I was a feminist before I even knew the word. I grew up in a tiny New England (NE USA) town with two sisters in a house without nearby neighbors. Our school had four grades per room and it happened that my sisters’ grades and mine spent the bulk of our years there with only other girls as classmates. There were boys in the room, of course, but not in our grades. When we went to a high school of about 1200 students in a city twenty miles away, about 80% of the students graduating with honors were girls. I was used to the company of girls, especially academically and artistically oriented ones, and I took it for granted that women of my generation were intelligent, capable, and would succeed in any field in which we had potential. Despite the lack of a federal Equal Rights Amendment, we were too isolated from the wider situation in the country to realize what we would encounter as adults.
I chose to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, one of the oldest liberal arts colleges for women in the country. I had first visited at the recommendation of my piano/organ teacher and had changed my application to early decision after attending a day on campus that included lunch with current students. The discussion at lunch was so lively and fascinating that I knew I wanted to live and learn in the company of such people. It wasn’t until later in my life that I understood the impact that those people being predominantly women would have on my decisions and worldview.
I was on campus from fall of 1978 through spring of 1982. The student body was reveling in finally having a woman president, Jill Ker Conway, after a century of male presidents. Two pivotal figures in the Second Wave of feminism are Smith alums, Betty Friedan ’42 and Gloria Steinem ’56. Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was based on a questionnaire to her Smith classmates at their 15th reunion. Steinem, at that time, was still an editor and contributor to Ms. Magazine, which she had co-founded. Feminism on campus was mainstream, not radicalized or shouting from the fringe. It was a surprise to all of us on campus when the Harper’s Bazaar article was published. (Sorry, but I couldn’t find the article archived.) Harper’s was somehow shocked to find out that there were lesbians on campus and asserted that they were very influential as a group. This puzzled those of us on campus because, while there was a student organization called the Lesbian Alliance, they chose to retain a degree of anonymity, even blurring their faces in their group’s yearbook photo. While I had friends who were of lesbian or bisexual orientation, it was not a major issue between us. Most women at Smith were then, and are now, heterosexual in orientation, although generally accepting of the full range of gender expression.
The field of women’s/gender studies was just beginning to coalesce during my years on campus. Because I wanted to participate in this emerging field of study at Smith, I chose to take a course called Women and Philosophy, which became one of the most influential and useful courses to me in later life. We studied some of the classic writings of feminist literature and thought- The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the aforementioned Feminine Mystique, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – along with more recent writings, which explored the differing perspectives and predominant issues among subgroups of women in the United States, such as rural women, Latina women, African-American women, lesbians, and women from lower socioeconomic levels. Depending on the circumstances in which women found themselves, they expressed feminism in different ways, giving different issues greater or lesser emphasis.
There are core beliefs of feminism: that girls and women should have equal opportunities for education and jobs; that equal work deserves equal pay and benefits; that laws should be established which prohibit sex discrimination and that those laws should be enforced; that every person deserves to be respected as an individual and that each person should be free to make choices that work best for their own life; that there is no tolerance for sexual violence or any form of abuse; that society needs to be structured to support personal/family life so that children, elders, the sick, and the disabled have their needs met and so that people can have time for each other and for creative/leisure pursuits. Obviously, many men also hold these views. Some will call themselves feminist. Others won’t. Some people prefer to call themselves humanist because they find feminism to be a scary word or won’t use either feminist or humanist because, in the United States, just about any word ending in -ism is misconstrued as extreme.
That some are afraid to be called feminist because they feel it has a negative connotation is a problem. While I define feminism by the mainstream views in the preceding paragraph, too many people tie the word feminism to the most extreme fringes of the movement. Are there feminists who hate men and say society would be better off without them? Yes, but very, very few. The vast majority of feminists love men, as fathers, spouses, brothers, co-workers, neighbors, sons, etc. Some feminists are also lesbians; this does not mean that all feminists become lesbians. I find it laughable that some people think that going to a women’s college will “turn you into a lesbian.” Seriously, people, it does not work that way. Others think that feminism means that signs of respect are outlawed. If a man holds a door open for me, I will smile and thank him. I will also hold the door open for others, regardless of their gender. I will not, however, stand aside waiting for a man to come along and open the door for me when I can jolly well do it myself. The days of that kind of stifling social etiquette are gone.
Which leads me to my final point: at its base, feminism is about the freedom to live out who you are as an individual without being confined by a preconceived notion of who you are, what you can do, and what you should be doing. It’s about individual people, whatever their gender, following their own heart and mind, developing and using their own abilities without being held back by gender stereotypes. It’s realizing that old expectations/stereotypes don’t apply. Women AND men can be strong, nurturing, tech-savvy, caring, intelligent, intuitive, athletic, contemplative, etc. Aside from a few anatomically based things -sorry, guys, but no nursing of babies for you – it doesn’t make sense to make sweeping statements about how men are this way and women that way. We are all existing along a human continuum where different degrees of different qualities exist in unique combinations and change and develop over time. Unfortunately, in the United States, corporate profits have become such an overwhelmingly important goal, that work only counts as meaningful if it is paid and companies view workers as expenses rather than as assets, so are paying as little as possible, but that could be a whole other post, or series of posts. This situation does, though, highlight to me why we need feminism as much today as we did during the First Wave when women fought for many decades to achieve the right to vote. I don’t believe we can move forward as a civilization without recognizing the importance of and utilizing all the gifts and talents of each person, regardless of their race, spiritual beliefs, gender, ethnicity, or any other factor that has been used to divide or limit people’s potential in the past.
So, I am a feminist, for my own sake, for my mother and sisters and daughters, for my father and husband and nephews, for my friends, and for our society as a whole. I join with many others who believe in the definition of feminism I discuss, whether they call themselves feminist or not. I hope that people will think twice before making sweeping statements against feminism or any belief/philosophy. Don’t discount or vilify the mainstream because of shouting from the fringe.
About this post: There has been a lot of posting/discussion about feminism on OM’s HarsH ReaLiTy blog and he had put out a call for related posts. The impetus to write this post started there, but I realized I couldn’t say everything I needed or wanted to in one post, so I called this Chapter One. Maybe, some day or other, I’ll write more about post-college life and current issues. After fiddling with this post for weeks, I’ve decided to publish it today, despite its imperfectly expressing everything I want to say.