Why being a social worker has changed my perception of feminism

Mar 16, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. ET
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Fifteen years ago, I was sitting dumbfounded in a human and behavioral sciences class at a small university in central Louisiana. My professor had just asked the room of budding social workers (all of whom were female) if we considered ourselves to be feminists.

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My student colleagues and I looked around at one another, but we were all puzzled. “Of course we do,” we proclaimed. For the next half hour, our fearless social-work leader methodically challenged our concept and understanding of feminism. To put it bluntly, she rocked our world.

I still remember feeling confused, and almost hurt, when class ended. I’d been a feminist since high school! How could I have misjudged the meaning of the word so badly? What I began to understand that day was the difference between thinking like a feminist and acting like a feminist. Specifically, I learned more about feminist theory and how to put it into practice to improve the lives of others, not just my own.

In graduate school, I would later learn about feminist therapy. At the core of this practice is the belief that concepts such as racial and economic equity are just as important as gender equity. That fateful day was the start of a long journey of self-exploration, research and practice. My feminist journey has taught me that being a feminist is more than being proud of one’s sex or body. It's also more than fighting for one's individual sexual rights or one’s equal right to pay, housing, health care, power and more.

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A feminist stands up for all oppressed and underserved people, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, income or any other qualifier you wish to insert here. A feminist knows that equal and fair should not stop at sex but should be extended beyond to include all humans at risk of oppression.

As a social worker, I've been taught to incorporate feminist theory into my practice. This means I strive to combat inequity in my day-to-day interactions with clients, working with them to find sources of empowerment that can lead to needed changes. Dr. Laura S. Brown, a prominent feminist therapist and theorist, believes human beings to be “responsive to the problems of their lives, capable of solving those problems and desirous of change.” Empowerment is a key tenet of feminist therapy and, in my opinion, applicable even outside the therapeutic relationship.

I see my role as a feminist social theorist as working to end all forms of oppression not only through my work with individual clients but within my organization, my community and my society. It also means working with, and sometimes against, systems that promote oppression of vulnerable peoples, whether they be women or simply those who are racially, ethnically or economically different. I do this regularly by striving to improve awareness of biases and inequities, as well as highlight strengths in a way that empowers others.

You may be asking yourself how we can apply these theories to everyday interactions with family, friends and strangers. It’s simple: We do that through our personal and collective action, advocacy and awareness. We empower, educate and engage people to fight for change. We articulate and demonstrate our beliefs in a way that isn't divisive or alienating. We stand up for others before ourselves because we know we’re fighting for the collective good rather than our own best interest. We lift one another up instead of tearing others down.

Although we may not know what it means to walk in the shoes of another, we understand that empathy is perhaps the best way to empower someone to see beyond their current situation to find sources of hope and change.

As a feminist social worker, I don’t believe myself to be better than other feminists, just different. I see things through a social-work lens, sometimes even before I realize what’s happening. I don’t expect other feminists to always understand my somewhat radical views on the topic, but maybe they haven’t had the learning opportunities I’ve had. Maybe they’ve not met struggle face to face in the eyes of an abused child, a neglected homeless woman or a frightened mentally ill man. Maybe they haven’t had seen the harsh impact of extreme poverty, racial inequality or economic disparity.

It’s my job, as a feminist and as a social worker, to educate and encourage growth. I hold out hope that maybe one day feminists everywhere will know there’s more to our feminist stories than “me.”

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Carlie G. is a small-town Louisiana girl blogging about life in Los Angeles and beyond. She enjoys writing about travel, culture and photography. She holds a master of social work degree and works full-time in the health-care community. Her writing is influenced heavily by her profession, and her professional skills, ethics and experiences are infused into each of her blog posts. If you like her BlogHer posts, be sure to check out her blog, a Cajun in Cali.