Confession time! As I sat in my 10th grade English class, surrounded by hormone ravaged boys, I was asked if I referred to myself as a feminist. Without thinking too much about the answer, I said I did not. Of all the stupid things I’ve ever said, and there have been a lot, this one stands out in my memory.
Before this class, I thought about that response a lot. Now that I’ve been exposed to feminism in an academic setting, I don’t have a choice but to confront my 15-year-old self and ask why. Why, Michelle? Knowing you strongly believe in equality for women (economically, politically, socially, etc.), why did you thumb your nose at the word “feminist?”
If you were to time travel back to 2004 and ask me if I believe women should receive equal pay, if women should be respected, and if women are capable of handling an intellectual conversation, my answer would be the same as it is today. Yes, yes. And YES! However, I suppose at the time I drew a connection between the word “feminist” and the words “pushy,” “loud,” “bossy,” “bitchy” and “frigid.” My aversion to the word “feminist,” I think, was semantic.
Why did the label “feminist” turn me off in the first place? Obviously the negative connation of the word “feminist” played a role. However, I think it also had to do with the portrayals of feminism in the media. Based on the media portrayals I saw at the time (daytime talk like “Maury” and “Oprah”), feminists fell into two categories. Bra-burning, hairy, masculine, man-haters fell into one category of feminism. Strippers and porn stars – the women who believed feminism meant overtly displaying their sexuality – fell into the other. Why would I want to label myself a feminist if my only options are hairy legs or nine inch clear heals?
In my case anyway, the media definitely impacted my perceptions of feminism in our culture. However, the media wasn’t the only force shaping my view on what it meant to be feminist.
My mom is probably the biggest influence on how I perceive feminists. Without even using the word “feminist” she showed me what it means to be one. She raised two kids her own. She worked full-time, she bought groceries, she cleaned the house (until my brother and I were old enough to help), she picked us up from debate tournaments, she was – and still is – superwoman. A stressed out, usually exhausted, often (regrettably) underappreciated superwoman. She told us that we could do anything. We were not limited by our physical attributes or our class distinction. She taught us that everyone deserves to be respected and treated equally.
While my dad doesn’t have a role in my life anymore, he once made comment when I was young that has yet to dislodge itself from my memory. He said, “You’ll make a great secretary one day.” Wow, a secretary! Seriously, Dad? Is it 1954? I couldn’t be a doctor, a lawyer, or commander of the international space station? (Please note: I work with secretaries at one of my jobs. They’re lovely people. I’m not trying to bash anyone’s career.) I might have been seven or eight when he said that. Even at that age, I knew it was bullshit. I wasn’t in my grandmother’s position. My options weren’t limited to raising a family full-time or filing and typing.
To close, I’m a little less than eight weeks from graduation. I’m starting to reflect on how far I’ve come. I’m not the same as I was at 15 and, sorry Dad, I don’t think I’m taking the secretarial route when I get my B.A. My view of feminism has certainly evolved. Feel free to ask if I consider myself a feminist. (For the record, the answer is YES!)