After writing my last post, I realized that very few people come to feminism merely by reading about it. For a person to become a feminist she has to have lived a life that led her to believe in feminist principles. Her life path is her story of what it means to be a woman as well as a human being and the experiences she has had form her personal life philosophy.
That could mean that a woman who has followed the traditional path of marriage and motherhood might be quite happy not rocking the boat, especially if she has a happy marriage and feels fulfilled being a mother. But what if she’s not in a happy marriage? What if she wants more out of life than marriage and motherhood? Or what if she isn’t married and has had to make it in the world as a single woman?
What if she was abused in childhood or adulthood? What if she has been passed over for promotion or can’t earn a living wage? What if her husband leaves her? What if she finds herself pregnant out of wedlock? (Funny how that phrase “out of wedlock” seems so old-fashioned these days.) All of these experiences and more will shape her world view and cause her to be more or less receptive to the feminist ideology.
Even Sarah Palin–married and the mother of five–described herself as a feminist on at least one occasion. I suspect that came out of her experience of being a woman in authority, not to mention being in politics. And even more personally, it may have come out of her own desire to have more out of life than marriage and motherhood. She appears to have always been ambitious, from her days as “Sarah Barracuda” to her recent bid for Vice President. She may be against abortion, but everything else in her life has led her to have a feminist sensibility.
Having an abortion or giving a baby up for adoption is a life-changing moment for most women. If she is overwhelmed by guilt (or made to feel that way) she may choose the path of redemption, either through religion or by being anti-abortion. But she may also go the other way and identify with all the other women who have had unwanted pregnancies. She may feel an obligation to make their decisions as rational and self-affirming as possible. She may simply want women to have the same choice she had.
And when she runs up against opposition, against the mentality that sees women as incapable of making their own decisions, she may begin to feel like a second-class citizen in her own country. Perhaps suddenly, perhaps over time, she comes to realize that feminism describes her situation and addresses her concerns. And/or she meets feminists who share her pain and support her in her struggles.
Those are the ways that women (and some men) become feminists. Not by reading about it in a magazine or a history class. Not by adopting a set of beliefs out of thin air. But by living out their life stories and following their paths wherever they lead them.
I can see now that I’m not going to convince anyone of the good feminism does merely by telling people about it. I need to share my story and empathize with the stories of others. We’re all trying to make sense of our lives the best way we know how. Feminism is one way to help us do that. But it’s not going to mean anything to us unless we can identify with other women’s stories. Not every woman has the benefit of a good marriage, job and children. In fact, the women with everything in place are in the minority.
Feminism means that we come out of our self-satisfied shells and look at what is going on in the lives of women around us. It means that we listen to their stories and seek ways to show that we care. Having a feminist philosophy without that is like having religion without empathy or action. In fact, in many ways being a feminist calls for the same mindset as being a religious person. (Which is why I think it’s possible to be a Christian feminist, for instance.)
When we feel that we can share our female experiences with others, we are skirting on the edge of feminism, whether we realize it or not. We need to tell each other our stories. What is yours?