Impostor Syndrome and Mansplaining in the Name of Feminism


By Kate Walford, Intern 2015

If you are reading this article, you’ve probably had some conversations about feminism — with peers, family members, partners, or complete strangers. I love these conversations, and I love sharing struggles and thoughts about being a woman and how feminism or misogyny is affecting lives. I flourish during these talks. I learn new things from others. I agree and disagree. I feel like I gain power and momentum within myself as a feminist and someone who advocates for social justice.

But sometimes these conversations can spark more judgment than I would expect.

This time, it was a discussion about relationships and sexuality, and I was talking about my current, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. One of the men in the group started asking me questions about the relationship — but didn’t I constantly desire other men? Was I perhaps restraining my non-heterosexual tendencies in this relationship? Was I sure I didn’t feel trapped? Did I even know what polyamory was?

At first, I worried that this guy was right. I spent a few moments alone in the bathroom freaking out that perhaps I was trapped. Perhaps I did have repressed desires. Perhaps I was limiting myself by being in a more traditional relationship between a man and a woman. And then I actually thought of my wonderful partner and relationship. I quickly came back down from the worry-cloud and realized I felt neither trapped nor stifled. This guy had simply been impressing on me the ways that he thought I, a woman, would be happy, under his beliefs about feminism and women.

What’s that now? A man telling a woman what’s good for her? We’ve never heard of that before!

Mansplaining — in the name of feminism. Wow.

This twisted my insides for weeks. I wasn’t quite sure why this guy was so concerned about my relationship. It seemed like he thought because I chose to be in a more “traditional” relationship, I was definitely trapped, and the patriarchy was controlling my decisions. He had to save me!

First of all, just because a man identifies as a radical feminist does not mean that he knows what’s good for women, or that he should ever tell women how to live lives free of oppression from men … Kind of an oxymoron?

Second, my reaction to this conversation is all too common. The fear of not winning the “Real” Feminist Olympics is something that I feel and hear often from other women in person and on the Internet. I wear the name of “feminist” very proudly, but I often wonder if my reactions to remarks and events in the world around me are truly “feminist” or “feminist enough.”

I grew up with a feminist mother who had to push herself to get an education and a career because no one expected this of her. Young women in the United States often now grow up with more opportunities than their mothers did. I constantly feel like I need to break some sort of glass ceiling of my own, like my mom did when she got her first and then second Master’s degrees (go Mom!!). But sometimes, what actually makes me happy has nothing to do with breaking a glass ceiling. Sometimes, breaking that glass ceiling seems more like a “duty” than an actual passion, which leaves me feeling conflicted.

Would I be more feminist if I spent my time reading Roxane Gay instead of watching The West Wing? Reacted to sexism more directly? Knew exactly how to respond to a catcaller? Never allowed my partner to pick up the check? Went to more feminist lectures? Smashed the homophobic patriarchy and dated women? If I were a real feminist, would I know how to be in the world?

Does this sound familiar to anybody? To me, it sounds and feels like something many women know all too well … Impostor Syndrome. The feeling of not being good enough, or being an “impostor” in one’s field, despite obvious success within it — and it is very common among high-achieving women. Feminism is supposed to give women more opportunities, not make them feel like they are not good enough (AGAIN). Have we created another pedestal on which we expect women to stand?

Sometimes thinking that I’m not a good enough person, writer, coordinator, etc., gets to me. On top of that, thinking I’m not feminist enough troubles me. I’ve sometimes wished that I didn’t know about feminism at all, so I wouldn’t have to try so hard to be a goddamn perfect feminist. If only I could just do what I want to do and act how I want to act.

It is not your responsibility, as someone who identifies as female, to make “feminist” personal choices and do “feminist” things with your time. If there are things that women do and find satisfaction in that are not “feminist,” then feminism has failed us all by exclusion.

Feminism should allow women to do this. To be and to act and to do what they want — both for women who break norms and for those who don’t. You don’t have to be the first female X or hold a PhD in women’s studies to be a feminist. For women, there are no instructions on how to be a feminist, and as a woman, you shouldn’t be subject to someone else telling you that there are, male or female. Feminism is about advocating for equal rights and opportunities for all people — not about declaring whether someone’s choices are right or wrong.

There is SO much judgment by women of other women. I see it every day — girls my age see other girls our age happily get married or have a baby and shudder to think how those women are destroying their lives. It’s as if they are somehow afraid that some other woman somewhere else is going to reconstruct the glass ceiling above them by “doing feminism wrong.” (FYI: Another woman cannot take society back 100 years simply by making a personal life decision you don’t agree with.)

Additionally, assuming that other women are not “enlightened” enough to know that their own decisions are “bad” for women is condescending and rude, and gets us nowhere. This just reverses the judgments that have been made about women for centuries and hurls them back at other women.

Women do not have to make anti-traditional decisions in order to be feminists. Feminism should not have to be painstaking for women — it can be revolutionary, freeing, and life-changing. It should also give women the ability to do what makes them feel good, without judgment from men or other women. When they cannot, we undermine our goal of a world in which women’s choices are free from judgment based on their gender.

I hope that we can continue to cultivate a feminism that values all women equally, recognizing strength in all choices that women make for themselves. Women are strong. Women know what’s good for them. Feminist men, please recognize this, and learn to shut your mouth before speaking for women “in the name of feminism.” Women, let your fellow women flourish in whatever roles they choose to fulfill. Don’t judge them. Don’t expect certain behavior from them. Make choices that feel right to you. And advocate for a world where all women, and all people, can do the same.

If I could go back in time, I would do my best to explain all of this to the guy who tried to tell me how to better live my life. For my own sake, and for his. But going on a rant about my relationship decisions, while it might make me feel better in hindsight, wouldn’t make me a better feminist. My feelings, reactions, and decisions are all mine. And that makes them “feminist enough” for me.

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