Coco got it.
In college, I once lost an almost friend when she discovered I was not the wild bohemian she thought my prose and mismatched clothes proclaimed me to be. I don't exactly remember what revealed my lack of hedonistic tendencies. We may have been discussing graduated income tax. Either way, she left the encounter disappointed. The poor girl thought she had found one of her tribe, but really all she had found was me. I do remember that she called me a hypocrite. She said that I thought I could have it both ways and that soon I would have to decide who I really was.
I was too shocked by her judgment to take the time to tell her I already had. That I had stopped trying to label myself and had found parts of different worlds that made up my universe without collision or catastrophe. Instead I was quiet and smiley and backed away slowly with my hands in plain sight.
I found myself in the same situation a few weeks back. Only this time my clothes matched.
"Meg, you are a feminist, aren't you? I've read your writing. The feminist overtones seem pretty obvious."
And then crickets on my end and a sideways glance to the door.
I proclaim the incredible worth of women. I believe in our equality to men. After a day with too much or too little caffeine, I can easily interchange equality with superiority. (But then I do manage those caffeine levels and my full love of all of God's children comes back to play.) Each gender can be edified by the other, but a woman’s value certainly has nothing to do with the opposite sex. I believe that there is still work to be done on behalf of women. So much work to be done. And occasionally, I curse. And by occasionally, I mean most days. (But always under my breath. Or when the children are out of earshot. Usually.)
Don't all those things make me a feminist?
I suppose it depends on whose definition you are using.
The term feminist first appeared in France in the mid-1870s as "les feministes". It moved on over to Britain about fifteen years later and then hit the ground running in the US in 1910. (Fun fact. The forerunner to the word "feminist" in the UK was "womanist". I think we can all agree that the better term won the day.) Initially feminism was a big umbrella. It covered any individual that advocated on behalf of other women. The education reformers, the sex advocates, the abolitionists, the agitators for the vote, the temperance movement (worst.movement.ever.), women campaigning on behalf of matchgirls and prostitutes, labor advocates and on and on. Many of these feminists sought ends that could not exist with one another. They had deep philosophical disagreements and more than a few run-ins with one another. But feminism was not a movement owned by one set of rules. It was still as varied as the people that made it catch fire. It was a breathing, messy, full of life and strength and potential sort of thing.
It was, on its best days, absolutely beautiful.
And then, as movements tend to do, it evolved. And as it evolved, it also narrowed. Yes, there were still triumphs. Moments when the future was changed and my life and the lives of so many others made better. But the word "feminist" constricted even as the world I was born into grew bigger. Suddenly to be a feminist did not mean what it once did. One cannot simply advocate on behalf of women and count yourself among the sisterhood. It has become a members only affair and you are only truly allowed in if you can tick all the boxes, many of which end with some variation of the phrase "... just like a/just as well as/the same as/ a man." Feminism is now an ideal you can betray by being a proponent of women in the wrong way. It doesn't matter if you feel you are being an advocate, advancing the cause of womanhood as you see fit. If your ideas don't fit the ideals, you are called oppressor, brainwashed, victim. (Don't even get me started on what the ignorant wary of the advocacy of women will call you if you label yourself a feminist. Their names are less imaginative and generally of the four to five letter variety.)
Our sisters who came before us were so much braver in their feminism than women are now. They did not try to sanitize the movement. They accepted its complexities. They understood sisterhood was more important that agreement. They fought each other bloody at times. But no one set of women ever claimed women's advocacy as their exclusive right. And always that umbrella of feminism helped to shield their work from the elements of policy and popular opinion.
Now, so many of us are simply left standing out in the rain.
Today in women’s studies, words like proto-feminist are used to describe the work of people on behalf of women before the 20th century. As if the women of the past 100 years own the word and the cause. This is as foolish as calling a golden delicious that existed before the word “apple” a proto-apple. It is presumptuous, exclusionary and frankly, quite silly. (Okay, the golden delicious has really only been around since 1914, but if I said Malus Sieversii, one of the oldest known apple varieties, you would have had no idea what I was talking about. I would barely know what I was talking about. And where is the fun in that?) It is also very demonstrative of a majority view in our society’s accepted canon of feminism. There are right ideas. Right causes. Right words. Right women. Anything else is fringe, quaint (oh, hello little proto-feminist! Wasn’t your work adorable?) or the work of the opposition.
There are a few bylaws in the sacred works of today’s mainstream feminism on whose behalf I simply cannot take to the field of battle. And that is alright. We do not have to see eye to eye. I am happy for other women to work for their ends as long as I can work for my own. We are all working for the same essentials. For the right to be heard, for the right be valued, for the right to simply be.
Am I feminist?
Not if feminism has to mean stripping sex of meaning. Not if it insists on exposition as power. Not if feminism must equate death with liberty. Those things may make up the feminism of others, but it cannot make up the fabric of mine.
Am I feminist?
Not if it has to equate softness with weakness, marriage with enslavement, motherhood with missed opportunities.
Am I feminist?
Not if feminism demands I become more like a man for the sake of proving I can. Where is the woman's advocacy in that? As a whole, men have treated women like an inferior class since just a few years after Eve ate that apple. And now that we have gained some footholds, we want to become more like the oppressors? Could someone please look up the definition of Stockhom Syndrome and reassess? Are those the only two options? Oppression or life like a man? Are we not daring, imaginative, powerful enough to create third, fourth, ad infinitum options?
Yes, there will be women that choose to be more like the patriarch our society has told us is power. Much love and luck to each of them. There are worse things to which we can aspire. In the end, I do love men very, very much. I adore the way the best of them smell, think, seek, work and love. Yes, there are certainly worse things than wishing to be more like a man.
But there will also be women that beautify hearth and home. There will be women that teach and nurture. There will be women that mother and bake with a smile. There will be women that work late nights and wake up to early morning goodbyes as their children go to school. There will be women that are happy to kiss their husband hello at the end of the day.
And, finally, I hope, there will be women that see beyond the template history has given us. Women who create new expectations and spaces. Women who understand that just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can never be.
And my question, the one no one will answer, the one that was shushed in college and looked over in discussion groups remains, “Can there not be room for all of us?”
Meg, you are a feminist, aren't you? I've read your writing. The feminist overtones seem pretty obvious.
A deep breath and I take my eyes from the door. After so many years, I now have the answer to this question. I remember that girl from so many years ago and think I may have had it right all along. Maybe I have always been what I seemed to be. Maybe our convictions and hopes and beliefs don’t have to fit the 30 second sound bites that have become the soundtrack to our lives. What if there is truth in complexity? Insight in dissent? Form in the mismatched and misunderstood?
Feminism is bigger than the men and women that would make it small. It is not owned by any one person, any one ideology, any one movement. Feminism belongs to every girl that hoped to make her life better. It is the birthright of any woman that has looked into the night sky and felt the heat of the stars reflected in the chambers of her heart. It belongs in holy places and in the workplace and around kitchen tables. It isn’t radical. It is right. It is the belief that as a woman I have infinite value and a desired place. It is the fervent need to help other women believe the same thing. It is so much of what I was born to be and a truth I hope my girls fold up into that delicate place where soul and mind touch.
So the answer is, Yes. I am a woman therefore I am a feminist.
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