Let me start by saying that I’m writing this to one specific person, but it is also intended for a larger audience. In this post, though I may touch on it, I will not be defending Feminism to men. For that, someone has already written a much, much better blog and it is located here. If you are at the point of needing to hear those arguments, please read it first, then feel free to come back here and read what I’m offering.
As a woman of some age (and not others) I’ve spent a good deal of time defending not just my ideals, but also my basic rights and a good portion of my privileges.
My childhood was not typical, but it also was not uncommon. I was raised in a religion that considered women to be literally, biblically and by all measure, less than men.
An embossed leather plaque hung in our hallway that said this:
As you can see, the language is not subtle. The husband is the head of the wife. The wife must submit in EVERYTHING. Essentially, it’s gender slavery. Women didn’t have jobs, unless that’s what he wanted. Women didn’t own property. Women submitted. In a house with three daughters, we were being reminded every time we walked through the door that our fate was, one day, to lose our own will in favour of another’s. In my teenaged years, I took to turning the plaque around backward, for which I was punished. This submission went so far as keeping three kids in an abusive household and not seeing what there was to be seen, because, hey, submit in everything is pretty clear. And while some blame rests upon her, my mother seemed convinced that this rule was sacrosanct and that to disobey it would land her in hell, where she would burn for eternity. For not submitting. Dear friend, imagine that was your whole life. Submission to the whims of someone else based entirely on the genetic fluke that is your gender.
But this is just one family, of course, not a whole system, surely? No. The same church that espoused this thinking controlled it’s female practitioners in many, many other ways. No woman was allowed to speak before the assembled congregation in sermon. This time it was Corinthians: Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. Again with the submission. If we spoke out of turn, and our pastor or sunday school teacher or even a random person from church told our parents, we were punished. Our crime: being a girl and speaking up.
If you think this stuff doesn’t destroy girls, you are wrong and you are cold. Or at least numb to our stories.
But it went further than that. We were also guilty, our whole gender, for sin. All sin. The idea was that Eve, enticed by the thought of ignoring her all-powerful god’s restraints, brought us from blessed children to sad, repentant sinners. This was used, ideologically, to explain why there were more restrictions on girls than on boys. We were making up for the first rule broken, and we would be making up for it until rapture. It changed what I could wear, what I could do, what I could know and what I could learn.
There is not a blog sizeable enough to record every time gender inequity was used to oppress me, deprive me, hurt me or excuse my mistreatment and certainly some of these instances would not be things that have happened only to women, but to deny that these things happen more to women is to approach gender with one’s eyes shut, proclaiming one’s blindness is proof.
There were un-permitted hands on my body. There were boys who made a game of hog-tying 6th grade girls for fun. There were teachers who ignored my raised hand again and again. There were jokes about my breasts again and again and again. I was not even through puberty the first time I was cat-called by a full grown adult stranger. I wasn’t even in the double digits. I wasn’t through high school when a random man on a bus offered to make me his prostitute. The offer was later repeated by a church youth worker while driving me home from a youth group meeting. I repeat, to list all the incidents would take a very long time and maybe even become boring, because it was so very common.
The first time I heard the word Feminism, it was in church. Feminism was up there with demons in the way the pastors railed against it. They railed against it differently than you do, and for different reasons, of course. They said it broke up families. It made women think they were more-than. It told them they did not need to submit. Heresy. It even led to sexual promiscuity.
A dutiful christian, I watched out for this Feminism. It sounded like dangerous stuff. I read about it in books at the school library and the community library. I didn’t run to Feminism then, but it lit a spark.
That spark didn’t ignite until high school. I was being sexually abused (and I was submitting, like a good girl was required to, though I hated it.) No one cared if I got an education or not, since I was going to grow up and be someone’s wife and have babies and I wouldn’t need anything so lofty as an education. Anyway, there had always been a suspicion about school, the place where I had to sit out of sex-ed classes and movies and where I once took out a Judy Blume book that landed me in trouble (Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret.)
It was in my high school library that I discovered the suffragettes, the first wave of Feminism and the second. It was there I read about Gloria Steinem, about Betty Friedan and about Camille Paglia (you’d like her.) It was there that I read the plays, poetry and prose of Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker and Margaret Atwood.
It was through these women that the notion that I was not less-than entered my mind in bits and pieces. When I left home, too young and knowing so little of the world outside the church, I found the movements of equality. I found the Gay Pride movement (not the sexual equality movement, though you don’t seem upset about that one,) which told me I was not a sinner for loving all genders. I discovered Black history (not racial equality history, though, again, I’ve never seen you attack it) where I learned that what we are taught is not always the truth and that history is not limited to one story. I found Feminism, the daughter of the suffragette movement that fought to have me defined as a person. I had conversations and I learned. I worked for policy change in my school and at my work. I stood in front of abortion clinics and protected women from protesters and sometimes assault. In my place of work (I work with children) I now try to bring equality to the play options for children. I teach them that they can play together, that they can use dolls or play chess or be Harry Potter, no matter which gender they live. In my volunteer position at the museum, I study history and find the women there, so that when girls visit they hear their own stories amongst the more prominent male histories.
I do all this while loving and respecting my male friends, engaging in healthy debate and even (GASP) falling in love with a man and spending over 15 years with him. We also have a rabbit who happens to be a boy – I know, right? Adorbz!
So understand, that when you try to equate Feminism with hate groups, when you say that I shouldn’t be able to call our movement by the name we chose for it (instead I should say egalitarian,) you are stepping on all of this. Perhaps without knowing it. You’re also implying that I cannot be a Feminist (one who fights for the rights of women) and and egalitarian (one who fights for the rights of all) at the same time. They are not exclusive or at cross-purpose to one another. Indeed, they are following the same trajectory to a place where women and men make equal money, follow the same rules, have the same rights and responsibilities and operate with the same safety and self-determination. To pretend that this doesn’t require most of the upward movement on the behalf of women is to ignore statistical data, the anecdotal stories of women and the well recorded proofs of history.
So please understand, you are one of my deepest, closest and best friends. I consider you a brother. I love you. But you are breaking my heart by attacking something that is not a small part of who I am, and by doing so glibly. Know that I will never stop you from expressing what you feel, what you are learning or who you are. I will respect that. But understand, also, that what you are attacking is everything I’ve said above and so very much more. When you attack Feminism, you attack me.
It’s as simple and as deeply complicated as that.