The F Word

There’s been so much interesting discussion around these parts lately about feminism, and I loves me a good discussion. GGC calls herself a Masculist, while Kristen deems herself a Feminista. Blog Antagonist has suggested that all women are inherently feminists already and so the label is purposeless. Sweetney has offered up, from her own self-proclaimed feminist perspective, the very real prospect that the entire movement is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Damn you, all you smart women for bringing up important-like topics that suck me in. And here I just wanted to be funny.

Let me tell you a little about where I come from.

I am the product of a feminist upbringing.

My bedroom light switch cover, as the family legend goes, was a toy soldier and not a ballerina. I had baseball gloves and Matchbox cars and a smokin’ pair of cleats that I wore every weekend to the soccer field on which I did cartwheels during halftime. I may have been a stinky fullback, but I was indeed a fullback. I also had a closet full of tutus, a doll collection from exotic places like You-go-slah-vee-ah, and an affinity for sneaking into my mom’s bedroom and coating my lids with sparkly blue eyeshadow. I was encouraged to embrace both the feminine and masculine sides of myself, because all my feminist parents ever wanted for me were choices.

Yes, that’s feminist parents. With an s.

Maybe he wasn’t out there marching for women’s rights or burning his…whatever feminist men might have burned in those days, but my dad supported all the tenets of feminism and equal opportunity for women. In my opinion, having a supportive, encouraging father is every bit as essential as having a supportive, encouraging mother. Perhaps more so. I still remember him telling me, “you can be anything you want to be. Anything at all. Just do it well.”

I responded, “what about a fireman?” (This was before we knew from firefighters.)

“Then be a great fireman.”

“Well what about the President?”

“Then be a great President.”

“What if I want to be a bank robber?”

“Then be a great bank robber. And don’t get caught.”

I’ve described my mother to some degree in posts past, but she may be best summed up in a line from my cousin Lane this past week. Upon learning that my sister-in-law is pregnant with my mom’s third granddaughter, Lane quipped, “Oh Aunt Nancy must be so happy. Now she can have her own women’s movement right out of her home.”

Like Lane, the first thing many people think of when they think of my mom is Feminist. Not in any sort of angry, man-hating way, although I do recall her having a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle T-shirt soon after her divorce. (Or maybe she just talked about getting one. It probably just stuck with me because I thought the slogan was funny.) No, I think people see her in the best possible sense of the term – enlightened, open, thoughtful, progressive. She’s devoted her entire career as an educational consultant to creating equality in the classroom, and her nearly four decades as a parent to insuring that my brother and I are equipped to grab the truth and justice baton and run with it. While most family photos that grace one’s living room are of weddings or babies or the snow on Christmas morning, the silver frames in my mom’s home feature our family holding NARAL posters at a pro-choice rally on the Washington Mall. She is nothing if not someone who lives her values, and I’ve done my best all my life to emulate that.

But I think the real hallmark of my feminist upbringing had nothing to do with politics. It had nothing to do with wearing pants or eschewing skirts, playing soccer or collecting dolls. It had everything to do with my parents insuring that I found self-worth through my accomplishments.

And no, accomplishments did not include being pretty or having more Barbies than the other girls.

As my mother will tell you (and she’ll do it in a way that makes her sound neither preachy nor judgmental–in fact, she’ll have you nodding along and begging for more, all while passing you some homemade tabouli on a wedge of nicely warmed pita) we do girls a disservice when we tell them how beautiful they are. It’s not that it’s bad to be beautiful; it’s that at the same time, we are telling their brothers, “I bet those sneakers make you run really fast.” We need to tell our daughters that they can be fast too. And smart. And tall. And strong. I’m as guilty of this offense as the next person, and damn, I should know better. Whenever a stranger peeked in my stroller and remarked, “oh what a pretty little girl!” my mother’s knee-jerk response was, “yes and she’s beautiful inside too, and that’s what’s really important.”

And yet my mother the feminist stayed at home with us until we were in school. She took her husband’s name. She took her second husband’s name. She refuses to color her hair, but she also refuses to leave the house without toenail polish on. She owns many fabulous earrings, the kind you’d sooner see in Barney’s than in Woodstock. Which begs the question, what IS a feminist anyway?

I was raised to believe that feminists were pretty like Gloria Steinem and smart like Sandra Day O’Connor. They were the people who went to court to make sure that the girls’ field hockey team didn’t get kicked off the field when the boys’ football team was ready to practice. They made sure that women knew it was not okay for their husbands to rape them. They spoke for those who couldn’t speak for themselves, or those who didn’t yet know that they even wanted to. The feminists were there for all of us. And sure, sometimes they were angry. Ghandi was angry too. Anger in itself is not a bad thing, especially when it’s chanelled constructively and with purpose.

What I’m saying is, it never crossed my mind, not even once, that feminists were something bad. And so my main beef, and I think the point of this post, is that forty years after the movement went mainstream we’re still compelled to describe the term with an asterisk.

I just did it myself, a few paragraphs back. I said that my mom was a feminist, but then reassured you that she didn’t hate men. Need I also tell you that she shaves her legs? That she likes to cook and sew? That she owns heels? That she’s not a lesbian? Yeah, sadly I do. And it freaking kills me. Because it’s as good as every priest who introduces himself having to add, “but don’t worry, I’m not a pedophile.”

I stumbled on a blog recently where the term feminist is included in a list along with such other beauts as militant, wounded inner child, and of course, chip on my shoulder–as in, the author doesn’t have one, and thus she is not a feminist. We’ve got the ever-offensive Pat Robertson telling us that “feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” And of course there’s that bloated old windbag, old what’s-his-name the lying sack of crap on the radio, who vomits out the term “feminazi” as a way of inextricably linking one of the most despicable and horrifying acts of genocide in the history of the world with the women’s movment. How can that not make every woman on this planet sick to their stomachs?

Are there some problems with the movement? Of course. Are there some uncomfortably radical extremists in feminism? Sure. Were the women of my generation done a huge disservice by being fed the myth that we can do it all and all at once with no one’s help at all? Certainly. Certainly times a hundred. I’ve even said it here myself. But to use a hackneyed creative analogy, it’s better to get way out of the box and have to reign things in a bit than never to get out of the box at all.

And so I’m here to reclaim the term feminism. To help swing the semantic pendulum back towards the side of goodness and progress and light in an attempt to make it something positive again for my daugher and yours.

It’s my obligation. After all, that’s my family you’re talking about.


Edited to Add: I hope that if you’ve come this far with me, that you’ll take the time to read the readers’ comments. That’s where the lecture ends and the discussion begins.

I am awed by the insight, the depth of thought, and the personal revelations of so many different women from so many different backgrounds. While some of us have conflicting takes on the expression “feminism” or on the women’s movement as a whole, I think the readers here have demonstrated that we’re perfectly capable of participating in a thoughtful, intelligent, no poopy-head calling trading of ideas on what can be a very heated topic. This is the best of what women are and can be. You’ve made me proud, my sisters!

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