How to be Feminist Missionaries?

I’ve been thinking (always dangerous) about how to spread awareness and support for feminism. I’m positive that the movement is important, but it’s difficult to be optimistic that it’s really growing. Certainly there have been recent victories, but each has met with backlash and criticism, often on the basis of miscomprehension of feminism’s actual nature and goals. This is a particular concern in the aftermath of ‘Women Against Feminism‘ and some of its more patronising responses, but has always been a big question.

I certainly don’t have any answers – this post is more a call to everyone who thinks they’ve successfully ‘converted’ a neutral or hostile person to a broadly positive position. What did you say, send, share or do? Did an event shock someone you know into re-evaluating (or just evaluating) what they thought of gender relations, or some small part of the current structure? What spurred you, if you’re a feminist reader, to identify as such?

It would be good to collate a kind of list of conversion tactics, a sort of toolbox or guide to best practice. I doubt there’s a one-size-fits-all silver bullet, or feminism would already be a dominant force, but there must be some way of getting through to MRAs or twitter trolls, your brother or dad or mates? Good cop bad cop? And by tactics I mean day-to-day stuff that anyone could do, we little people, not the work of the world’s Beyoncés or Laurie Pennies or Caitlin Morans, nor heavy de Beauvoir theory (all of which has its place).

Not our problem

Of course it’s true that it isn’t anyone’s duty to have to explain concepts of patriarchy or rape culture or defend the concept of the gender pay gap to acquaintances who are sceptical or outright confrontative. That would be exhausting. I’m certainly not trying to define what a feminist’s ‘Mission’ should be or how they should achieve it.

At the same time, it might be nice to know rules of thumb if you do want to get into a debate with someone, or if someone’s politely asking why you ‘get so hot under the collar about x or y’. Is there a quick way to stop them dead in their tracks, or a really good website/book you can point them to so you can get on with your life?

Too formulaic?

To some, socio-cultural change should be spontaneous and organic, it shouldn’t need writers or campaigners to think about the mechanics of spreading the word. I disagree. Products have marketing strategies – from doorstep salesmen to political volunteers to anti-abortion activists to religious evangelists. We don’t need to ape the least palatable elements, but again there’s no harm in collating a list of scripts to adapt and use in conversations if you want to.

The problem of dilution

The (very rough draft) ideas I had when I asked myself this question were superficial, conciliatory. There’s certainly a danger that, in trying to show feminism isn’t all about ‘FemiNazis’ killing foetuses/staging coups/demanding unequal privileges, the message become hopelessly vague. Pointing out that feminism is all about equality, a word most people instinctually support? Well yeah, great, but then they might leave with a kind of separate-but-equal doctrine along the lines of “Well if their rights are equal in the law then it’s women’s fault for having babies and being weaker that they don’t have boardroom parity or political power or …” As soon as you argue that patriarchy is bad for men too (as I have tried) but in many cases that derails discussion to a meditation on men’s troubles, which is a valid topic but not usually the original intent.

So dilution is certainly something to be aware of. It’s important not to leave your recent would-b-convert that you’ve just given them all the answers and they don’t have to worry about intersectionality or kyriarchy or actually doing anything differently. Perhaps you need to point out that there’s so so much to talk about but enthuse that as a committed movement, all could be made much better for everyone.

There are probably more problems I haven’t thought of, and more might arise from everyone’s suggestions. I will list all responses below, anything is welcome! Over to you, proselytising patriarchy-smasher…

Tweet me if you want the world to hear, comment below, email if you’d prefer to be anon, or respond on Facebook – all gravy.





I’m not sure I’ve ever successfully ‘converted’ anyone, but I think I’ve influenced people slowly, over the long term (months/years!), by persistently pointing out examples of sexism and misogyny, from talking about street harassment to counting the lack of female characters in films. For me the biggest part is often just proving that sexism still exists i.e. that feminism is still necessary. I don’t think it’s about ‘winning the argument’ so much as building up someone’s awareness of how the world is for others. I think a lot of it is also about where it’s coming from – you’re likely to have more success with a friend/family member who already values your opinion than a stranger on the internet.


– Anon: This person themselves became a feminist after reading Simone de Beauvouir’s book The Second Sex, which they found ‘clearcut’. They think they contributed to ‘converting’ one other person through years of discussion, much like the example above. They point out that the question of conversion is twofold, first in convincing people that gender inequality exists and is a problem, and second motivating them to actually care about it and intervene in conversations which are unacceptable.

– My own ‘conversion’ was at university. I was set the question “How stable has a binary male/female gender regime been across societies and historical periods?” and given a hearty reading list and encouragement to consider my own preconceptions as well as those of historical subjects. (I argued that a binary ideal persisted while in practice societies were more fluid/unstable, and that for humanity ‘there are no intrinsic gendered traits‘). Being asked to look at lots of clearly-backwards cultures, and the roots of their gender relations, made me reflect on the imbalances that existed in ours. A separate but important incident was at a festival when I was sixteen, trying to stop a female friend being groped and being told that in a crowd that was just pointless. That made me sad, angry and aware (which I hadn’t really been at a boys’ school).

Louise Dunsby:

My one piece of advice: build relationships with people first, then once they respect you as a person they will discover that their ingrained sexist attitudes are already being challenged by the very fact that they do respect you. It’s a kind of Trojan horse method.

Emma Moyse

[The] “tumblr feminist” stereotype…is relatively easily remedied by pointing out that both I and other named friends they like and respect are feminists, and also reminding them about how it’s generally unhelpful to judge an entire group based on a vocal minority and stereotypes (accepted comparisons tend to involve the Westboro Baptist Church and Christianity, football fans and hooligans, nerds living in their mothers’ basements, etc).

Second, every single uninitiated friend I’ve opened this dialogue with has said that they feel like I’m personally attacking/blaming them when I talk about patriarchy, male privilege, etc. This requires sympathy (though obviously it can be frustrating!), and an explanation of what these things actually are. The comic [here] is massively helpful too, as is giving a rundown of my own privilege (white, cis, able-bodied, middle class, etc).

Finally, and this is where I’ve seen so, so many people go wrong, especially online – *remember that they’re not going to go from feminism 101 to your level of understanding overnight*. It has taken me years of learning and experience to get to where I am today, and there’s masses more to be done. Some of the stuff I thought and said even a year ago would make me cringe now, especially wrt to intersectionality (which, let’s face it, is fucking hard). My understanding of trans* issues in particular has developed rapidly in the last couple of years, but I still admit that I know very little about race, for example. My point is, all of my previous (and future – let’s not kid ourselves that we’re perfect now) problematic thoughts and behaviours came from a place of ignorance, not malice, and I was actively working on reducing that ignorance. With our own experiences in mind, we have to be patient with fledgling feminist converts in our lives and accept that they’re going to make mistakes. Calling them out is important, obviously, but do so calmly and use it as a teaching opportunity. Aggression or dismissiveness will just be counterproductive.

Justine Rughooputh

– A simple ‘would you say that to/about a man?’ if it fits the conversation can be quite effective, especially if said as a genuine question

Holly Quinlan

-It is important to pick and choose your battles. Like, I do know a number of people (let’s be honest, they’re all men) who aren’t hostile to the principles of feminism per se but who buy into the man-hating feminist image

So start small, with things most people can agree are bad, e.g. undue stereotyping. I’ve found that starting with stuff that is harmful to men/talking about toxic masculinity etc tends to get people more on side which is sort of frustrating since I realise it’s pandering and that women having their own problems really should be enough to get people interested. But showing that you are willing to engage on those issues tends to do a lot to counter the “man-hating/women only” image and makes people more receptive to me talking about women’s issues. A few of my LGBT friends I’ve sort of introduced intersectionality into the conversation too, by pointing out how ideas about masculinity and femininity feed into harmful stereotypes about LGBT people.

I’ve found that men react a lot better to these conversations if you can stay rational and not get too worked up, which is super difficult because they are really important issues for me (and for most feminists unsurprisingly) and for me really only makes it worth the effort with close friends (even then some of them are just lost causes and I just have to not talk about feminism around them).

if you feel comfortable doing it, it might well be worth pointing out how harmful/hurtful devil’s advocacy can be in feminist discussions. My partner and I used to have a lot of disagreements about feminism where I would get really upset and angry because he would say stuff like, “But how do you know it was a gendered issue in this instance?” etc and I would be all “Because I’m a woman and I see/experience sexism ALL THE TIME.” But because those experiences are often sort of passive and/or ingrained sexism it can be hard to quantify and put into words. I talked to him recently about how it’s hurtful and sounds like he is denying my experiences and feelings, and he was really apologetic and has been much more open to discussing feminism since. I think “male” rationality being so privileged is a large part of the problem in these kids of talks since me getting emotional is an easy reason to dismiss me even if subconsciously, and I can’t explain that it’s part of male privilege that rationality is considered gender neutral and the only “real” way to argue, and getting angry about institutional sexism is a natural response that doesn’t devalue my arguments, without explaining other parts of feminist theory.

Shaina Yang:

– I think a big thing to remember, though, is that part of the reason why feminist “missionary” work gets so heated/hostile (as has been repeated fairly consistently in the comments above) is because it is a genuinely emotive experience for us who care about the things we’re “preaching” (as it were) and can get easily upset, panicked, offended, agitated, or otherwise when the conversion effort isn’t going swimmingly (which they rarely do). Staying cool and patient has been mentioned – so to meta this, my tips are more on how to do this I guess!

These are less from the outward-looking standpoint of strategy, but the inward-looking standpoint of self-control AND self-care… how to think about and approach missionary work in a way that will help you be more effective, stay sane, don’t give it up, etc. These are all kind of personal? Or rather, I’m not sure how useful they would be to others – they are just things I find useful to keep in mind. I think the most successful “conversion” cases I’ve been a part of had some of the following bits of internal dialogue going on.

My first one is to reaaaally trust that people will eventually connect the dots on their own. If you show them HOW you think, rather than tell them what you think, you only need one persuasive conversation to show them a new perspective. As has been noted above, picking battles and starting with the obvious middle ground things is a good shout, etc – but I think the thing to remember is that feminist discourse has a very particular and persuasive logic about it which, once learned, leads people to direct it to the world around them of their own accord, listen to other pieces of discourse with more fluency and subtlety, and get there eventually. People above have talked about how at one point, everyone was problematic. So this is the mantra: we will all get there in the end. It’s something that I genuinely find really helpful just to bear in my own mind – that when I am engaging with someone, i don’t have to fight every battle, I don’t need to pick out every problematic statement/term – it’s all about showing a consistency in feminist reasoning which I do think people can learn and acquire and take on themselves and grow with. They will get there in the end; I did. My friends did. Every feminist did, or will. So I don’t have to do everything, and I don’t have to get upset right now. Of course, there are plenty of caveats to this – white feminists, TERFs [trans-exclusive radical feminists], etc – and to them I just try to treat them like people who haven’t learned feminism (properly) yet. And I guess if anything, the mantra is a merciful bit of self-comfort because these conversations can be quite draining.

The other way of thinking about things that I find helpful is to temporarily suspend this idea that the amount of discourse we can have is finite. This really helps when not getting too frustrated with people about derailment, especially before they necessarily realise how harmful it is. I know there’s only so much time in a day, and that we will all die, and that derailing of oppressed people’s experiences in favour of hearing about less oppressed people’s experiences is not cool. But firmly directing a conversation towards core topics is not the same as outright silencing other topics in any space forever, and I just have to let myself belief that collectively in the global ecumene, we have infinite amount of discourse, and we want to ideally discuss all of everything that is relevant to feminism. So if some cis het able-bodied middle-class etc white man in a very privileged country wants to go off and think about how global kyriarchy personally wounds him, or how feminists really do hurt his feelings (and that not only makes him sad but is very bad press for feminism), or what about the minority but still existing cases of false accusations/male victims of DV and the silencing of their experiences in the mainstream media – he can go and do that somewhere, that is okay. Not with me necessarily, because my experiences of oppression have a lot of opposing intersections to his relative lack of experiences of oppression, maybe. But I think theoretically, all of these thoughts should happen, and it’s okay; there’s not a finite amount of empathy we can have for people, there’s not a finite amount of discourse that we can hypothetically undertake – of course it does well to enforce more rigid structures when having conversations in a feminist forum or on a feminist blog or etc, and having policies about derailing is definitely justifiable. But keeping things in this perspective reminds me why the issue of derailing is so important (rather than just reflexively marking some topics as less important “just cause”), and helps me get less mad when people wanna talk about these things.

The other thing I would say is that there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all approach – because of different levels and intersections of privilege. This again goes both for the missionary and the convert. For the convert-to-be, their own experiences of being human will probably involve some kind of oppression (although in Oxford this is less the case, harhar) – so being sensitive to those experiences is not only a good way of creating empathy, but also reduces the amount of oversimplification that we sometimes use because it’s neat (pretending that working class experiences of oppression in white males are not relevant to feminism, etc). For those who are doing the converting – who are you? What are your experiences of oppression? What are your experiences of privilege? For me – I have had a LOT of education, but a lot of people that I speak to about these things haven’t, especially now that I’m living in London outside the Oxbubble. It’s not appropriate for me to be using or enforcing academic tone, because that’s a form of oppression; it’s also unhelpful for me to use “jargon” or feminist buzzwords because the context is often lost on people and they end up alienating people from one another. For someone else – say our favourite cis het middle class etc male mentioned above – he could probably do with a relative amount of checking how he talks about stuff and what kind of lines of power he is reproducing etc etc.

Also, I think another helpful thing for myself is: differentiating between discourse that is meant for self-empowerment within the feminist community, and discourse that is meant for missionary work. Everyone has seen the sassy feminist tweet or the biting smackdown Facebook comment of a bad troll or similar – these are deeply satisfying, and they engage a lot of frustration and trauma oppressed people collectively feel. There is triumph, there is smugness. Everyone loves having these moments. And they are a great important part of feminism in terms of self-empowerment, in having a space to be aggressive/sassy/snappish/abrasive/etc – but ultimately, they are for us. They are for the person who said it – which is 100% absolutely okay, self-empowerment and self-care is great, feeling powerful is great – and they are for the rest of the already-feminist community who can clap and crow and engage with that feeling.
BUT, they are a separate discourse to missionary work. Which, as everyone has chipped in, is much more about patience and logic and strategic persuasion. I think keeping this distinction very clear is another useful way of thinking about things – realising that both have a time and a place, both should be exercised in healthy moderation, both are perfectly comparable with each other as separate objects, and both are best not mixed up.

3 thoughts on “How to be Feminist Missionaries?

  1. Interesting post. I’ve wondered about this question quite a lot. Even with friends who are generally socially conscious and would never make sexist comments, I’ve had people respond warily, defensively or even with some annoyance at my making feminist points. This in turn tends to make me irritated, particularly if I am talking to a friend who I consider, on the whole, pretty enlightened and thoughtful… not the best approach to take, I know! (as Shaina Yang rightly says above)

    When I brought this up in a lesson with my sixth formers, we had just had a discussion about media and body image, in which they all unanimously agreed that the pressures placed on women by the media were greater. A few students made comments that sounded pretty feminist to me… so I asked them whether they were feminists. They all virulently rejected the idea! I asked them why – and they explained that their view of feminists was as ‘man haters’, bra burners etc… Some were a bit worked up about a recent campaign to ‘ban the word bossy’, which they saw as ‘excessive’. I argued the toss a bit about that with them, and also pointed out that what one group of feminists did in the name of feminism didn’t define ‘feminism’ for everybody – the comparison to religious groups and denominations helped with that. I went for the straightforward ‘equality’ interpretation, a slightly enhanced version of Caitlin Moran’s one:

    1) You believe men and women should be equal
    2) You believe that currently women aren’t treated equally
    3) You believe that something should be done about it

    If 1-3 are true of you, you are a feminist.

    The response from some was ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way before, Miss’ – a success of sorts perhaps?

    • Awesome! And also, it’s good that they are thinking along the right lines without the F word being deployed. Maybe that’s even a tactic – to talk about an issue from a fem perspective but never even mention feminism or prominent theorists until later when you can show that what you just agreed is what feminists think

      • Agreed… actually I think that’s probably the best approach with any kind of political ‘standpoint’, theory or school of thought (in school, anyhow). They are far more likely to engage if you discuss the values/beliefs/debates first, and then point out that these are actually self-identified groups or approaches.

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