Feminism is undeniably going through a massive upheaval. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen this much discussion of feminist issues in the public sphere, and one of the battles taking place is for “the heart and soul” of the movement. Most recently in Australia we’ve watched a debacle unfold over the right of anti-choice campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist to conceal her religious beliefs, her decision to threaten legal action against a blogger who felt the public was entitled to know, and even whether or not Tankard Reist should be allowed to call herself, and be recognised as, “a feminist”. See stories here and here.

My view is that no matter how strenuously I disagree with her on many points (and I do), this judgment is not for me or anyone else to make. I’m not primarily interested in whether people call themselves feminists or not — though I’m happy when they choose to and I do it as an important part of my identity. But if we accept that anyone has the right to confer this status, or indeed strip someone else of it, then we accept a hierarchy within feminism that is counterproductive.

Who are the appointed arbiters? More senior feminists? Powerful or fashionable ones? Those who speak the loudest? One of the strengths and weaknesses of the movement is that power is diffused throughout. It can make feminists harder to organise but having no central command also has its benefits. It means that feminism, unlike other social movements, can’t fall prey to a corrupt leadership or become paralysed by dogma.

For instance, I still have male friends tentatively ask if they’re “allowed” to be feminists. This is the very real residue of a time when they weren’t and I’m glad that view was challenged and largely rejected by a movement that evolved in fluid and responsive ways. I know that gender equality will benefit all of us and that men have a huge stake in the success of feminism. Male feminists have surely existed as long as their female counterparts but only recently have they been able to “step up” from supporter to stakeholder. This is one way that the movement let go of the need to decide who can and can’t be a member.

But declaring who is and isn’t a feminist also implies that there exists some conceptual checklist we can all agree on, which is simply not true. The definition of feminism is not written in stone, so who can enforce it? And arguably any attempt to police other people’s feminism is a distraction from what we should be doing, which is the very real work of challenging gender roles. That work couldn’t be more urgent. The template I use for my feminism comes from the American feminist Molly Lambert, who wrote that: “Masculinity” is as damaging to men as “femininity” is to women.

Neither is something to aspire to. Women who understand this are called feminists. Men who understand this aren’t called anything yet, but maybe they can just be called feminists too.” Note she refers to what people are called, not what they call themselves. You can call yourself whatever you want but that doesn’t bring about social change. You have to do something.

But there are plenty of women and men doing this work already, who don’t care about the label. Some of the most effective feminists I know have never read any feminist theory, never been to any kind of demonstration, and would certainly not identify themselves as feminists. These are just people living their lives and trying to do the right thing. They don’t attend events such as mine and they don’t need to necessarily. Public debates such as those that have raged over SlutWalk, the intricacies of the “p-rn wars”, and who has the best feminist credentials are largely absent from their lives and their engagement with feminism happens on the practical level of how to pay for childcare, finding a mechanic who isn’t awful to them, whether the housework gets done, if they can walk home from the train station at night, how to deal with the fact that their daughter has started having s-x.

This is a kind of organic feminism as it’s experienced by many — practical, ethical choices and dilemmas that they face each day. I care about as much as they do for who has the most legitimate claim to the title of feminist.

Words do matter, but a whole lot less than deeds. Because the hard work of feminism is done in the moment when you know you should speak up but you’re scared that you’ll look foolish or piss off people or worse. I struggle with this fear constantly, especially as my friends and colleagues are understandably tired of it. But it’s these tests of your feminism that matter far more than what you call yourself.Will you tell your mates that talking about women like that isn’t cool? Will you ask your boss not to kiss you on the cheek when he shakes everyone else’s hand? Will you ask people not to tell your child that his favourite toy is supposed to be for girls? Will you tell your organisation that the board should have more women on it? Can you be bothered getting the bank to change your credit card because, yes, it does matter that you didn’t write Miss on the form? Will you explain to the stranger that no, daddy doesn’t have the day off, daddy is working hard at caring for his kid, just like mummy is while she’s at work?

Because it will be in these moments that you’ll know whether you’re a feminist or not, and only you can tell that. Feminism exists in the gestures we make to challenge received wisdom about gender in our society. It means sticking up for women you don’t like. It means rejecting lazy stereotypes about men too. It’s a daily discipline, a process that never ends. You never graduate as a feminist but you also don’t have to apply to be one.

It’s not a medal that you get to pin on your chest and polish and keep in a box. It’s a lived experience and a daily discipline — one that takes courage and commitment and respect for yourself. So when you’re trying to establish feminist credentials (someone else’s or your own) don’t ask “Am I a feminist?”. Ask yourself “What do I do that is feminist?” and you might be surprised by the answer.

*Karen Pickering is the creator and host of Cherchez la Femme, a monthly event in Melbourne devoted to feminist discussion of current affairs and popular culture. In 2011 she was an organiser of SlutWalk Melbourne and co-created The Dawn Conspiracy, celebrating the centenary of International Women’s Day. She is routinely called a “bad feminist”.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off