I just got back from a Christmas service run by about thirty women with guitars, oboes, awful holiday sweaters, and no-nonsense haircuts: the Benedictine nuns. I am not a religious person (in point of fact I’m an atheist, and a Jewish one at that) but I found these women both charming and inspiring. They’re an activist community, not only a religious one — my boyfriend’s mom amused me by pointing out the ones who had recently been arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the war — and are clearly devoted to each other, the community, and especially other women. In a lot of ways they’re better feminists than I am; not only have they expertly and seamlessly excised male pronouns from their prayers, but the time and energy that I might spend on things like clothes and makeup, they instead spend on giving material and spiritual help to women globally and locally.
It’s easy — especially for someone like me, for whom things like toughness and taking no shit are so identity constitutive — to forget that feminism is about women, not just about feminists. We’re all in this together, even the ones of us who aren’t in this, or aren’t in it to the degree we’d prefer. Someone who isn’t ready to embrace feminism or fat activism; someone who has never heard of fat activism; someone who has no desire to embrace her body or rethink the patriarchy: even if these people aren’t allies (yet), they’re not obstacles. They’re the reason we’re here making noise in the first place.
If you’re like me, and I hope you’re not because it’s wearying sometimes, you might accidentally steamroller them, thinking they’re in the way. But just because someone’s not marching behind you doesn’t mean they’re blocking your path. There are people who are learning, people who are waiting, people who are understandably skeptical, people who aren’t interested at all, people who are staunchly opposed to what we’re doing… and we’re doing it for them, no less than for all of you. If I didn’t think this would be a better world for everyone without misogyny, patriarchy, and the beauty standards and lack of body autonomy that attend them, I wouldn’t be here writing your ear off. It’s not good enough to have convictions if you’re only fighting on behalf of the people who share them.
I never felt uncomfortable at the Benedictines’ service, because these women didn’t care that I was a godless liberal sinner who wasn’t taking communion. By virtue of my being a human and particularly by virtue of my being a woman, they were automatically on my side. I could stand to learn a lot from these women in their shapeless sweaters. (Plenty of fatties amongst the sisters, by the way, despite those pesky vows of simplicity and poverty — could it possibly be that many of us naturally expand as we age?) Everything they did, they were doing on my behalf, in some sense, even though I didn’t share their beliefs.
Activism for activists is gratifying but senseless. Activism for the reluctant, the uncertain, and the opposed: that’s a chore, and a mitzvah.