(Is this what you think of when you hear the word "Feminist"?)
I was a late bloomer. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was the second shortest girl in my class. I was classic “skin and bones” despite an appetite like a high school defensive back. I got my driver’s license before I had the need for “feminine products” and I grew two inches my freshman year in college. My older sisters were into makeup and boys. I was into playing in the woods and getting as dirty as possible.
Sexism was an unconscious theme in my family. My mother and father had a very traditional marriage. My father would come home from the jungles of New York City to the wooded safety and shelter of a home nestled on seven acres.
My mother, half an hour before his arrival would run upstairs, change and put on “fresh makeup” and a nice little dress. The first thirty minutes he was home was their time. No children allowed. I would hear them talking softly, laughing occasionally as they sipped on their gin and tonics and talked about the day.
My mother was a regular Donna Reed.
My father hid his disappointment well upon the arrival of each one of his daughters, all five of them. We didn’t notice the strong desire he had to have a son until our brother was born. My father couldn’t hide his overwhelming pride and joy at finally having a son and everyone in the family treated the boy like a King.
It became apparent to me after Rich was born that there was something about being a girl that made me a little “less than”. Rich would now be able to carry on the family name. I always wondered why I couldn’t.
Although my parents endowed us with good private school college prep educations, the motivation came more from their priority to give us a thorough religious training. The academic part was secondary and when it came time for me to go to college, I was sitting in the kitchen of our home…the home with the swimming pool and the 3-car garage that was the container to my father’s pride and joy Mercedes Benz. In that kitchen, I was told they didn’t have the money to send me to college.
College tuition at the time was $1500 a year…this included room, board, tuition and books. Two days before, my mother had been surprised by my father with a full-length fur coat (a must when living in Marin County, California), a coat that cost exactly $1500.
I made the one and only bold and angry confrontation to my parents I would ever make.
“That fur coat could have paid for my first year of college.”
My father was furious at me for questioning how he spent his hard earned money. My mother shook her head and put her finger up on her mouth to “shhhhssssh” me as my father stormed out of the room.
“Mary, why go to college? You’re just going to end up getting married and your husband will provide for you.”
No thanks. I took out student loans and got jobs and paid my way through college. When my brothers followed my lead some years later, they weren’t allowed to contribute a dime.
I took pride in my accomplishment but old patterns run deep. It had been engrained in me that being a woman was “less than”…a low cloud that remained over my head for years, especially when I gave my mind over to the clutches of born-again Christianity and listened to countless sermons about the benefits of being “submissive” to men.
Despite a college education I paid for myself, I sank back into the comfort and familiarity of the message of my parents and my new found evangelical friends.
While I was growing up, feminists were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Equal pay and equal treatment were being demanded. Women like Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan, and Jane Fonda were paving the way for women to receive the same benefits as their male counterparts.
Anytime any of these progressive and brave women came on the Phil Donahue Show, my mother would scrunch her nose in disdain and the message was loud and clear, “Those women are not lady like!”
Years later, I would continue to watch these women on Oprah and listen to them while sitting on my calico-fabric couch, nursing one of my children, feeling the stirrings of desire FOR MORE churning inside me.
And once again I was a late bloomer, as I didn't find feminism fully until my mid-30's, decades after the beginning of the Women's Movement.
Feminism became for me, not a dirty word, but a metaphor for freedom. With four small children at home, I began to shift.
Here it is, twenty some years later, and there is still not equal pay for equal work between men and women. It is estimated that it will take until 2050 for this to happen. That's almost 100 years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, prohibiting discrimination based on sex resulting in unequal pay for equal work.
My definition of a feminist has evolved into something very simple:
“A human being (doesn’t matter what gender, age, race, cultural or sexual orientation) who advocates and believes in equality for women".
I’ve noticed lately comments made by my children, their friends, my friend’s children, my younger clients, students at the University of Colorado, Boulder…in short, the late teen, 20-something year olds I have the good fortune of keeping company with from time to time.
With a feeling of incredulous surprise, I’ve come to realize that to many of these young adults, the word “feminist” is a dirty one.
What is going on here? These young adults have parents, mothers and fathers with Master’s Degrees, Ph.D.’s, law degrees, teaching degrees, science degrees and MBA’s. Mothers who worked outside of the home raised many.
I asked some of them two simple questions and here's a condensation of their responses:
1. What is your immediate “gut” response to the word “feminist”?
2. What does “feminism” mean to you?
--“What I am supposed to think: Someone who supports equal rights for women. What I really think: Someone (usually a women but there are a lot of men as well) who supports equal rights when it comes to things that benefit women and never when it comes to things that don't, i.e. the draft, alimony, child custody etc.
Feminism to me is a silly (or at least archaic) word. It’s like having black or white pride. It just makes no sense to me. What I can't have pride in the achievements of black men or women because I don't fit into that category? While at the same time I would be considered a racist if I took pride in John Kennedy if I based it purely upon the fact that we share a similar skin tone? You can be proud of people or movements but the more you divide yourself into sub-categories, the more likely you are to create isolation and exclusion.
Obviously I see the mistreatment of women, especially in Islamic countries, as horrible as that is, but I think it would be more productive and turn less people off if it was seen as a human rights issue instead of women's rights issue".
--“Feisty women that feel underestimated by men and feel the need to stand up for their gender".
--Bitter women who have nothing better to do with their time."
My own children, two daughters included, were scrunching their noses when I brought up the word “feminist”.
HOW COULD THIS BE? Am I the only one worried about this? I asked several well-educated women friends recently the same questions with the same result! Again...the scrunched up nose when hearing the word "Feminist"! What is going on here?
Women, especially minority women, have not achieved equality. Recently, in over-educated Boulder County, domestic violence TOWARDS WOMEN has been on the increase, blamed on the stress and strains of the recession.
In my practice, repression knows no gender, racial, age, sexual orientation, or cultural difference. Repression causes suffering to those who are consumed by it and victimized by it. But power differences are highlighted in couple’s counseling, as abdication is something I witness on a daily basis more by my female clients than my male ones.
My children are getting a crash course in Feminism 101. And I hope you consider doing the same for yours.
It’s not that I don’t care what you think a feminist is. It's just that I really care what your children think. This is not a battle that has been won by a long shot.
You’ve come a long way baby, but you’ve still got a long ways to go.