Is This What a Feminist Looks Like?

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I have a confession to make: I haven’t always been a good feminist. I became a feminist my freshman year in college, when I was 19, but then I went for years after that vaguely identifying as a feminist, but not at all involved in the movement.

I married at the age of 20, had four kids by the time I was 28 and was a stay-at-home mom until my youngest was four. Nothing about my life looked like a feminist was living it. Not outwardly anyway. I was even a minister’s wife, which means that my life was adjunct to that of my husband’s.  My life was totally taken up with doing things for other people and nothing for myself.

On the other hand, I had four daughters to raise and I wanted them to grow into strong women. But I didn’t preach feminism at them, which is probably just as well (because they might have gone the other way, just to spite me). I was always aware, though, of what I wanted to avoid: pushing them into girlie things like cheerleading and all things pink. But I didn’t want them to think that femininity was inferior either.

They did end up being strong women, but I don’t know how much they consider themselves to be feminists. I’m guessing they would say, like many women, that they identify with feminist issues, but they wouldn’t go around calling themselves feminists. Does that mean I failed? I don’t think so. I wanted my kids to be themselves, not a carbon copy of their mother.

I didn’t forget about myself entirely however. I badly wanted some avenue of self-expression that had nothing to do with my being a wife or mother. I found that to some extent through my writing, but I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to that, especially after my first husband and I divorced and I had to go to work full-time.

I worked at the post office for sixteen years, through two more marriages and divorces. I had periods where I was a single mom, however, which made me especially sensitive about the issues surrounding single motherhood, but my main focus was on workers’ rights, not necessarily women’s rights.

Almost all the feminist literature I read was while I was in college and then sat on my bookshelves in the intervening years. (I dropped out shortly after my first marriage.) I was proud of the feminist movement, but never felt that I was a part of it. I would periodically go spastic about feminist issues, but I was more concerned with my own personal issues.  I refused to give up on myself. I rejected complacency and settling for less than what would make me happy (which had a lot to do with the three divorces).

I took college courses here and there through the years and finally went back to school full-time at the age of 51. I got a bachelor’s degree in history and shortly after graduating, a job working for a test preparation company. Not exactly the career I’d hoped for and certainly not the income I’d wanted. But I’m only required to work 12-15 hours a week, I like the people I work with, and I can take off whenever I want (as long as I let them know ahead of time).

Two years after I graduated, I went back to school and took four courses in Women’s Studies, and aced them all.  My dormant feminist spirit was wakening. My plan was to go on for a master’s in that field, but when the time came to apply for graduate school, I backed down. I still don’t know if I chickened ou, wanted flexibility so I could be there for my family, or more time to write. Most likely all three. Again, I didn’t look much like a feminist.

Then the presidential campaign came around and I got all fired up for Hillary. I resurrected a feminist blog I’d started years before and began writing about feminism. I found that I liked expressing my opinions even if no one was reading them. It felt good to get them out of my system. And along the way I rediscovered the fire I’d had for feminism thirty-some years before.

My point here is that you don’t have to be an ardent activist to be a feminist. Being a feminist means struggling with what it means to be a female person in a society that has a vested interest in keeping women down. It means getting mad at injustice and insensitivity. It doesn’t always mean a career, childlessness or manlessness. A woman doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, least of all to other feminists, in order to be one herself.

As the old saw goes, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that’s important. You never “arrive” as a feminist. You are one simply by living your life as honestly and authentically as you can.

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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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