What I Learned At My First Feminist Conference

What I Learned At My First Feminist Conference

When I signed up to attend my first feminist conference, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The only feminist community I had ever interacted with before this conference was the one at my university. With my school’s population being under 5,000 and our active feminist group membership at under 50, it was easy to get comfortable with the idea that everyone around me viewed feminism the same way I did.  I knew that going to this national conference where feminists from all over the world would be presenting and interacting with each other would change that, and I was overwhelmed by it.

I was afraid that all of the things I thought I knew about feminism would be proved wrong, or that I would be looked down upon as a naive college student who had no idea what activism in the real world was like. Nonetheless, I was determined to go because I knew that being challenged in my beliefs was an important thing to experience. I got on a plane to D.C and told myself repeatedly that no matter what, I wouldn’t run away from this experience.

I begged one of my friends from my university to attend with me so I wouldn’t feel so alone, but even having her by my side did very little to relieve my anxiety. When we entered the hotel for the opening panel, I was blown away by the energy in the room. Everyone was talking and laughing with each other, although it was clear many of them were meeting for the first time. We were ushered to a table shared by two other groups from different organizations and I felt instantly welcomed.

Instead of launching into questions about politics or intersectional feminism, everyone around me  just wanted to get to know me. I told them about my hometown and my undergraduate research. We all shared stories about our jobs, our favorite foods and the horror of working retail jobs as teenagers. When the opening ceremony finally started, I felt more relaxed than I had all week.

I picked out a few panels that seemed the most interesting or were most relevant to my research and started taking notes. By the end of the first one however, I started to realize that many of the speakers weren’t as intersectional as I thought they would be. One particular panel on LGBTQ rights made no mention of trans or non binary people, and some of the speakers weren’t familiar with some very basic queer terminology. Another panel spoke about the rape to prison pipeline that predominantly affects black girls, yet none of the speakers on the panel were people of color. In fact, I only saw one presenter of color the entire time I was at the conference.

Although everyone I encountered at the conference was nicer than I expected, I became uncomfortable with the fact that everyone seemed to assume that all of our beliefs were the same. When they spoke about the presidential election, they pushed one candidate to the forefront, assuming we were all in support of them. When they spoke about national laws, they assumed everyone would vote the same way. Instead of my ideas on feminism being challenged, I began to feel as if I was the one who wanted to challenge other people. I eventually realized that this conference, though it did have good things about it, was a white feminism conference.

This experience didn’t challenge me in quite the way I expected it to, but I did learn a lot from it. I had to figure out how to recognize the problematic nature of the conference, but still be able to pull good things out of it. I learned about the inner workings of educational institutions, the electoral system, the history of important feminist organizations, and how many women who had the careers I dreamt about having got to where they are. The panels I went to and the speakers that I saw all had something important to share, even if I had to work a little harder to hear it. This experience taught me that just because I don’t agree with how something is done completely, doesn’t mean that there is no value in it.

However the next time I go to a conference, I will definitely be doing a little more research on it. Just to be safe.

Cover image courtesy of Getty Images.