The first time I ever heard the word feminism, it was from the pulpit of my fundamentalist church. I was probably around twelve, but I have a fairly clear memory of the “sermon” that the preacher was furiously raining down on the congregants; he claimed that feminists hate men, that they were a bunch of bra-burners, and that feminism emasculates men. He told the women and girls sitting in the pews that Sunday that being a “feminist” meant you had to give up your womanhood, your femininity– feminists are butch. Feminists don’t let men open their doors. Feminists would have wanted the women and the children on the Titanic to drown. Feminists will never get married, will never have children. Being a feminist makes you a murderer, because feminists support abortion.
It was a horrifying picture to paint for my twelve-year-old self.
When I hit my teenage years, I started encountering other perceptions of feminism, but none of them were favorable, even if they were slightly more moderated. Mostly the people I read and heard spent a lot of time talking about how feminism wasn’t necessary any more– in much the same terms that I heard the Civil Rights Movement discussed. There was this perception that became women’s suffrage had succeeded, there wasn’t anything left for feminists to do. They were all, basically, tilting at windmills. Sexism just doesn’t exist anymore, why are you getting your panties in such a twist? Feminists were innately ridiculous– like Winnifred Banks singing about “Sister Suffragette.” Harmless little souls. Or Enid Wexler’s character from Legally Blonde, ranting about silly nonsense things like the word “semester” being innately sexist, and how it should be “ovester” instead.
I had no idea what feminism was– I had never met a feminist, and I purposely avoided feminist writers. Anytime I encountered someone who claimed to be a feminist, I backed away slowly, like I was mentally facing down a rabid dog. If they were a feminist, it meant that they had subverted their identity as a woman, and could not be intellectually honest. Being a feminist, as a woman, meant denying who you were. Who you were “created to be.”
Then I went to college, and my horizons expanded just a little bit further. At this point, I started reading women who wouldn’t outright identify as feminists, but they did acknowledge that there were still some problems that we could work on, a little. These writers, usually women, included the phrase “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but” or “I can’t go full-out and claim that I’m a feminist, but“.
That “but” is what opened the door and let in a sliver of light for me. During my upperclassmen years, I became one of those “but” women, as I started seeing what had been right in front of my nose all along. I didn’t want to associate myself with feminism (shudder), but I could see their point.
Intellectually I became more directly feminist when I entered grad school, at some point during my second semester. I don’t really remember exactly when the shift occurred, but I do remember that I still wouldn’t associate myself with feminism. The term had too much baggage, too much history. But, by the second semester is grad school I was taking English Romanticism and my professor spent a goodly amount of time talking about women from a cultural prospective (News Flash: Mrs. E, my British Novel teacher, was right. Grad school really is a den of liberalism, talking about systematic oppression of women like it’s a reliable historical fact). We were engaging with Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, and Ann Radcliffe. We discussed how these women began constructing their identity as an individual with a voice in the midst of the Romantic movement. We read Mary Robinson’s Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination.
I fell in love with these writers who were struggling to identify themselves, to see themselves as more than a series of designated, seemingly God-ordained tasks. They fought against their culture just to have a voice.
For me, though, I could fully claim feminism for myself when I watched Mad Men for the first time. It was spring break, and I miraculously had barely anything to do. No papers to grade, no research to do (well, not really. It could wait without creating a mountain of stuff to read later), and no papers to write. One of my fellow grad students suggest that I watch Mad Men, and I did. All three seasons on Netflix, and then cursed myself because the season premier of season four was the last Sunday of spring break, and I couldn’t afford the time to watch it.
My favorite character will always be Peggy, with Joan running a close second, but it was Betty Draper that commanded most of my attention. I loved watching Peggy grow into herself and owning her career, and I adored Joan’s constant snarkiness, but Betty… Betty was the character I identified with. Betty was the woman who had followed the culturally-acceptable path for her life. She had worked, a little, but she settled down, became a wife, had children. She went to the grocery store, ran errands, had her husband’s dinner waiting for him, and did her best to submit to her husband.
She did every little thing she was “supposed” to. She was, very nearly, the perfect 50s housewife. She forced herself to fit the complementarian, patriarchal mold. And she was absolutely miserable.
And that’s when it really, finally hit me. The complementarian, patriarchal role I had stuffed inside of my head, telling me what I was “supposed to be,” what I was supposed to want . . . could not make me happy. I would find no joy in it, I would not even be myself in it.
For me, feminism is about identity– and it’s about the freedom for men and women to shape and build whatever identity they feel like. Feminism is throwing off a cultural shroud that confines us with nothing more than the word no. Feminism is saying yes.
Feminism is saying I will when culture says you can’t.