My Road to Feminism

Very few people set out to become feminists. It’s not a philosophy that they just happen to pick out one day as if it was a dish in a smorgasbord. Becoming a feminist is usually a process. Things happen that shake us up and make us question everything we thought we believed. In my case, I became a feminist after having an abortion. It’s not that I was looking for absolution. It was more that I was trying to make sense of this happening to me. What were the implications of being a woman who had aborted her child? How had other women handled it? Why didn’t anyone talk about it?

I felt so alone. I didn’t think I could ever tell anyone my “secret.” And then I enrolled in a women’s studies course. This was back when there were no women’s studies departments or degrees. The course wasn’t part of the regular curriculum; it was more or less an experiment. The teachers were sort of making it up as they went along. We read seminal works like The Feminine Mystique and Sexual Politics. But most importantly, we talked. About what it meant to be a woman in our society. And about what being women meant to us personally.

Before I took that women’s studies course, I had never questioned why women made less money than men, or why mothers were more likely to stay home with the kids and did most of the housework. I hadn’t thought about the fact that there were so few women doctors or lawyers or engineers. I know that sounds incredible, but this was 1971. The Women’s Liberation Movement (as it was called then) had just started to pick up steam.

This was also around the time when “The Pill” became widely available. Before The Pill, women had to rely on their partners to use condoms or on birth control methods that weren’t that effective. Suddenly women were able to take charge of their own contraception and to be reasonably sure that they wouldn’t become pregnant. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was a monumental break-through for women. For the first time a woman could take charge of her own life. She was no longer a slave to her biology.

I got pregnant when I was 18 largely because I hadn’t thought about contraception. After my abortion, I went on The Pill. It made it possible for me to control whether or not (or when) I would become a mother. It also made me rethink what it meant to be responsible. Before the abortion, I had more or less gone along with what society (and my boyfriends) said I should be. Having the abortion and going on The Pill taught me that there were decisions that only I could make and that I damn well better make them if I wanted to be my own person.

The women’s studies course gave me the courage to make my own decisions. To step up to the plate, so to speak. I learned that the way a woman lives her life had a profound effect on everything and everyone else in our society. I began to see myself as part of a larger world.

One of the things I like about feminism is that it makes me think. It’s important to question why we do what we do and how we might do things differently. But it’s also important to analyze the influences that come from outside of ourselves. It’s one thing to say, “I’m not a decisive person.” It’s another thing altogether to get to the point where you can say, “The reason I have trouble making decisions is because I was always taught that a woman should defer to the men in her life. She is not supposed to push her own agenda. She is there to accommodate herself to the needs of others.”

Feminism doesn’t advocate selfishness, but self-awareness. Being a feminist means that you are always seeking ways to be better and more effective, not only as a woman, but as a person. It means that you can’t lean on others for everything. You are allowed to have your own opinions. And you are capable of standing up for yourself.

I didn’t become a feminist overnight. My whole life has been one long process of learning to stand up for myself and take responsibility for my own actions. Sometimes I’ve been successful. Usually I struggle. But I can never return to the person I was before I discovered feminism.

 

 

Second Wave Feminists: We’re Not Dead Yet

As I navigate the Internet searching for feminist resources, I come to an unpleasant conclusion: Second Wave feminists are either all dead or might as well be.

I understand about the generation gap. I do. I know that younger feminists are eager to find their own way in the world. They don’t want to do feminism the way their mothers (and grandmothers!) did it. But do they have to shut us out so completely?

Everything I read is seems to be geared toward girls (or Grrls). Which in itself is weird to me, since feminists from the ’60s and ’70s fought so hard to get people to stop using “girl” or “lady” for “woman.”  (Can you imagine Helen Reddy singing “I Am Girl, hear me roar”? Do you even know who Helen Reddy is??) We felt that to be called a girl was a way of infantilizing us. We wanted to be treated like grown-ups.

I also understand that young feminists don’t give a shit what others think of them, including other feminists (especially older ones). If they want to dress sexy or be obsessed with fashion and makeup, that’s their right. If they want to stay home with their children instead of having careers, that’s their right, too. That doesn’t make them less feminist in their way of thinking.

But what they don’t realize is that older feminists get that. We even admire it to some extent. What we resent is being treated as if our take on being feminine is obsolete. We stress(ed) not getting caught up in the societal attitudes that objectify us.  We didn’t want to be seen as just another pretty face or to be judged by our appearance. We worry that younger feminists are playing into the hands of men who want to keep us in categories they approve: sexual partner, mother, wife, girlfriend, servant.

Which brings us to another difference between Second Wave and subsequent waves of feminists: we blamed men for everything. Or at least we are characterized that way. Actually, we felt that men were as trapped as women were by role expectations and that everyone would be better off if we could break free from those expectations.

I’m not saying that today’s feminists don’t see the sexism in our society. They’re just less likely to blame it on patriarchy. They believe that women have been somewhat complicit in the downgrading of women. And they’re all about taking responsibility for their own choices in life. They don’t want to be hemmed in by what older feminists think is acceptable feminist behavior.

We should have anticipated the generation gap and prepared for our own obsolescence. But instead it seems as if Second Wave feminists have retreated into our middle-aged shells. There’s barely a peep from us on the Internet.

Is it just because we’re old fogeys who haven’t kept up with the times? Is our age to blame for our lack of relevance in the world today?

I’ve used the past tense almost all the way through this post to describe Second Wave feminists. That just goes to show you how even we have bought into the idea that we’re has-beens.

But I for one refuse to lie down and die. I think the Second Wave still has a lot to offer. I even think that Third and Fourth Wave feminists owe us. Without us, they would have neither the opportunities nor the respect that younger women enjoy today.

First Wave feminists prepared the ground for women’s advancement. Second Wave feminists planted the tree. And now today’s feminists are grafting other species onto that tree. What that will mean for the future is anyone’s guess. But we could all use each other’s help to tend what is being created.

Missing International Women’s Day

I missed the celebration of International Women’s Day this year (it was on March 8th). It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it. I just didn’t care.

That’s a terrible thing for a feminist to say. How can I not care about the plight of women all over the world?

All I can say in my defense is that, as a feminist, I sometimes have to fall back on the adage:  “Do as I say, not as I do.” Of course I should care about International Women’s Day. Just as I should care about all feminist issues. But the truth is, sometimes I’m just too involved in trying to live my own life to be concerned about the lives of others.

I’m not much of an activist. My actions on behalf on feminism are pretty much limited to signing email petitions and writing for this blog. I also rant and rave about feminist issues when I’m watching the news or reading comments on the Internet. And I spout feminist ideology when I’m talking with my friends, sister, daughters and husband. I’m constantly trying to parse what feminism means to me as an American, a Muslim, and an over-the-hill Second Wave feminist.

In the TED Talk that I posted yesterday, Courtney Martin spoke about how we all must accept our smallness while believing in our greatness. It’s easy to get down on ourselves for not accomplishing more, but it’s important to see the ways that we do make a difference. We make a difference by the way that we handle the details of our lives.

When I give advice or voice an opinion as a feminist, I’m always uncomfortably aware of how badly I’ve lived up to the feminist ideology in my own life. I dropped out of college when I was twenty to get married. I started having babies right away. I put aside my desires for self-advancement during my children’s younger years. I worked at a job that was meaningless and toxic toward women for over sixteen years. I never had enough guts to stay unmarried while trying to raise my children. (I thought I was remarrying for love, but it was mostly because I felt overwhelmed by single parenthood.) I demeaned myself by having an affair with a married man. And I never, ever got it straight that being a woman did not mean that I couldn’t be a success.

But at the same time, I’ve never wavered in my support of other women. Maybe having four daughters contributed to that attitude (well, of course it did), but I’ve always  been aware of the injustices dealt to women just because they’re women. I haven’t always been the best example to my daughters, but one thing they learned from me was to never settle for less than the best for themselves.

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Lament of an Old Woman

It’s a curious thing, getting old. When I was younger I thought it would feel like slowly walking into a blank future, a kind of nothingness. Instead, it feels like life is sliding out from under me as it races backward. I’m not moving; I’m staying exactly the same. It’s my context that keeps changing. I continually find myself in a completely new environment but I’m the same person: from the inside, I think I look the same, I’m the same eternal (but indeterminate) age, I have the same values,  and I live by the same rules.

That’s why it’s such a shock sometimes to look around me and see others aging. My daughters are all over 30 now. My grandson is almost 12 already. But me? I can’t quite grasp the fact that if others are getting older, so am I.

I went to an office party the other night and I was the oldest person there by almost 30 years. I didn’t feel out of place, but I afterward I wondered if the others felt funny being around me. When they looked at me, were they thinking: this woman could be my mother! When I opened my mouth to make a comment or tell a story, did they brace themselves for something irrelevant and stuck in the past? Do I seem as old to them as a 90-year-old person seems to me?

I was reading a book the other day where one of the characters referred to a 40-year-old woman as “middle-aged.” Wait a minute, I thought, that’s not middle-aged. I’m middle-aged. But by some guidelines I’m practically a senior citizen. Now that I’m almost 59, I don’t think you should be considered a senior citizen until you’re 70.

What bothers me the most about aging is the presumption that I don’t know anything, when in reality the older you are, the more you know. I at least know what it’s like to be young. But young people don’t know what it’s like to be old. That gives older people an edge when it comes to life-wisdom. Old people have lived through almost everything. The only thing that’s new for them is new technology. Even history repeats itself.

Young people think they’re changing everything, but in reality, they’re only reinventing the wheel. Every old person remembers what it was like to drive the older generation crazy. It’s only the particulars that have changed. What our parents thought was shocking may seem old-hat to our children and grandchildren, but the feelings of shock were just as real as the shock that they will feel when the next generation comes up with its own brand of language, art and fashion.

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