a shrieking harridan for pointing out inequalities so tangible and blatant that they are regularly codified into law. I am tired of being told to provide documentation of inequality in the comments sections of a website where a staff of smart women documents inequality as fast as our fingers can move. Like, you might as well write me a note on a banana peel demanding that I prove to you that bananas exist. I am tired of being asked to “cite sources” proving that sexism is real (that RAPE is real, even!), because there is no way to concisely cite decades and decades of rigorous academia.

I want to be able to tell younger feminists that it gets better, that you don’t mind the emotional exhaustion, the anger and the sadness that can come from doing this work. But I can’t. So this is what I tell them:

Try to feel grateful for the feminist fatigue. A lot of people do this work out of sheer survival—the ability to notice your exhaustion and anger and sadness means you have space in your day and in your head, a privilege not afforded to many. So shift your thinking, and consider how lucky we are to be having this conversation.

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Embrace the anger. It’s fine to be pissed off—too often we’re so busy trying to shirk the angry feminist stereotype that we forget how being passionately mad can light a fire under your ass. No one does this better than the inimitable Staceyann Chin in a spoken word piece that should be every online feminist’s manifesto: “Tweet This, You Small-Minded Motherfucker.”

Embrace the joy and find community. The truth is that feminists are some of the most fun people I know. They play drinking games, dance like they mean it, speak satire to power and build communities that will support you when no one else does. This is a movement of bad-asses, and—like me—you may find some of your best friends here.

Spend energy wisely. You already know that your activist energy—be it physical, mental or emotional—is a precious resource. Don’t waste it by talking to brick walls. This will frustrate you and change nothing. Consider doing your work in terms of specific goals. Maybe you can’t take down the patriarchy, but you can change a school policy on sexual assault, get a local pharmacy to carry Plan B, or help a friend. Feminist work is a lot more manageable in small pieces—it allows you “wins” that energize, and chips away at broader structures.

Create something. A blog, a tweet, a zine, a T-shirt, a march—have something tangible to scrawl your energy across.

Above all, don’t forget that this work isn’t just important, it’s necessary. So take care of yourself, acknowledge it’s hard and then get back to it. We need you.

This year’s Oscars were an object study in sexism (and more). Read Michelle Dean’s take.

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