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Intuitive feminism

I don’t think I need to point out the obvious but, a lot of feminist discourse on line (particularly in blogs and news) is very US Centric (with perhaps a few exceptions here and there about Canada and the UK). Even the kind of feminism that is not at the center of this mainstream discourse (like womanism, or women’s rights activism focused on race and racism), it is still very much dominated by narratives that are mostly relevant to the US and its sociopolitical realities.

Probably a good part of this is due to language: those of us who blog in English have to contend with the fact that we are outsiders. I always joke I colonized my own language to play in the international feminist leagues. But that’s not the reason why I did it. It was mainly because I needed words. Words I didn’t know and I had to borrow from somewhere, as I was living in a country where my mother tongue was pretty much ineffectual (few Dutch people speak Spanish but almost everyone speaks English with pretty good degrees of fluency and I needed to communicate before I had the chance to properly learn Dutch). So, I turned to English, particularly because fifteen years ago, the Spanish speaking internet was very scarce, fragmented and had no gender related body of work available.

So while my entire education had been bilingual, my politics were very Latin America specific and only based on practice, as were the words I used. When I finished high school, back in the 80’s, there was not such a thing as Gender Studies anywhere in South America (I am unsure whether there is such a thing now, perhaps under another name). And that lack of theory let me tell you, can put you on pretty shaky grounds if you were to attempt to translate literally from one language to another. Because that’s part of the problem I had to contend with: literal translation would have alienated me from feminist politics in ways that took me years to fully understand.

We repeat that words matter. And they do. But for some people, the words they use are the only words they have. So today, when I came across a (very short) post by Athambile Masola asking “is feminism in theory the same as feminism in practice?”, I paused. Because that question is at the heart of my issue with the struggles I encounter trying to convey concepts and ideas across languages and cultures. I have to constantly double check that the words I use, which are relevant and appropriate in South America, could potentially earn me a public call out if I translated them literally into English. Just to give one example, my first hand knowledge of trans* activism was in Buenos Aires, where the preferred word a very good number of trans* folks identify with (at least in activist discourse and awareness related work) is “travesti”, which, if I were to translate literally, would have me talking of “transvestites”! This is not to say “oh woe is me! I need to pay attention!” because really, I SHOULD pay attention. And if I didn’t like it, I could always go and write exclusively in Spanish.

Except, I can’t. Because I no longer know the words to convey the concepts and ideas I learned in English and translating them literally would mean most Spanish speaking people, whose feminism is rooted in practice (remember that part about the lack of gender studies I mentioned above?) would have little idea of what I am talking about. Sure there are many books written by smart Spanish speaking academics who do bring the discourse forward but the majority of South American activism is rooted in political practice and not in discourse. It is worth noting that the Wikipedia article for the word “Interseccionalidad” (Intersectionality) only contains English notes and bibliography and the entire concept is based on English speaking academic work. Even an initiative that is pretty widespread in the US, UK and Canada, like the Hollaback project is creating waves of shock and resistance in Buenos Aires, where mainstream media still tries to come to terms with the mere existence of sexist violence and discourse. Now, this is not to mean that people in Buenos Aires are “backwards” and they do not understand sexist street violence. It just means that the woman who brought the initiative to the city, who, by her own admission, learned about this particular kind of discourse analysis while living in London, didn’t realize the cross cultural implications of literal translations (both in theory and practice).

So what is the answer to these crossroads? How do we contend with the gap between a feminism rooted in practice (where discourse takes little space and words are merely used and hardly analyzed) vs a feminism that works to advance ideas through discourse? I cannot speak for anyone else, but I filled that gap through intuition. I had to trust that my intuition would guide me through hours (by now, probably thousands of them) of research, reading and listening. A gap that I had to fill if I wanted my activism to be effective, both rooted in practice but also advancing ideas through the way we use words. Also, in a way that would help me challenge the North American centrism to convey the kind of politics and practices that are happening right now in the same places where I came to terms with the fact that I was a feminist. Even if I didn’t have enough words to name it.


  1. This piece is awesome. Thank you.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  2. Ailatan wrote:

    Excellent piece!

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  3. JfC wrote:

    Este es muy importante. Thank you.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  4. Kathy wrote:

    “But for some people, the words they use are the only words they have.”

    This is so important, and too often ignored within the feminist/SJ blogosphere — not only for those whose first language isn’t English, but also for those who come to feminism or activism from a non-academic background.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  5. moxicity wrote:


    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  6. moxicity wrote:


    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  7. Sady wrote:

    @Moxicity: Turn off AdBlock.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  8. desiright wrote:

    Thank you for this post. It was fascinating from a “theory” perspective but also spoke to a very important truth of feminism-as-a-whole.

    I’d go so far as to say that the “blogosphere”, by its very (textual) nature is ill-suited to convey the realities of “feminism in practice” – the form itself forces word choices that, when put on the page and shared with a wider audience, have a different impact than an action or comment in a real-world “in group” scenario would have.

    That does not mean, of course, that the blogosphere can’t capture “feminism in practice” (as demonstrated in this post) – just that the form makes it more of a challenge than, perhaps, a non-verbal form (dance, art, music, etc.) would.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  9. eneya wrote:

    Quite familiar with the issue.
    I am a Bulgarian and I am a feminist and I am poart of a team who blog about feminism. We constantly stumble across the same huge gap.
    It’s not just the language, it’s the whole culture and the absence of feminism.

    There are just a handul of women and men at home who write about feminist issues and even when we speak it’s quite common that whatever we are talking about is just weird for the readers.

    There are some awesome texts and blogs which if I could, I will translate and just publish them (well, of course with permission) but in the few cases we have published a translated text, the uncomfortable reaction of the readers was the same… it’s was so alien to them. And we are alking to the kind of people who already are supporting feminist ideas.

    I realise what I am talking about is not exactly as your example… but I am still unable to figure out how to write about feminism about things that are already something going without even commenting in the English-language-blogs…

    I am completely at lost here.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  10. Dorian wrote:

    Thank you for this post. I obviously think language is important, but I so often see people totally shut out of discourse for not knowing the “right” words, whether that’s because (as you speak of here) they come from a different language background, because they haven’t had access to academia, because they have cognitive disabilities that can impact language use…any number of things that people tend to elide in their rush to decry those who “say things wrong” (and so often the kind of callout I am thinking of seems totally divorced from the actual points people are putting forward, unfortunately…).

    So yes. Thank you for this post. There’s a lot to mull over here, and I’m probably going to share the link with some other folks I know who could certainly do with reading it.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  11. Maria wrote:

    “Thank you for this post. I obviously think language is important, but I so often see people totally shut out of discourse for not knowing the “right” words, whether that’s because (as you speak of here) they come from a different language background, because they haven’t had access to academia, because they have cognitive disabilities that can impact language use…any number of things that people tend to elide in their rush to decry those who “say things wrong” (and so often the kind of callout I am thinking of seems totally divorced from the actual points people are putting forward, unfortunately…).”


    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  12. Sady wrote:

    @Maria, Kathy: Yes, yes, and yes. Language evolves fast in social justice circles, and it’s important — which is why it evolves, and why we spend so much time fighting over it. But so often I see people using language-policing as a weapon without recognizing that having the “right” language — usually some very theory-lite, pseudo-academic stuff — IS A FUNCTION OF PRIVILEGE. Of having access to that language, of having been taught. Or of being a practiced, long-time member of these discoursey circles, as opposed to someone new to them, who is learning and muddling through. I remember being, in my early twenties, FUCKING LOST when I attended activist group meetings, because folks were just trading jargon back and forth in a manner that assumed everyone there had gotten the handout and we didn’t have to bother with explaining a single damn thing. And I felt stupid asking for an explanation, so I never did, so I never got one, so I dropped out, and only really got back into social justice issues years later, when I found blogs and was able to lurk on them and pick up the language without being noticed. We’ve got to make space for folks to use the words they have, you know?

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  13. Mitchell wrote:

    I think that the “academics as privilege” discussion is a really important one and I am glad that there are others that your article brought to mind, but once again awesomeness from Sady to get to the core, words can be privledge, words alone. But is the answer to share the words, or to work with unprivileged words?

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  14. Andrea wrote:

    As a feminist, a Latin American and a translator, I have thought about all these issues many times. Glad to know I’m not the only one trying to find a solution.

    Thanks for this excellent post.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  15. Anne wrote:

    The problem is not just language – I think that feminism has advanced rather differently in different cultures. Here in Quebec this is especially evident because we have an island of French-speaking historically-Catholic embedded in a mostly-English-speaking continent.

    For example, in Quebecois French there is no title analogous to “Ms.”; one is forced to choose between equivalents to “Miss” and “Mrs.” On the other hand, Quebecois rarely marry, preferring common-law arrangements of some sort, and it is legally forbidden to change one’s name when getting married.

    Overall, I think feminism has further to go in French Quebec culture than it does in English Canada, but then I’m from the English side and have been reading English-language feminist writings rather than French.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  16. Jordan Rastrick wrote:


    We all speak somewhat different languages, even when they are superficially similar. For so long, I was able to let my male privilege blind me to the insights in feminist theory, precisely because I didn’t understand the critical definitions of words like “privilege” that were implicit in all the text I was reading. The word has been re-defined by the social justice community, because they needed a word for this critical concept that they identified, just as my mathematics courses used the words “ring” and “field” to mean different things to their normal English sense. And so language evolves; but of course an undergraduate who reads a text on “rings” or “fields” needs to look up the right definitions first.

    Privilege is a more emotionally loaded word, and it captures a more complex phenomenon, so I had to learn its meaning by patiently reading a lot of feminist blogging and fighting my impulse to argue with or dismiss it based on my half-formed understanding.

    I must thank Sady, though; it was her brilliance, and particularly the disarming humour she mixes into her outspoken and powerful advocacy, that did a lot to help shatter my illusions. Practical experience helped too; as my intellectual defensiveness retracted, I was able to take on board more evidence of the horrible effects of patriarchy in my own life. Theory and practice must always co-exist and work off one another I feel, or to put my Christian hat on for just a second, “faith without works is dead.” If someone knows a concept from their lived experience, but hasn’t learned a word for it, help them find a word to express their voice. Likewise, if you know what the words mean, you have a duty to live up to the reality that they express.

    Or something like that – forgive my words if they are inadequate.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 3:39 am | Permalink
  17. k not k wrote:

    This is a great post. I live transnationally and bilingually, and let me tell you no matter how fluent you get you will still find yourself getting tripped up in complicated situations. Excluding people who find themselves struggling with language is always going to remain a problem in areas where language is so important, like social justice work.

    But I think part of what we have to do in our communities is make it easier for people to stand up and say, “I’m new here. I’m learning.”

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink
  18. moxicity wrote:

    @ Sady: Oh gawd, thanks. Sorry for off-topic and panicky one-line comment; I kind of freaked out that I couldn’t properly read one of my favourite sites anymore. Thanks, I sometimes forget Adblock might be the problem (or that it’s running at all).

    I originally wanted to comment because I’m also not a native English speaker; I really feel for this topic. This is a stopping block for many of my conversations – I can’t NOT say anything in certain conversations. However, lack of proper vocabulary in my native tongue leave me with tied hands – I can’t articulate my English-vocab thoughts into coherent retorts.

    Ultimately, this has lead to dismissal of the ideas and concepts I’m protecting/arguing, at times. Very frustrating.

    Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  19. Rhus wrote:

    (Sorry. No line breaks in my previous post. Please excuse the double posting — I’ll repeat it without tags.)
    I can also agree that translation isn’t easy, for the reasons exposed in the article. Even circumscribed to the academic realm, years ago you could easily tell which feminist writing in Spanish had been influenced by French or Anglo-Saxon ideas, just based on the vocabulary. The problems you’re talking about are real and well put.
    Yet I don’t understand the example you choose to illustrate them: “the woman who brought the initiative to the city [Buenos Aires], who, by her own admission, learned about this particular kind of discourse analysis while living in London, didn’t realize the cross cultural implications of literal translations (both in theory and practice).” I’ve just read the article. What exactly doesn’t Inti María Tidball-Binz realize? Why do you point to “her own admission,” as if her learning something in London made it absolutely foreign and therefore dubious or shameful?
    For those of you who don’t read Spanish, the article focuses on a single answer to her Buenos Aires Hollaback site and Tidball-Binz’s reaction to this answer. A writer called Juan Terranova expressed a wish for the New Year: “Find Inti María Tidball-Binz at the opening of an exhibition, have a drink together and then tell her I’d love to break her arguments / ass with my cock.” (Actually, the expression is even harsher.)
    What on earth is so culturally untranslatable here?
    Tidball-Binz talks in the article about words, substitution of “abuse” for “compliments,” the supposed lack of humor in feminists, and the difference between Hollaback and a personal attack. There is nothing very alien here — it sounds damn familiar to me, on the other side of the pond. If you think that all this is translation on her part, let me say I consider it very well done.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  20. I am not going to discuss Hollaback because it is not the subject of this post (and I prefer if we remained on topic).

    However, let me say this, not about Hollaback specifically but about any imported model. I am very suspicious of anything that is imported uncritically without taking into considerations the cultural, social and structural differences of the place where a model is imported to. Again, this is not about Hollaback but about strategies: anything that is not borne of local needs and takes into consideration the local culture dangerously resembles a kind of colonialism that is in the antipodes of the kinds of activism I believe in. Learning about something some place else can be very useful and indeed revealing. However, what matters is how one filters that new knowledge to see if it fits into the lived realities of the people towards whom, in theory, this knowledge is going to be applied.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  21. Flavia wrote:

    Well you described exactly how I feel. I’m Brazilian, currently living in India and as time goes by I feel more and more inclined towards writing in English, but I can tell you that most of times I feel quite insecure about the convenience of the words I use, be it due to the influence of Portuguese, my mother tongue, or simply because I lack in understanding the idioms that native speakers tend to use in their articles and (I think) would be helpful in the ones I write. The result of it all? I don’t publish them =/

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink