One of the biggest milestones of my adult life (so far) has been coming to a realization that everyone, myself included, is born a feminist. If I’m losing you, I’d ask you to spare one more moment and consider the following. When I say everyone is born feminist, I am not necessarily speaking of a movement so much as the basic idea behind the movement, an idea that at face value I think we can all agree makes sense.
This idea is simply this: females are equal to males in value and capability, and should be afforded the same rights of personal and economical agency. In other words, I carry a belief that whatever our differences physically, men and women are equals.
It would take years of experience - on top of seemingly endless class room discussions, personal observations, and small group talks - to piece together that the jumble of ideas and perceptions about myself as a female and my standing in the world could be easily summarized by the belief that I was just as capable and deserving as the opposite gender, of everything.
If you cringed, gasped, or felt a prickle of unease at the suggestion that a female deserves everything, just as much as her male counterpart, then you already know (whether you know it or not) why it took me even longer to realize that this firmly held belief of mine, demanded thoughtful action that socially and politically is commonly referred to as feminist.
Before I understood the terms and language surrounding the topic I was just a girl like all others, learning the myriad and murky rules of femininity at my mother’s hand… and my father’s hand, and my siblings, and the neighbors, and the people on the telly. I had more teachers on ‘how to be feminine’ than I ever had anything else, but I wouldn’t really notice that or become bothered by it until later.
I assumed that was just the natural way of things. Little girls got taught how to be ladies, and little boys got taught how to be men. It starts young and it continues throughout your life.
One of my earliest and few remaining memories from kindergarten is of my mother being called by my teacher because I had broken the number one rule of dress wearing, penny loafer clad, little ladies everywhere, and flashed my undies at the class.
There was no deeply thought out plan of action or motive besides that dresses were itchy, hot, and in the way of air getting to the legs. I wasn't sure what the big deal was, but I understood perfectly that mom was mortified and I was in the big trouble. For weeks I heard nothing besides how shameful and dirty it was to lift ones dress in public where boys could see.
This was the first moment I began to understand that boys had an invested interest in what was under my clothes (how curious) and that a true "lady" understood this, and always dressed and behaved in such a way as to keep herself completely covered, or else she was bad and presumably bad things would happen to her. I was four.
Time kept passing and even though I figured out how a lady comports herself, this did not deter either my spiritedness or my willingness to compete with my peers. Although my favorite activity was still tucking myself into a corner with a book, my active imagination spilled over to playground and outdoor adventures that simply would not fit themselves within the constraints of modern femininity.
I believed I could be a pirate or a knight on horseback just as readily as I believed I could be a killer lion, pretty Sunday dresses and matching hats be damned. And in a way that felt (and was) completely natural, I often did it with baby dolls strapped to my hip or back, because of course I expected to be a mommy too.
I had no reason to think I'd ever have to choose between a life of purpose filled adventure and my desire for a family. I presumed naturally that I could have both, the way that I assumed it was perfectly possible to become a princess ninja. But life teaches you quickly that you have to choose.
For girls the choice has already been made.
There was no one great moment of realization that struck me. It was a thousand little moments and unanswered questions (or their unsatisfactory answers).
Once when I was seven shopping for back to school clothes, I wanted a Spiderman T-shirt from the boy’s isle. My mother wrinkled her nose and said it was for boys. There were no Spiderman t-shirts in the girl’s isle in those days.
My mother used to buy me all sorts of books to feed my addiction to them. Books about Africa, and with little girls who looked like me on the cover. This was awesome for a completely different reason that I’ll save for another blog. But it frustrated me that she never acknowledged my love of Saturday morning cartoons or comic books besides to presume that I was only interested because my brothers were into them.
When it came to picking a favorite color, blue was off limits. I liked red too, but even that seemed to dissatisfy my mother. Too aggressive. I remember learning in kindergarten class one day that blue and red make purple and thinking that was the coolest thing ever. I came flying home to tell my mother that I now loved the color purple. She assumed it was because Barney was my favorite afterschool program at the time. I never corrected her. Besides Barney was amazing.
When I was thirteen years old the boy I was convinced I wanted to marry told me I looked really good in my green shirt. My favorite color became green for a while. When it turned out he didn’t like me the way I liked him, and my adolescent heart was shattered surely never to be repaired (youthful drama is fantastic) my older sister said something to me I’ll never forget.
“At least now you can go back to liking purple.”
As if it was perfectly natural to go through colors, music, foods and a plethora of other likes based solely on which boy was paying attention to me.
Like the overthinker I’ve always been, I thought about that concept long after she forgot the boy’s name or that the conversation had ever occurred. I knew it was true, I had liked the way it felt to have this boy notice me in my pretty green shirt. I had felt fresh and newer than spring in my spirit every time I thought about it, and now just laying in the grass with one of my books surrounded by green was enough to make me feel like the world was mine and I was perfect in it. Did I really have to give that up just because the dream of being Mrs. So and So was dead?
I decided boy or no boy green was awesome, and that if I ever decided I had a new favorite color, it was going to be about me and what I liked and not about what anyone else thought. I’m happy to report I kept that promise, small as it was.
All of my household chores were “feminine” in nature. In short I had to follow behind mom, cooking and cleaning up after everyone else. My brothers were regulated to unfairly easy tasks, like taking out the trash once a week or mowing the lawn. I complained about this constantly. Why were our chores so unevenly dispersed? Keeping a household clean is a time-consuming minute by minute task when there are nine people living at home. Like any child would, I just wanted to be left alone to play and read my books. How I wished I could just throw a trash bag out by the mailbox and lark off to go play sports.
I was not satisfied with the “everyone does their part” pat answer, when it was so clear to me that the weight of responsibility was mismatched and my part was never ending.
Finally my mother just started telling me the truth.
“They’re boys. Girls and boys have different responsibilities.”
This blew my mind. I’d always been told some version of we did chores to pull our weight in the household as well as to prepare us for adulthood. Were my brothers never going to have to cook for themselves or launder their own clothes? Was I never going to have to know how to cut my grass or haul heaping bags of garbage outside to the corner?
As always, I asked my questions waiting imperiously for answers and when they came they were unsatisfying.
“Well when you’re married it’ll be a partnership.”
“So I have to marry to be a whole person?!”
Yes. I really was that dramatic. My mother got frustrated at that point and just reverted back to ‘do it because I say so’.
My brothers played every sport imaginable and their constant rotation of practices and games held our families schedule hostage. Any interest I showed in playing a sport was generally treated as whimsy they didn’t have time for. Plus my mother didn’t think I could handle it. I never figured out what she meant by that. There were several possibilities. Each more bleak than the last.
In all my years of high school English (my favorite subject) we read only one book by a female author.
The running joke at my conservative Christian college campus was that a lot of girls just came to get their M.R.S. degree. Another favorite was, ‘ring by spring or your money back’.
Seventy-five percent of my friends were engaged by graduation. Our schools divorce rate was higher than the national average. Nobody saw a correlation I guess.
When I would ask girlfriends about their dreams or what they felt Gods’ purpose was for their lives, it either centered around being a wife full stop or was ready prepared to adapt to whatever their future husbands mission would be and impending motherhood.
I got blinks and blank stares whenever I dared to ask, “What if God has given ME a purpose and a mission that my husband is going to have to adapt to?”
I found myself biting my tongue and parroting hopes I didn’t actually hope and beliefs I didn’t actually belief because I wanted to be the “right” sort of woman.
Women’s chapel was always about how to survive and find purpose in singleness while waiting for the one.
I had to argue once to be allowed to give the lesson at the end of a show we did as a part of youth outreach. Even though the bible was clear on women being able to lead children, we decided we wanted to be above reproach and open no doors for criticism. It broke my heart. It was the first time I remember thinking “you’ll never have a real voice here”.
My bra straps could never see the sunlight without instant comment.
I baby sat for a boy whose father spanked him because he let his sister put glitter on his cheeks.
Throwing, hitting, running, or pretty much doing anything, “like a girl” is an insult.
The boys assumed you couldn’t until you proved you could. But then you were the exception to the rule.
Not being like other girls all pretty and pink is a twisted compliment too many guys will gave me and for too many years I embraced as a form of liberation. For the record. Other girls aren’t universally, stupid or silly and vain. How stupid is it, to tell someone what colors are for them, what activities are for them, and then disdain them for not being more like you?
Whether or not I could wear a two-piece swimsuit and still call myself a modest woman was too often a topic of serious conversation.
I baby sat for a boy who liked the color pink. Actively being a part of forcing him to change his mind was according to his mother “a real big help”.
When I was barely eleven my older sister by blood became a teenage mother and my mother wouldn’t allow me to see her again or form a relationship with my nephew.
My friend in high school was molested, nobody believed “a guy like that” would be interested in her or do such a thing. She was warned off going to the authorities with her accusations because it would ruin the rest of his life. Nobody cared all that much that his actions ruined hers.
I got drunk at a party once my first semester of college (before transferring to the conservative bible school). It was my first and only time being drunk. I remember the paralyzing fear so keenly that I’ve never had any interest in going back to that state. I denied help getting home from a friend because he was a guy, because I was too drunk to stop him if he tried anything and I knew my parents would say it was my fault if anything happened. Shouldn’t have been dressed that way. Shouldn’t have been drinking. Shouldn’t have made yourself a victim.
He asked me out shortly before I transferred and I turned him down because I knew I was leaving. In the back of my mind I thought, “good thing you didn’t leave with him that night”.
I applied at an Audi dealership once for an administrative position that promised me more money than I knew how to deal with at 21. Everything was going great until the guy interviewing me over the phone asked me if I did any modeling, and if I was comfortable working with high profile clients, and could I be discreet?
I held hands with a man as he cried, telling me about the time someone put a gun to his head because he was out with his girls wearing lipstick and heels. I had no answer for why he shouldn’t die, besides that I loved him and I was sure god did too and that he was alive for a reason.
I cooked dinner with a friend as she explained that she hadn’t seen her nieces and nephews in years but her family still occasionally called to tell her they were praying her gay away, and tried not to notice the tremor in her voice. She told me sometimes you don’t get a choice and you have to make new family, and as an adoptee I knew the truth of that. But we both know nothing replaces the one you lost.
So you see, it wasn’t one big moment.
It was a thousand little ones. It was me thinking to myself, I think I should be allowed to decide for myself what colors I like, or style of clothes I wear, and they shouldn’t be allowed to determine who I am or my value as a person.
It was realizing that what I’m wearing shouldn’t excuse someone elses violence against my person but that in our society, it does. I realized that for the majority of people the length of my skirt, where I was, who I was with, and how much I’d drank was how they would judge whether or not I deserved assault. I thought that was a hot mess that needed changing.
I realized that I believed in every individual right to the pursuit of happiness without restrictions based on their gender, and that no defiance of someone elses perception of what is masculine or feminine should ever endanger their lives. I realized, that if their value as a human being was not protected in society then by rights, society should change.
I realized that I wanted to make the same amount of money for the same amount of work as my male peers, and I didn’t want my looks to play a part in whether or not I got a job I was qualified for. I realized that if that was not how society operated already, then by rights society needed to change.
I realized that I didn’t want to constantly be marketed for sex, preyed on for sex, or disbelieved when I was violated. Nor did I want to be shaped mentally for breeding within the more socially accepted corral of marriage.
I realized I didn’t want my marriage to feel like a prison sentence prescribed to me since birth, but a willing partnership between two equals. Both equally capable and willing to take out the trash or change a diaper. Both equally capable and willing of taking on the cooking and the burden of housework. Both equally capable and willing to sacrifice for the other, any which way their unique personalities and temperaments called for. Both equally willing to support the other in dreams and career work, and no presumption that naturally the males career came first.
If that was not the mindset that society bred, then by rights, society needed a change.
This did not seem at all remarkable to me. It seemed like common sense. It seemed natural. What any man and woman would want for themselves and their partners. The freedom and the safety to be as they are and achieve whatever heights it is within them to achieve without gender bias.
But then you start sharing your ideas and that’s when you learn.
“Oh, you’re one of those feminists.”
I am. And I dare say most sensible people across a wide spectrum of beliefs are too.