How I Became A Feminist

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I came to feminism through my experience of having an abortion. I took a class on women’s studies my first year in college, just a couple of months after making the trip to New York (at the time, the only state where abortion was legal). There was a consciousness-raising component to the class where the participants shared their experiences as women. One of the topics that was discussed was inevitably that of unwanted pregnancies. One woman shared her experience of giving up a child for adoption.

Up to that point I had told no one about my abortion except for my boyfriend. I even managed to keep it from my room-mate. But I felt so much trust—what some called “sisterhood”—in that class, I found myself revealing the fact that I’d had an abortion. The response was amazing. There was nothing but understanding and sympathy, showing me that women are united by common problems and that the solutions are more likely to be developed if we work together.

During and after that class, I immersed myself in contemporary feminist literature. I vividly remember the writings of Robin Morgan, Kate Millett, Katha Pollitt, Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer, among others. I collected all the books I could find and afford on the subject. Over the years some of them were given away, but I still held on to their principles. When I had my own (four) daughters I felt equipped to show them “the way” and empowered by my new sense of selfhood. I didn’t go overboard trying to make my children’s lives gender-neutral, but neither did I go out of my way to make everything they did and wore “girly.”I just wanted them to be themselves.

I dropped out of college shortly after I got married at the age of 20 and became a “born-again” Christian–just a few short months after I discovered “feminism.” The women’s movement was just gaining steam. It still wasn’t usual for a woman to keep her name or to live with her boyfriend without the benefit of marriage. Things were moving in that direction, but I wasn’t really part of the revolution. I still considered myself to be a feminist, but I was also a Christian and a pretty traditional one at that. For a long time I believed that the man should be the head of the family and that the woman should stay home with the kids. And yet I had my doubts; my feminist principles were at war with my Christian ones. (Although I do not believe now that the two are mutually exclusive–more on that in a future post.)

Ten years after I married, my minister husband and I got a divorce, much to the shock of our congregation. There were a lot of things that played into the divorce, but I can’t deny that feminism played a part, if you want to call needing to be equally valued as feminism. I began to resent feeling that I was always the guilty party. I thought then that my husband didn’t really like women (and I don’t mean in the “gay” sense) and there’s nothing more uncomfortable than being married to a man who doesn’t even like you.

So we split up. And I got custody of the kids. And then the sh** really hit the fan. Suddenly, I was the personification of evil in my husband’s eyes. My self-esteem took an even deeper dive. But I had four amazing little girls to be strong for. So I steeled myself to make a new life for us without having to rely on a man. I went back to school and got a part-time job. We were living with my parents, which didn’t exactly make me feel grown-up even though I was 32 and had had my own home for ten years. I found out that it’s possible to be enslaved to your parents as well as your husband. And I chafed under the weight of that realization.

I needed to get out, to have a home again of my own. But as yet I still didn’t have enough guts to do it on my own. So I remarried. It turned out to be a bad decision and we divorced after three and a half years. And then I remarried again.

All this time I considered myself to be a feminist, but the truth is, it took me years and a lot of mistakes to realize just how important it is for a woman to be a feminist. I tried to teach my daughters the same principles and I do think that they learned from my example that the answer for a woman doesn’t lie in a man, but in herself. I found out that it isn’t leaning on a man that is the problem, but being afraid to be by yourself is.

I went through one more divorce and a remarriage–with several years of being by myself in between–before I finally found a relationship in which I could be myself and not play a frigging role all the time. It about wiped me out being a wife and mother, as much as I loved my kids. I began to think about what it means to be a woman in this society–or in any society–and my thoughts about that and about feminism began to merge together.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the conception so many people seem to have of feminism as negative when in reality it has to do with the very fundamentals of what it means to be a woman. And I refuse to allow anyone to take that from me. That’s what I consider being a feminist.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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