"The definition of feminism does not tell you how to vote or what to think. You can vote Republican or Libertarian or Socialist or 'I like that guy's hair.' You can bag voting entirely. You can believe whatever you like about child-care subsidies, drafting women, fiscal accountability, Anita Hill, environmental law, property taxes, Ann Coulter, interventionist politics, soft money, gay marriage, tort reform, decriminalization of marijuana, gun control, affirmative action, and why that pothole at the end of the street still isn't fixed. You can exist wherever on the choice continuum you feel comfortable. You can feel ambivalent about Hillary Clinton. You can like the ERA in theory, but dread getting drafted in practice. The definition does not stipulate any of that. The definition does not stipulate anything at all, except itself. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist."
~ Sarah D. Bunting, from 2003 post "Yes, You Are" on Tomato Nation
I don't remember what my answer was at the time. I may have just shrugged. But I won't easily forget the shock in my brother's voice when he realized the word that matched the things I was saying, when he came up for the name for what he had just realized I was.
I don't know how I became a feminist. I believe that I came into this world this way, that I was just born too busy squalling to notice I was supposed to start learning to keep my mouth shut already. As I've said before, I think the real miracle is how I avoided getting that feminism beaten out of me growing up as a preacher's kid in small town Texas.
I didn't call it feminism back then, of course. As a child, it was what my mother called an insistence on fairness. I could always spot an injustice ten miles off, and I had little patience for people who mistreated others.
I was always a bit of a tomboy, though I attribute that to having two brothers and realizing at an early age that playing G.I. Joe with them in the backyard was infinitely more exciting than dressing and re-dressing Barbies in my bedroom alone. It wasn't about eschewing the trappings of girlhood, just about what made the most sense to my young brain. It wasn't about refusing to wear dresses to church, just about choosing t-shirt and jeans the rest of the week so I didn't have to worry about keeping my skirt down when I wanted to ride my bike or climb the tree in the backyard.
Really, in retrospect, it was that kind of pragmatism that allowed me to ignore the more nuanced messages about how girls were supposed to act. If it didn't make sense to me, and it wasn't an absolute rule, I just tended to ignore it. So, at church I learned how Jesus died for all of us, how He loved all of us the same, how He came for the forgotten and downtrodden, and how status wasn't supposed to matter to people who followed Him because our human ideas of status are laughable to the Creator of heaven and earth. I learned how we were supposed to do our best in everything for His glory. I was taught these truths by both men and women in Sunday School and by both my mother and father at home.
There were other things I noticed in church, like how all the girls had matching quilted bible covers and sat with their shiny church shoes crossed to keep their knees together and wore pink headbands that they pushed back on their head and then slightly forward to make the front of their hair stand up like little chestnut hills above their foreheads. I noticed that the girls sat together and giggled a lot. I noticed those things, but I didn't learn them the way it seemed the other girls were scrambling to learn them.
As the years went by, the messages became more direct. We had youth group slumber parties where women from the church would come and teach us how to set a proper table, how to apply an acceptable level of makeup, what moisturizers and cleansers were ideal for teenage skin. More than one year, we had poise lessons where we all walked around with a book balanced on our heads to practice our posture. But, to me, all of that was so secondary to the big goal we were supposed to be pursuing, to the big picture of who we were supposed to be as Christians, that I wrote it all off as innocent fun. I didn't feel like I was being indoctrinated; I felt like I was being entertained, though perhaps that was only because of my stubborn inability to believe that the same women who had been teaching us to act like Jesus since we were toddlers were now suddenly obsessed with teaching us to look like Barbies.
I've been told I'm smart for a girl, funny for a girl, good at math for a girl, handy for a girl, easy to talk to for a girl. Until people started lining up to tell me all the things I was good at doing, you know, for a girl, I didn't realize people thought that those were things girls weren't good at doing in the first place.
And I guess that right there is what makes me a feminist because I recognize that many of my friends, when they heard words like that, listened more to the subtext of girls aren't supposed to be good at that than the compliment itself. Many of my childhood friends acted more and more like what they believed girls should be as the years went by, whereas I started asking louder and louder, "Why shouldn't girls be good at math or be handy with tools or be funny?" I knew intrinsically that any compliment designed to cut me down said more about the person giving the compliment than it did about me, and I didn't see any point in trying to fix someone else's hangup by adjusting my behavior.
The first time I remember becoming aware of the word feminist was in a book of quotes I was flipping through one day at the bookstore. I happened on a Gloria Steinem quote, having not one single clue who she was at the time, that said a woman has two choices: “Either she's a feminist or a masochist.”
And I remember thinking Ah! I get it. I am either a feminist or I am asking for every bit of inequality the world throws at me. I am either a feminist or I believe myself to be less than equal. I am either a feminist or I believe that every single woman I meet is capable of less, deserves less than even the lowliest, most disgraceful man I will ever happen upon.
For me, since that moment, feminism has meant quite simply that I believe men and women are worthy of equal opportunities, respect, freedom, and love. I love this piece by Sarah D. Bunting where she says "It is quite straightforward and concise. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist."
But of course, it's not so straightforward in practice because, for me, this is the entrance point to what has become a much larger, interconnected series of beliefs about how women are systematically silenced, mistreated, and undervalued in our society. It's not simple at all because women are not equal in most of the world, and even in places where they are equal on paper, they are still attacked in a variety of insidious ways that range from being underpaid and undermined to being exploited, being silenced, and being raped. It's not straightforward or simple in any way when we try and unravel the damage done by abuses done to women, when we try to dislodge long standing beliefs that justify harm to girls, or when we try to advocate for change based on the worth of a group of people others have written off as unworthy.
Heck, it's not even simple sometimes to stand in front of the ones we love most in the world and admit this one gentle truth: Yes, I am a feminist.
This is my first of three posts on what feminism means to me for the Feminisms and Me linkup. I hope you will click over and read through the posts to see what other real people have to say about how feminism has impacted their viewpoints and their lives.
Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.