Feminist Confession: At eighteen, I considered myself a postfeminist living in the postpatriarchy. Now that I’m a feminist who thinks that if you’re not angry it means you’re not paying attention, just writing that makes me cringe. It’s hard for me to remember what I was like when I sincerely believed that women’s oppression was a thing of the past. Yet looking back, maybe I wasn’t so different from your little sister, or your college friend who didn’t get it, or your brother’s girlfriend whom you have nothing in common with. So as I unpack my journey to feminism, I hope to discover a few kernels about what leads a woman to avoid the feminist label.
One thing stands out with startling clarity: I didn’t want to identify as a “feminist” because that would mean that I identified as an oppressed woman. My mid-nineties girlhood was full of Girl Power! Jewel, Sarah McLaughlin, Melissa Etheridge, and Alanis Morissette dominated the airwaves, and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” defined the summer of 1997 with the fervent embrace of a woman’s right to be contradictory and then leave her latest man in the dust. Emulating famous male soccer players, Brandi Chastain tore her shirt off, exuberant that she’d scored the winning goal for the Women’s World Cup. When my seventh grade class had to draw a scientist, I ignored the cliché mad old professor with beakers bubbling away to draw myself as a thirty-year-old biologist.
Meanwhile, my parents had a gloriously egalitarian relationship. Though she was 21 when she married (!), my mom put off having me, her only child, so she could focus on her own career as she built a strong relationship with my dad. I had no reason to question that a woman’s place was wherever she darn well pleased. But I did notice the occasional sign that not all was well for women, like one anecdote told in a special Girl Scout meeting on menarche: When one mom first went out for job interviews as a young married woman, potential employers felt they had the right to ask if she were on birth control.
We all shuddered and laughed nervously then, because with our lives set out for us in “any direction we chose” (as that hackneyed Dr. Seuss book had it at 8th grade graduation), it seemed not just impossible that we’d ever be asked a similar question. But ludicrous! Beyond comprehension! (Oh, hi, Arizona.)
I shudder now, for a different reason. In retrospect, I should have seen the times changing when I heard the morning radio announcers talking about how “sexy” this new pop act Britney Spears looked on the cover of Rolling Stone, holding a cell phone and a teletubby. After all, I was 14, only a year younger than Ms. Spears, whose weirdly provocative “… Baby One More Time” still creeps me out with what sounds like an allusion to domestic violence. (On that note, my heart breaks for what’s become of Britney Spears. I was always indifferent to her music, but I rethought all my impressions of the media when they started the backlash against her.) But when I was busy starting high school, with an algebra review test to study for, I needed to focus on important things. Like what flavor of Gap lip gloss to wear to the first day of high school. (That was important, okay?)
Now that I am a feminist, what I cringe at is how long my former self clung to this image of herself as “not oppressed.” The truth is, any liberated woman who hasn’t come around to the “feminist” label is oppressing herself by keeping herself in the closet. I see this now in some of the Facebook acquaintances I admire from afar, that “other women suck” or “I just get along better with dudes.” My heart breaks for these women, because I used to have that problem too. Even after I defined myself as a “feminist,” I devoted way too much energy to splitting hairs to differentiate myself from any person with an unfortunate tale of oppression or gender violence. But when the war on women began, I finally had to stop being a moderate “feminist in name only” and act.
Awareness is hard. I’ll always remember the crushing weight of postcollege malaise blending with my sudden realization that even I, a class privileged young white woman, was not at all magically immune to the gender stereotyping that I realized had always been around me. True feminism came to me in the form of some new female friends as I reached past the friendships I had from college. I had always been more comfortable with guy friends, maybe because I didn’t gravitate towards pink glitter “like your typical girl.” The revelation was running into a couple from college I hadn’t known well before, and realizing that while I clicked with both of them and was unconsciously prejudiced to befriend the man, his girlfriend happened to be the one with a deep new friendship to offer me. Facing that unconscious prejudice forced me to look head on at the ways I had disliked and mistrusted other women. What I finally saw looking back at me was that my whole life, I’d been surrounded by exactly the sort of woman I was, or aspired to be—a strong intellectual taken seriously by her peers, and no more reliant on a partner (if applicable) than that partner was on her.
That may not be the last stage of my awareness, but right now it’s on an easier plateau. Compiling and writing the links roundup for this site every week has made me feel that I’m chipping away at the problem. So does participating in a monthly feminist book discussion, and volunteering at Bluestockings feminist bookstore. When an old acquaintance was awfully catty to me after we bumped into one another unexpectedly, it was my two close new female friends who bolstered me up and reminded me that I didn’t deserve that. Just as importantly, they helped me to see why the ex-friend in question probably wasn’t trying to seem totally heartless at the time. My feminist girlfriends and I can wear glitter eye shadow or old flannel shirts, and treat one another not simply as receptacles to our gossip, but seriously, as full-fledged human beings engaged in breaking down the patriarchy. That, to me, is the ultimate victory of feminism.