Trauma-Informed Perspectives on Feminism
March is Women’s History Month, and this month we celebrate all women.
For Women’s History Month, let’s take some time to reflect on and celebrate the experiences and achievements of all women, including Black women, women of color, disabled women, trans women, queer women, single mothers, women without children, immigrant women, and all women.
Why is it important to shift the focus onto these groups of women? If we do not consider all of the diverse voices of women across the globe, then something about our feminism is broken at its very core.
Feminism without intersectionality is not socially just.
A Brief History of Feminism
Feminism is often seen as women’s liberation or women’s equality, but the feminist movement began as a way for white, college-educated women to gain power—not necessarily to dismantle the power systems that determined women deserved less or were valued less than men.
The histories of the first and second waves of feminism are full of the achievements of great women. But many of those great women forgot that their experiences as white women didn’t speak to the experiences of all women.
The third wave of feminism brought racial injustice within the feminist movement to light. The prominent question we asked was Who is feminism for?
Despite being in the fourth wave of feminism today, “white feminism” is still here. If you want to read more about it, consider reading Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria, which explores the white-centric and capitalist nature of feminism alongside the deeply entrenched assumptions and behaviors that inform our worldviews.
Heteronormativity is a good example of an entrenched belief. It is normalized, but it is harmful. Heteronormativity gives us a lens to see through, and it is often the default lens we operate with because it is given to us at a very young age.
Through this lens, there are only two genders. The definitions of what it means to be a “proper” woman or a “proper” man are clear. Men should be strong and tall. They should not cry. They should find a wife. They shouldn’t take no for an answer. They shouldn’t be weak. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, women should find a good husband. Women should be caregivers for the children. Women should be graceful, soft-spoken, and petite. We can also get into how the “ideal” woman possesses distinctly white features or light skin, and here we begin to see the overlap of heteronormativity and white supremacy. These forms of structural violence cannot be separated.
Obviously, we know that these assumptions of what it means to a man or a woman hold no merit. A woman who is muscular and strong is no less a woman than a petite one. A man who never wants to get married is no less a man than one who is married. In our intellectual minds, it is easy to say, of course, a person’s value does not change according to these arbitrary assumptions. That would be silly.
However, in our deeply ingrained unconscious minds, heteronormativity is what fuels our misunderstanding of others who do not fit into this default lens.
Consider the woman who is happy she gained 30 pounds.
Consider the man crying at work.
Consider the woman who doesn’t wear makeup.
Consider the man who does.
Consider the transgender woman who doesn’t want to alter her voice.
Consider that woman’s girlfriend.
Heteronormativity is the reflexive voice in our minds that says, but that doesn’t make sense. For some people, that voice is so powerful it begins to speak louder and take over. It might say, they’re not a real man, or it may begin to make assumptions to explain the situation.
The heteronormative voice might say, well, the woman was probably underweight. The man probably received horrible news. What if the woman was chubby before she gained weight? What if the man didn’t receive bad news? How difficult is it for you to imagine a woman who is happy she gained weight? What opinions do you form about the man who cries in public?
This is where we exercise self-awareness to undo the toxic worldviews we possess. With time and intention, we are able to quiet that voice or redirect it.
In a heteronormative lens, men fit neatly into their roles, and women fit neatly into theirs. And a major part of these roles is being heterosexual. So, a “proper” man is attracted to women, and a “proper” woman is attracted to men. Here, we can see another example of how structural violence is deeply ingrained and connected through the link between homophobia and heteronormativity.
Similarly, misogyny involves a deeply ingrained set of assumptions that fuel disdain for women. Misogyny is so entrenched in our culture that we are all prone to misogynistic beliefs.
For example, women are judged more harshly than men—even by other women.
A woman with a messy home or a woman who speaks up at work is more likely to be seen negatively than a man with a messy home or a man who speaks up at work.
Misogyny, like all other forms of structural violence, informs our world by giving us a lens to look through. And it is the most harmful when we do not know it is there.
One potent example of white feminism today is Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF). TERF ideology is extremely harmful because it operates under the guise of feminism. Those who subscribe to this model believe that trans women should be excluded from feminist discourse and female-only spaces, and these beliefs are transphobic and transmisogynistic.
When we subscribe to feminism, we cannot cherry-pick who it applies to. Feminism isn’t feminism if we exclude women of color, Black women, queer women, trans women, disabled women, etc. We aren’t contributing to the feminist movement if we are supporting structural violence rather than deconstructing it.
The Patriarchy Hurts Everyone
In conversations about feminism, it’s important to acknowledge that the patriarchy hurts everyone—but it hurts us all in different ways. This form of structural violence oppresses everyone in society, and if we can acknowledge how it hurts us, we can begin to see how it impacts other people in other ways.
Men hold the most power in our patriarchy, but they are still negatively impacted by it. Here is one example:
Men often struggle with emotional intelligence because being emotional is seen as weak. So, they often don’t develop emotional regulation skills growing up. When the only socially appropriate emotion to express is anger, it is inevitable for someone to become angry and violent rather than cope with stress in a healthy way.
If we can understand that men are harmed by these systems, too, then we can clearly see that women are harmed tenfold.
We could write a long, long list of ways that the patriarchy hurts women, especially women of color and indigenous women. But if you want to read more about women’s oppression and liberation, consider picking up a copy of A Bridge Called My Back, which was originally published in the 80s and contains a collection of essays, prose, poetry, and more that explore the experiences of women of color.
Feminism and Trauma-Informed Paradigm Shifts
If want to create and support trauma-informed communities, then starting these conversations about feminism is important. In the trauma-informed model, we often talk about shifting the paradigm and building culture. In order to build and shift, we need to know where we stand right now—and this is where we stand: a world where structural violence is often supported and disguised as equity work.
So, rather than claiming we’re past all that, let’s work together to continue breaking down the toxic systems that live within us.
Universal Precaution and Gender Trauma
One trauma-informed key concept that can help us grow and heal is universal precaution. When we use universal precaution, we act as if everyone has trauma, even when we don’t know what that trauma is.
Through the lens of feminism, we can use universal precaution to be sensitive to gender trauma. When we work with women, trans folks, and nonbinary folks, we can be allies to each other by uplifting and amplifying each other’s voices.
Understanding that people with certain identities are at a higher risk of trauma can remind us to use universal precaution, keep an open mind, and believe people when they share that something we’ve done or said upholds white supremacy, the patriarchy, and other forms of structural violence.
Final Thoughts: We Must Heal Trauma in Ourselves and Our Organizations
Unlearning biased beliefs is a personal endeavor that we all have a responsibility to take on, and organizational leaders have an even greater responsibility to address structural violence.
A great leader cares for the people they lead, and most organizational teams are comprised of diverse people with diverse trauma related to their identities and backgrounds. Trauma-informed leaders are sensitive to that trauma, move through the world using universal precaution, and continuously learn and grow.
If you want to learn more about the trauma-informed model and how it can impact teams and organizations, our Trauma-Informed Masterclass is a great place to start. From now until July, you can reserve your seat with early bird pricing.