• Emily Coogan

We need to talk about feminist guilt

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Engaging with any social movement requires the serious and ongoing interrogation of internal beliefs, which can give rise to a personal conflict like no other. A great example of where challenging your own conscience can get complicated is feminist guilt.

First, the idea is not to be confused with The Guilty Feminist, a wonderfully sarcastic podcast by comedian Deborah Frances-White which deals with feelings of inadequacy when it comes to feminism. There is guilt associated with not being a good enough feminist, whether through a struggle to be outspoken, an affection for Don Draper, or a difficulty understanding issues central to the movement. There is also shame attached to labelling oneself a ‘feminist’ for fear of being mocked or misunderstood, which seems to be part and parcel with any good moment of social activism.

Feminist guilt on the other hand might be compared to Catholic guilt, where the voice of Catholicism arbitrates one’s thoughts even after leaving the church. In a feminist context, the voice of the patriarchy can be heard despite all attempts to block it out. It pervades every nook and cranny of your conscience to the point where you second guess decisions

I’ll give you some quick personal examples.

As I’ve grown older, I feel more and more indifferent to marriage. I can’t get past the premise of the institution and the way such an event came about; the thought of marriage in the name of economic alliance, business liaison, or legal ownership nauseates me. Even the permanent (and often unrealistic) binding of two people just seems untenable. The only thing enticing me to get married is the prospect of a pretty dress and people being forced by courtesy to compliment me for one whole day. However, I feel remorse for not having a burning desire to get married.

I feel similarly about the idea of changing my surname. If I were to get married, I know I do not feel the need to change my name and do the extensive admin work of changing the way it reads on my many accounts, licences, emails, and cards. Despite seeing no reason to become reborn in terms of superficial identity, there is a niggling feeling of letting someone or something down. My own voice in my own head asks me if it’s wrong to not share the same name as the children I may have, as though to do so invalidates my role in that family unit. Why can’t those children share my surname? The same voice in my head. I know well that this guilt is nonsensical, but it’s still very real.

Guilt is a major blockade on the road to women’s liberation, serving as a kind of self-censorship that restrains its victims. The patriarchal experience is already riddled with guilt: men and women feel guilty because of an inability to live up to stringent standards of masculinity and femininity respectively. Rejecting patriarchal norms is also ascribed with guilt. Either way, we should all be feminists.