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.