Moving beyond eonni-approved feminism
The Connection between Youth and Feminism
Yu-gyeong   |   2023-09-17

※Editor’s note: In this age of backlash, in which feminism is distorted and fiercely attacked, the 20-part series “Rewriting Feminism in the Age of Backlash” discusses feminism once again through the voices of diverse feminists. The series is funded by the Korea Foundation for Women’s Gender Equal Social Development Project.


▲ The weather was gorgeous on the day that I and other members of the youth feminist network WeTee attended a rally to promote the enactment of a national anti-discrimination law. ©WeTee

Becoming a young feminist


When I first encountered feminism, I was young and very angry. This was because the school that I was attending was such an unsafe space. I had long since been branded a ‘touchy and pushy girl’ there, and I felt annoyed at the boys and twice as annoyed at the teachers. For a long time, I didn’t know what to do; I had no idea how to find even a thread that could lead me out of this all-encompassing, difficult situation.


Then I happened to become aware of feminism. It was a new language that neatly organized all the words that had mostly been stuck in my throat until then. That the discrimination, abuse, and contempt I had faced as a girl were not my fault as an individual but were the result of larger systems—it truly seemed like an idea that would save me. So I diligently read books, watched films, and attended lectures. Escaping the prison-like dorms [of my high school] every weekend and reading voraciously about feminism and human rights issues gave me my only feelings of freedom at that time.


In this way, I studied with a sense of duty. It seemed like going deeper into feminism was the only way to make sense of my life. It was exciting and stirring that I could now explain my life and the experiences that I hadn’t been able to before and had merely awkwardly bottled up, that I was gaining entrance into a new world that I hadn’t known about before. Becoming a feminist felt like something inevitable and imperative.


But in the midst of those days, the feminism that saved me sometimes made me angry again. I was a feminist, but I was also a young person. When I went to the site of a feminist scholar’s lecture that I had hesitantly sought out because I wanted to know something, the certainty that I was the youngest person there was discouraging. When I shared all of my opinions at a feminist book club, the response I got was along the lines of, ‘I didn’t really listen to what you said, but I remember when I used to read as enthusiastically as you do.’ Instead of a fellow feminist on equal footing with them, I was just a young person who reminded them of their own pasts.


At post-event gatherings, faced with the unavoidable glass of beer, I would smile awkwardly and fret to myself about whether I had to drink it and whether drinking it wouldn’t cause problems [for the pub, because I was underage], and finally I would just set it down. People often ignored what I said because I was young, and sometimes I felt that my very presence in those spaces was wrong. I had assumed that the other people would be similar to me simply because we were all feminists, but it turned out that their being feminists didn’t mean that all of them respected young people or saw us as comrades.


After going through those experiences, even though sometimes nobody would say something about my being young, I really hated my age and felt powerless. Becoming a feminist was the process of becoming a cool and awesome person, but my age, which I couldn’t change even if I tried, was not accepted anywhere as good, cool, or awesome. I couldn’t be recognized as a feminist.


‘WeTee’ continues our conversation


It was soon after that that I became involved with WeTee, where I now engage in activism. It’s a youth feminist organization that was started in 2019 as part of school MeToo movement, and I was one of the people who helped found it. After having bounced around the wide world of feminism, I have felt much less discouraged at WeTee. It is undeniable that the sense of kinship that comes from most of the members being around my age, hating school, and only recently learning of feminism allowed us to quickly become comfortable with each other. Since I’m among people that I feel are like me, I no longer have to worry about the real me being ‘found out’. We each have our own stories and episodes, and laugh and chat and get angry and curse. We not alone anymore.


▲ A poster I made with fellow WeTee members about the sexual rights and diversity that should be guaranteed for young people. ©WeTee

But that’s not all there is to WeTee, to this movement I’m part of. WeTee’s youth feminist activism has opened up a whole new worldview for me. After all that time I spent fretting because mainstream feminism didn’t fit me, youth feminist activism has been an imaginative power that can re-create my world and language. It has given me comfort by teaching me that what we need is not a world in which youth have to keep up with adults, but one in which they are alright just as immature as they are. It is a conversation that understands the loneliness I felt among people who were all older than me, and it is a declaration to speak with young people, not for them. It is a promise to respect each other as we are, young and immature and lacking judgment.


Of course, there haven’t only been good times. There have also been dark times, that exist like shadows, when we’ve betrayed our ideals. Internal groups that I thought were the most beautiful and sturdily built have fallen apart quickly.  Even as a young person myself, engaging in activism with young people has been hard. Attempts within WeTee to assign young people the authority and responsibility that they weren’t previously given have failed because of the fact that they had never had authority and responsibility in their daily lives. And now that I think about it, responsibility isn’t something that can necessarily be unilaterally ‘assigned’.


Incidents that shook the organization used to happen practically every day, and I started to question how much I needed to respect and engage in activism with young people. I hated my counterparts’ immaturity, and I hated myself for not being able to respect it instead. I wanted to just think it was because they were young and not worry about it more than that. There was no precedent, no advice for how to work with young people. No one told me about how to engage in activism with young people, about the kinds of things that could happen when you work with young people, or about methods and alternatives we could try when faced with a problem. I felt pride because this was not work that anyone could easily take on, and it was painful to realize that there was a reason why few did.


I think we’re terrible and great and weird


I haven’t fought just against other people. Really, the person who’s fought me the most since I started activism has been me. When I would go to alliance-building meetings with activists from other organizations, I would retreat into myself and rarely open up to the others, out of a sense of inferiority because I was the youngest and thought they would ignore me. I was rarely on my own side. In front of fellow feminists who had invited me, a youth activist, and then were discussing an event that young people wouldn’t be allowed to attend, I burst into tears, then got angry and cursed at myself for crying “like a kid”. I didn’t like older people, I didn’t like people who call young people “friends”, I didn’t like feminists who asked me to come at 10am on a weekday and bring other teens, but it was too hard to hate all these people, so I was forced to just curse myself and my youth.


Even though I made a lot of noise about it being okay to be young and that immaturity should be respected, I was actually full of ageism and meritocratic thinking. In the end, it seemed like all of it was happening because we were “kids”. I called myself a “kid” more then than at any other time.


Still, I have kept going. I’ve worked to keep meeting young people, to have conversations with feminists, and, even as I disliked my young self, to not hate it. This was because I hated the “no kids zones” that appeared one day. “No kids zones” are spaces that certain people are prohibited from entering because they might make a mistake, be a nuisance, pose a danger, or cause an incident. But the space that I was making couldn’t be one that some people were exiled from because of the mere possibility of some danger. I helped found WeTee, started youth feminist activism because I wanted to say that a society that denies people opportunities because they are young, that discourages them from taking on challenges because they might be too immature for them, and that takes away their rights out of a fear that they will make mistakes is wrong.


▲ “We want changes in the lives of young people.” A sign I made at a feminist voter rally in front of Bosingak in Seoul on February 12. I wanted to point out that there are also feminists who don’t yet have the right to vote. ©WeTee

More than anything, I’ve come to accept myself through the youth feminism movement. In the grammar of a feminism that is centered around women in their 20s and 30s, even after the movement’s “reboot” around 2015, I couldn’t become a recognized feminist, a feminist who “fits the norm”. But in the attempts to tear down feminists’ norm itself, to treat them as equals even though I’m young and don’t know much, I’ve been able to become a feminist just like them. Because I’d come to accept myself before those times happened, I’ve been able to persevere even if my attempts have been awkward, and I’ve felt that simply continuing my efforts to work with more people and be hospitable has been meaningful in itself.


A feminism guarded over by eonni-deul?


I recently came across this scene. A Twitter user known to be a young person tweeted, “I really hate the feminist movement.” Another Twitter user, who was presumably an adult, responded somewhere along the lines of, “Your eonni-deul [older sisters] are working to make it so that when you grow up, you can walk down the street safely at night.”


While engaging in activism, I’ve come to dislike many feminists. No matter how famous, distinguished, or learned they are, they treat young people like their own past selves and don’t consider us comrades; I can’t stomach them anymore. Now that I look back on it, what I didn’t like was their eonni-ness. Even if they didn’t refer to themselves as eonni-deul, their behavior—putting young people in a box where we could only be targets for education and correction and not regarding us as fellow citizens on equal footing—was all words and actions based on the premise that they were the eonni-deul who knew more about feminism, life, and decisions.


So that’s why I was upset to see that Twitter response. Why might the young user who wrote the original tweet have come to hate feminism? Did she feel it was at odds with some part of her life? Was there anyone who could ask her about that or talk it over with her? I hope that she won’t be trampled flat just because she said she hated the feminist movement. I hope that the feminist movement isn’t treated as sacred ground or stops at ‘adult women’s securing safe streets at night’. But I still, online and offline, see eonni feminism that certain people are policing, that is for the future of certain people, and that seems allowed to exist only with the permission of certain people.


But the feminist movement I want to be part of is not permitted, controlled, or policed by anybody. It’s closer to the opposite of that. Would any feminist who says ‘young people must be protected’ have asked young people if protection is what we really want? Do young people just want to be protected while we do and say nothing? There’s a limit to how much an individual can ‘protect’ another individual in good faith. People must be able to protect themselves. In order for young women to get the independent power to protect ourselves, we need belief and agreement across all of society that we are equal fellow citizens.


The youth human rights activism alliance Jieum says this: “What we are trying to create isn’t a world full of good adults, but a world in which you’re not afraid even if you meet a bad adult.” Like the feminist saying, little girls don’t stay little forever. But it’s not that time has to pass and they have to get older in order to become powerful; instead, girls will be able to be powerful just as they are.


▲ “Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.” Kyle Stephens said this while testifying at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, former doctor for the US national gymnastics team, who committed criminal sexual abuse against female gymnasts under his care. ©WeTee

Feminism is about watching those at your side


Looking back on what I’ve written here, it seems that I was angry before I became a feminist, and I still am now. I’ve hated some people so much that I wonder whether feminism isn’t about hating some people. But at the same time, I’ve tried not to become buried under this hate.


Feminism as I’ve learned it has expanded the scope of my hate, but it has also expanded my love and caring. It has enabled me to watch the poor, young, beloved friends at my side. If the youth-phobes who think that some people aren’t worth even talking to because they’re young knew how awesome and beautiful the young friends (real ‘friends’, by the dictionary definition) that I’ve had the good fortune to meet while doing youth activism are, they would envy me.


Sometimes I get looks and straight-up questions about why I do youth activism even though I’m no longer that young. Some people leave youth activism when they become non-youth. But I think that our lives are connected. I think that as young people’s lives get better, so will feminists’ lives, LGBTQIA+ people’s lives, and the lives of women, people with disabilities, and migrant workers. I think that as young people’s lives get better, my life will get better. Some people experience exclusion and discrimination just because they are young, and I can’t draw a line to separate us and say that isn’t my business because I’m not a young person. And just because I’ve happened to make it to safety, that doesn’t mean I want to slam the door in the face of the person behind me. I couldn’t be truly safe or happy in a refuge that some people were turned away from.


So I think that feminism is about watching other people. Even if someone’s life of violence and discrimination seems like it doesn’t have anything to do with mine right now, it’s about really looking at them, being an ally, and at least asking whether they’re okay.


About the Author: Yu-gyeong is part of the youth feminist network “WeTee”. As a young feminist, she speaks and writes together with young citizens.


Published July 4, 2022

Translated by Marilyn Hook 

Original Article: https://ildaro.com/9385


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

기사입력 : 2023-09-17

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