Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The "F" word (proud to be a feminist)

Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day and also "Feminist Coming Out Day."

"I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is:  I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute."
--Rebecca West

"The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source."
~Lucretia Mott

My feminist coming out began in the 1970s with "Free to Be You and Me," which I loved. Marlo Thomas was my hero and still is. Here's Marlo writing about her experience in the women's movement on the Huffington Post.

"One of the things about equality is not just that you be treated equally to a man, but that you treat yourself equally to the way you treat a man." ~Marlo Thomas

Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Marlo Thomas
Marching for the ERA (Phil Donohue and Marlo Thomas in the center)
It continued as my mom left her stay-at-home-mom role and went to grad school to get her M.A. in counseling, and then went back to work. (I was very fortunate to have parents who never told me that I couldn't do anything I wanted to do as a woman, even though they might have been a bit freaked out about my feminism in the early years.)

With my hip mama
My next feminist memory was from fifth grade, when we had to practice our cursive writing by scribing something along the lines of "Many great men sacrificed their lives to build our country" or some such thing. I put "and women" in the margins, with an arrow after "men." My teacher, the wonderful Mrs. Pressman, wrote praise for my editing on her comments.

Don't I look like a tree-hugging hippie here?
My editing for feminism continued when I was in adolescence, when I began editing the black Revised Standard Version bible I had been given for first communion. With my purple felt pen, I simply deleted anything I didn't like (as you can imagine, my bible was full of purple!). Because one notable thing about the bible is its absence of women, much of what I was deleting was more in contrast to my vision of a loving, compassionate God. (Yes, isn't it interesting how I got my start as an editor as a child?)

Off to PLU I went, where as a naive freshwoman I went to see a debate between Phyllis Schafly and Eleanor Smeal. Schafly had packed the room by calling on all her supporters to attend, and after the people sitting around me saw that I was cheering for Smeal, they descended on me, trying to convince me that feminists were all lesbians, "promoted" abortion, and hated men. As I've written before, I got to vote for Geraldine Ferraro (and Walter Mondale) in my first presidential election, and got to hear her speak at the Tacoma Dome.

"[Feminism is] a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." ~Pat Robertson (or Phyllis Schlafly supporters)

My world cracked open during my junior year when I took feminist theology with religion professor Rev. Dr. Joanne Carlson Brown. It caused me to question everything I thought I believed about God. My final project for that class was a songwriting project. I collected the songs I'd written from age 10, beginning with "God Makes All Things Beautiful," which included "He made the earth and sky. He made all men free"! (Even though I was editing my handwriting exercises, I clearly had not taken the next step.) I wrote several other songs based on The Color Purple and my own spiritual awakening. It was a deeply upsetting, but also exhilarating, time for me.

After graduating from PLU, I had an initially difficult time during my first year in Japan. I was reading Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly in the evenings and teaching empty-headed Japanese girls at junior college in the daytime...most of whom were learning English and studying only as marriage prep. Observing the lowly status of women in Japan was deeply depressing for me. I remember debating this issue with my flatmate and PLU friend, who maintained that all was okay because the women were happy and I was making mountains out of molehills. Even though I stayed for two more years (after meeting Mike), when I left Japan I was ready to go...mostly because of this issue.

When Mike and I got married, I didn't want a diamond engagement ring (apartheid, you know) and I kept my name (until we ended up hyphenating 13 years after marrying). I still feel guilty about it, but I didn't have my dad walk me down the aisle (I feel guilty about it because it was Father's Day!). Instead, we walked down the aisle together. We paid for our own wedding. It was important to me that I express my independence in entering marriage. Initially, I told Mike that I'd support him for a year so he could write. Nearly 21 years later, I'm still the one who leaves the house for my job. The fact that I'm the breadwinner and Mike's the parent who stays at home shows our children that women do not always have to be the primary caregiver of children.

Even though I'm not heavily involved in feminist activism, I believe that the best thing I can do to advance the cause of feminism (defined for me as the notion that women deserve the same rights as men) is to raise three sensitive males who treat women with respect and value them for all they can do. (Well, Kieran and Nick sometimes think girls have cooties, but there's time yet!)

My advice to the women's clubs of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.
~James McNeill Whistler

I'm discouraged that feminism has become an "F" word among some kick-ass young women...like one I admire, Storm Large (yes she's crass and mouthy, but she is a woman and proud of it, and she sure as hell believes in equal rights). In this interview, she says she doesn't consider herself a feminist:

"I don’t consider myself a feminist because I was raised kind of on my own. Because my mom was crazy and locked up. My dad was trying to deal with that. I always had food. I always had a place to stay. I was never beaten…by anyone in my family. But my only evidence of a woman in my immediate circle was someone who was sick and weak. And, to be strong, you had to just be fucking like: stiff upper lip. And you fucking buck up and you deal. But I identified way more with men than with women. My problem with feminism is its shrill, reactionary nature. As opposed to just kind of like, “Yeah. Guys are dicks. And?” Just fucking prove them wrong. There are feminists who are fighting for actual causes – like in Africa. In America, obviously there’s still sexism. There’s still a glass ceiling. Of course. Of course there is. But being shrill and reactionary...it isn’t helping anybody. [in mock whiny voice]: “I’m sorry, but bitch is hate speak.” I’m like – you know what? You could burn your calories a lot more effectively by fighting for reproductive rights. By actually writing letters or going and talking to your congress people. And going and fighting for actual issues instead of yelling at me because of my language? I’m fighting for the right side."
It's unfortunate that some women feel that they have to be shrill and reactionary to be feminists. Every cause needs activists and people who are shrill and reactionary...this is necessary for change to happen. But that doesn't mean that those people need to taint the word. Personally, I like this definition:

"[Feminists are] just women who don't want to be treated like shit." --Su, an Australian woman interviewed for the 1996 anthology DIY Feminism

Today my company's CEO tweeted about International Women's Day, with the following comment:
"Personally I feel the country or company that harnesses the intellectual power and energy of women and makes them integral to their culture, will succeed over those that don't."


  1. Agree agree agree! Great post, Marie!

  2. I believe that as feminists we need to embrace our individuality and equality among all humans. We need to respect and support other women without judgement for their individual choices even if they are different from our own. If young women could see this as the true meaning of the word, I believe more of them would be proud to call themselves feminists.....