Feminisms and Me (#femfest link-up, day 1)

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It was 1984. One of the major works of third wave feminism, This Bridge Called My Back by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga had just come out in a second edition. Ms. magazine was celebrating 12 years of strong publications. Adrienne Rich had just published “Notes toward a Politics of Location,” one of the pivotal texts in feminist literary criticism.

I didn’t care about any of that. I was just mad my parents wouldn’t let me watch The Flintstones.

I thought, honestly, that maybe the cartoon was a little dirty. I used to watch it on the sly at my friends’ houses, but of course there was nothing but a bunch of yelling and stone throwing and barefoot-car-running.

Years later, I asked my dad why it was such a big deal. My dad objected to the gender roles, the ugly yelling of “Wilma!” every time something went wrong. He didn’t want me to grow up thinking that’s how women should be treated. If I’d wanted to watch The Honeymooners, he probably would have banned that too.

My dad was finishing up a PhD in theology. He talked about feminism with the enthusiasm young converts have when they share their Christianity—his was an all-consuming zealousy. I don’t remember my mom talking about feminism as much, though her example and our later conversations made it clear where she stood. She worked on her masters degrees and doctorate at night after the supper dishes were put away. But it was my dad that I remember telling me over and over again, “You can be anything you want to be. You can be president if you want to. You can change the world.”

I was born in the early blush of my dad’s enthusiasm for raising a feminist girl.

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That same year, Walter Mondale ran for president with the first-ever woman vice presidential candidate in U.S. history. I remember watching Geraldine Ferraro debate George H.W. Bush on our old TV. We had one of those cable boxes connected by a wire to the TV set with buttons you had to click every time you wanted to change the station.

I watched Ferraro with her funny upturned short-do, slim in a blue suit, and thought that I could be her someday.

When we had our little first grade election in class, I did what all the other kids in my class did: I voted like my parents. I proudly wrote “Mondale-Ferraro” on a piece of paper (we copied the names off the blackboard) and doubled it up, stuffing it into the shoebox ballot box.

At recess we talked about who we voted for. One of my best friends, from a staunch Baptist family, stared at me with big eyes.

“You voted for a baby-killer?”

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In college, I had a boss I really liked and respected. We were good friends; he wasn’t too much older than me. I told him once I was a feminist. He just started laughing.

“You have no idea what that word means.”

“Of course I do. It means women and men can be equal and that women can do anything men can do.” I had a long history lesson to back me up if I needed. I was ready to fight for my position.

He just laughed and walked away. He told me when I was older I’d know better.

I think about that conversation often. Being a feminist is one of the very few things in my life that hasn’t changed, not at all. From birth to now, I would have told you: I’m a Christian. And I’m also a feminist.

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In the college English classes I teach now at a large university in the south, I love to push my students. The last few years I’ve taught women writers from around the world. Two or three class periods in, I begin my lecture on feminisms.

I ask how many would say they are feminists. Usually four or five raise their hands outright. A few years, I’ve had fabulously prepared students who say “Third Wave” before I do. Usually the others look kind of sheepish or look out the window. I ask them how many of them think women can do anything men can do; that both genders should feel free to follow their careers or stay home and have babies; that the political positions of women of color are just as important as those of white women; that immigrant women’s voices should be heard and valued as much as Southern belles who can trace their ancestry back before the Civil War.

They raise their hands, always, all of them.

“Congratulations,” I say. “You’re contemporary feminists.”

And then I turn the conversation immediately—just because they have a subjective experience with feminism, either good or bad, doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual word. Feminism exists, is defined, in a neutral way.

It’s a term with very specific historical and societal contexts. How we use the term matters.

Then I push toward my big point: “feminisms” is a much more appropriate term to describe the various understandings of the term throughout history. It’s always been about the battle for equality for women, but what was at stake for the women and men who fought for the vote in 1919 was different from what could be lost in the battle over Roe v. Wade or what mattered to third wave feminists. Those shifts in position alter the word slightly. Whether they are migrant workers protesting in the 1960s or girl punk bands of the early 1990s, feminisms make up a large umbrella.

The stakes change depending on the context or the conversation, even if the term is the same.

(If you want to know more about the history of the term, I will refer you emphatically and wholeheartedly to my friend Amy Lepine Peterson’s gorgeous overview of feminisms.)

I will tell you what I tell my students: my subject position determines my view of feminism, but it does not determine the term. The term exists, on its own, in the dictionary without my judgment or approval. We have to use it correctly.

There aren’t several types of “feminisms” because I like the word and you don’t. There are several types because all of us, with our unique subject positions, are part of sub-cultures whose values and arguments have shaped the historical connotations of that word and are continuing to shape them today.

I cannot use the term “feminism” as something that it’s not. I have to at least begin to define both my subject position and my terms in order to launch a real conversation.

For me, Barbara Smith writes one of my favorite definitions in This Bridge Called My Back: “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women—as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women.”

My feminist experience is my own, but it is rooted in my subject position as a white woman of educated, Christian parents with liberal-leaning views who resisted the more conservative cultures in which they grew up. My family and my own life experiences have taught me to be aware of the concerns of other groups and other voices. That version of feminism, my own particular flavor, is both my own and it is not. My story has to be placed in the history of the larger movement or I lose the power of the words I use.

That’s why I wanted to start this synchroblog in the first place. My story, my subject position, helps you understand where I’m coming from. That little girl that was mystified that her childhood hero was called a “baby-killer” is still mystified that complex ideas are often squashed by unbending black-and-white views.

Like I tell my students, let’s problematize and define our views of feminisms.

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34 comments on “Feminisms and Me (#femfest link-up, day 1)

  1. Pingback: [Feminisms Fest] (Attempting) Defining Feminism | Shaney Irene

  2. Heather Caliri on said:

    Thank you so much for hosting this series. I never thought of myself as a feminist until I had a baby. I’d thought feminism meant some sort of militant advocacy, and thought vaguely that we were past the need to push so hard for “equality” when it was already pretty much a given.
    But when I saw how much more heavily the care of my kid was laid on me because of the way my body was formed, I realized that a vague sense of “equality” was not enough. It opened up my eyes to how difficult it would be to operate from a position of power when one was caring for children. (Clearly that’s only one aspect of feminism, but it was an entry point for me).
    Experiencing womanhood through motherhood also opened my eyes to how much of our faith was put in terms of men (even just calling God He). I’m still journeying towards a better understanding of feminism and how that affects my faith. I’m excited to hear how others are interpreting this weighted word.

  3. suzannah | the smitten word on said:

    i love hearing where you came from! i wasn’t allowed to watch a few shows because of gender roles, too, but my mom was concerned about my seeing “weak father figures” instead;)

    thanks for hosting.

  4. Christie on said:

    I’m remembering my undergrad Women’s Studies courses fondly. So grateful for professors like you who aren’t afraid to make their students a little bit uncomfortable. :)

    Thanks especially for pointing out the significance of both subject position and dictionary definition. You are right that both matter.

  5. Cort Gatliff on said:

    Thanks for writing this. As a 21-year-old white male college student, feminism is usually the last thing on the mind of my peers, but it’s something I keep coming back to. I’ve seen the church use theology to oppress women my whole life.

    My father was the pastor of a presbyterian church and my mom was the director of women’s ministries for our denomination. Eventually my parents couldn’t handle the denomination anymore and my mom took a job as a pastor at a new church, and my father, being the man of God that he is left his job and followed her. This absolutely blew peoples minds. People had never seen a woman pastor before, and no one understand why my dad was leaving his job so my mom could take a job. Now they’re both getting their doctorates together. When I asked my dad if it was awkward explaining to people that my mom was the one with the new job and not him, he simply replied: “Look, since we’ve been married your mom has followed my job to about 6 different churches. It’s time for me to do the same for her.”

    • Kate Wallace on said:

      It is so encouraging to hear stories about such mutually supportive marraiges. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Kate Wallace on said:

    I too was raised in a Christian home without gender roles. It wasn’t until I transferred to private Christian school in 8th grade that I learned what gender roles were. Feminism was always something that went hand in hand with my faith, although I didn’t know it by that name. In my private Christian high school, my views of gender equality caused some of my teachers to yell blasphemy or to call me names. I found my peace in Dr. Bilezikian’s “Beyond Sex Roles”. With that book, the grace of God, and my mother’s strength, I got through that time in my life. It was only recently, while studying for my masters, that I began calling myself a feminist. Sometimes, Christians don’t realize the pain they inflict on others when they stand behind patriarchy, but we are not called to stand behind patriarchy. We are called to stand with Christ, and all are equal at the foot of the cross.
    When I think of Christian feminism, I think of the actions of Jesus, the words of Dr. Bilezikian and the strength of my mother.

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  10. I tried for a long time to keep my feminism isolated from my upbringing. I wanted it to be an unsinkable ship. I wanted feminism to be something wise and beautiful, that could replace the ugliness and weakness of my broken family, absent father, humiliated mom. It’s a hard journey to acknowledge that feminism doesn’t live that way. It lives expressed by real people, with real histories, and those histories affect the way we understand the word, the movement, and the mission. So…no skipping that hard work after all…in order to understand each other we have to do the work of speaking and listening. Thanks for hosting.

  11. Sarah Askins: Poet-Writer on said:

    Such a lovely perspective of your subject place in feminism/s. We rarely questions how our position, subjectivity, agency factor into our we view ourselves let alone the big “isms.”

  12. Pingback: Feminisms Fest, Day One – Feminisms and Me | coffeesnob318

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  15. Abby Norman on said:

    This is brilliant. I can hear in this how you explain all of it to your students and LOVE these ideas. I am always struggling with how to talk to my students (just 15 years old) about feminism and why it matters and how what they just said is offensive. Thank you for some of the language I need.

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  19. Shaney Irene on said:

    This: “just because they have a subjective experience with feminism, either good or bad, doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual word. Feminism exists, is defined, in a neutral way.”

    And this: “The term exists, on its own, in the dictionary without my judgment or approval. We have to use it correctly.”

    Thank you so much for differentiating between “feminism” as a term that exists independently, while acknowledging that the way we talk about it is dependent upon history, experience, etc. This is, I think, an incredibly important distinction and is the first step toward clear communication and dialogue about the subject.

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  21. I have no idea how to “link up,” but this is really cool, and I’m excited about it.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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  31. the gracious gaze on said:

    I love this — I have such a similar history with feminism and with faith. My mom proudly chuckles when retelling the story of how I made her take me to my first Take Back the Night Rally when I was about 11 in Sacramento. I wonder, often, how to take this calling in the world of academia (I’m midstream in my PhD and the doubts are certainly settling in) and use it to speak and listen better to this hurting world. Oh, I don’t know. I feel like I cling to terms like ‘feminism’ and ‘faith’ and even ‘justice’ because they are life rafts amidst a sea of post modern deconstruction and all-too-comfortable days of working away in the library with a warm cup of coffee beside me…

    xo
    Kim

    • Danielle | from two to one on said:

      This also makes me immensely happy! So glad you and J.R. found each other :)

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