Thursday, February 4, 2010

I Am the Feminist My Father Warned Me About

When I was young, I grew up in a very traditional family. This is not the family I tend to talk about now: my adoptive family with my 3 sisters, mom, and pop. They’re traditional, too, but in different ways. My family of origin, the only member of which I am still very close to being my brother, who is currently in the Army, was working-class and Republican. Most of the men are or have been in the military or work in law enforcement or some combination thereof. Most of the women have been homemakers, even if that wasn’t their aspiration (as it certainly was not my grandmother’s). I am the first person in my directly line to go to college, and I am the only person to achieve a doctoral level/professional degree even in my extended family.

From a young age, I was a very smart and assertive little girl. I talked a lot. I am the oldest child and grandchild, and consequently got a lot of attention from my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmother in particular was very intent that I make something of myself and not get tied down to a man too young. My mother took off when I was twelve, and I spent my teen formative years under the thumb of my father. My dad tried to encourage me, but at the same time he was a real man’s man. Consequently, when I first had my heart broken by a young man who I loved, and who loved me right up until my desire to wait beyond my fourteenth year to have sex summarily dumped me for an older girl who had sex with him in a booth at the movie theatre they both worked in, my father’s solution to my moping was to buy me a t-shirt stating, “BITCH OF THE HOUSE” on it to let me know how I’d ruined the holidays for everyone. When I tried to assert that perhaps my brother could share the household chores with me, or maybe make his own dinner instead of it being my responsibility to stop studying and cook for him, I was told that I was being a “FEMINAZI” which was tantamount to being a fascist in his mind. A “feminist” was a BAD THING to be. A terrible thing. A thing men did not appreciate, want, or like in a woman, and to be something unappreciated by men was to be an untouchable. There were a lot of things women did or did not do back then. They ALWAYS shaved every potentially visible part of their body. They never expected men to cook, and if they chose to, a woman’s role was to lavish praise while assisting in any way necessary. You can imagine. The list went on and on.

Every March, Lewis & Clark’s Gender Studies Department hosts a three day academic symposium. It happens, every year, right around my birthday. So I always get nostalgic about the birth of my own feminism through my experiences here at college around this time of year, and since I first attended the Gender Symposium back in 2002, I haven’t missed one yet. When I came to Portland and Lewis & Clark, I didn’t really know what a feminist was. Most of my ideas came from the things my father mocked as feminist, and from the riot grrl music of the 1990s. Somewhere in a box in our basement I still have my copy of the Rolling Stone Magazine that declared the “Year of Women in Rock,” which helped me discover the influences Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett and Tina Turner and Joni Mitchell on the ‘90s rockers I already adored. To this day, I love Liz Phair, who taught 14 y.o. me to sing, “And I kept standing 6’1” / Instead of 5’ 2” / And I loved my life / And I hated you.” Even now, when Tori Amos croons, “She’s been everybody else’s girl / Maybe one day she’ll be her own” or “And I’ve been here. Silent all these years” I feel like she is speaking directly from *my* soul. My heart. And that music came at just the right time to save a girl who was trying so hard to hide the physical, emotional, and psychological abuse happening at home, who was nursing two elderly and chronically ill grandparents, parenting a younger sibling, and trying to keep an increasingly non-functioning alcoholic in check. But for all it gave me, I still didn’t know what feminism really was. I just knew I wanted to scream, like Hole and Belly and Le Tigre and Throwing Muses. I wanted to scream until someone listened.

It was here, in this beautiful green living world, at age 22, that I took my first course in gender studies. I read "A Room of One’s Own" and "Bliss" and "The Yellow Wallpaper." I read philosophy and learned about de Beauvoir and Foucault and about the concept of the female body experience and so many other nuances that are now just part of my general operating system. I am grateful for many opportunities I’ve had, but none I think has changed me so much or been as valuable in shaping me as my gender studies work.

I’m presenting at the Gender Symposium again this year, this time on gender in the perfume industry. I’ve also been asked to guest lecture on feminist jurisprudence for a Philosophy of Feminism course I audited while working at another university. I jokingly like to tell people that my dream job is to be a professional feminist and get paid for it. Perhaps I’ll just have to settle for it being my volunteer side gig. And when I am feeling nostalgic and, frankly, deeply appreciative of all the women and the handful of men who have schooled me in my feminist ways, I am touched by pieces like the one Tavi wrote today. Here is a girl not much older than I was when I discovered the same music, the same message, the same feeling of solidarity in feminist values. I hope she gets her high school feminist club going. And I hope when I am as old as the women in the video below, I am still rocking out and being feminist in any way I know how.

Because I am the feminist my father warned me about; in fact, I'm worse.

And I'm proud of it.


Ines said...

I am sorry to hear your formative years have been so difficult for you but you obviously triumphed over it all and it did make you the person you are today.
I hate from the bottom of my heart double criteria in any form and it is usually displayed most evidently in male/female relations. In that I was lucky that although my parents roughly function along that notion what is a woman's job and what is a man's job, they never ever tried to make me think like that. Maybe I'm also lucky to have a sister. :)
Unfortunately, I'm not assertive at all and will become loud and talkative only if I percieve unjustice and feel obliged to defend the notion. Some people think I'm a feminist and I don't mind - but mostly I think I just want this world to be fair to all of us.

The Left Coast Nose said...

Can I just say, Diana, this posting just touched my heart in so many ways. I'm tempted to do a lot of "me too" sharing, but instead, I'll just thank you for your beautiful telling of your own story.

I'm so glad that you "found your tribe"-- found the resources and inspirations that you needed to become the person that you want to be!

And I have to tell you, I sat straight up when you mentioned a talk on gender in the perfume industry. Any chance I might be able to look at your talk? I would read it with deep interest...

@Ines Well, your voice rings through loud and clear in the blogosphere-- I don't think of you as non-assertive!! But then, I think I'm a *tad* more assertive on the Internet than I am in person. ;) Maybe we show different sides of ourselves in different situations...

ChickenFreak said...

Really wonderful post and story. I'm in that 'want to say more but can't find the words' mode, so I'll leave it at that: Wonderful.

PearlSugar said...

I love, love, love the way you write! The points you make here are nearly the same ones our dearest friend used to make me realize I WAS in fact a feminist, despite the negative connotations the term sometimes carries.