“I was aware of two kinds of power I could access as a female. There was the kind of power women got from being sexually desired, and the kind women got from being sexually invisible—that is, the power in attracting men, and the power in being free of men.”

This quote from Danzy Senna’s essay, To Be Real, on identity politics and feminism struck a chord with me. In a recent class session, I found myself identifying what I now consider to be a perverted attitude from my childhood and adolescence. I would consider myself to have been an almost “power hungry” child in my obsession to obtain respect from my parents and to be “grown up.” In this quest, I recognized the power that women could gain from sexuality and its exploitation.

I have a vivid memory from early adolescence of having a truck driver honk at me; it was my crowning moment. I had power; I had affirmation. I subtly rubbed it into my mother’s face; the day was coming soon where I would be on equal footing with her, something I had desired for years. I wouldn’t have this validation because of anything I did; this validation would come from my burgeoning sexuality and body that was valued by men. Men’s opinions of my and my mother’s beauty and sex appeal was the authority in our relationship. This realization, blossoming in my head shamefully in a classroom full of feminists, illuminated an essential question to the feminist identity that I hold. Senna calls this identity that she desires, one that is both fulfilling as a woman and embraces the power of sexuality while not indulging in men’s consumption of said power, “a place where I could wear lipstick and still be free.” How can I call myself a feminist when I still grapple with the hold that the male gaze has on my everyday life?

How can I call myself a feminist when the need for affirmation from the male gaze peering upon my young sexuality is a problem that I continue to struggle with to this day? Furthermore, how do I reconcile this problematic need and desire with the rhetoric of empowerment and choice in which I shroud this anxiety’s evil incarnation? This clash between philosophy and rhetoric and personal incarnations resulting from socialization is a frontier that feminism must face. Where the second wave imposed just another set of rules of what a woman should look like and do in order to be empowered, a disconnect formed between “feminists” and “women.” The third wave finds its strength in recognizing the interpersonal effects that feminists must face internally; spouting feminist philosophy does not grant one a pass from all of the effects of misogyny and societal gender roles.

Recognizing my own inner hang ups that stemmed from what I was taught at a young age about sex, beauty, and power did not weaken my identity or philosophy as a feminist. In fact, it strengthened it because I was no longer hiding from the problems behind an angry, militant “feminazi” wall that I had constructed. This acknowledgement of vulnerability is one of the reasons that I find third wave writing to be empowering.

The rejection of either forms of women’s power isolates women from one another. How can the cause of woman—her equality, her voice, her passion—advance when feminists claw at each other and fight over the power dichotomy that the patriarchy has convinced us that we must choose between? Feminism and the path to personal enlightenment in order to fight for equality must include the recognition of each individual’s experiences with internalized “isms.” Through this introspective path, vulnerability and variance give strength to women and their agenda.