Thursday, March 08, 2007
On International Women's Day
Okay, so today is International Women's Day, a tradition that has been ongoing for nearly 100 years (a fact which surprised me, but yes, the first official observance involved 15,000 women marching on New York City for shorter hours, better pay, and voting rights in 1908). That it is also Blog Against Sexism Day is, of course, a far more recent development, but it's certainly a great way to observe the observance.
Over at Pandagon, Amanda poses a question that, curiously enough, really stymied me:
When did you become a feminist? Either when you embraced the word or when you realized that sexism is still a problem and that feminism is still necessary?
Well, holy crap. I can't say I entirely know.
And the fact that I don't entirely know is, I think, a good thing. The reason I don't know is that I can't remember a time when I wasn't some form of a feminist (whether or not I knew it at the time), when I wasn't aware of gender disparities in the world and of the ridiculousness of said disparities. I was six years old when Top Gun made it to TV, and I thought it was the coolest thing. I wanted to be a fighter pilot like nobody's business. But, at the time, women couldn't be fighter pilots. I accepted this reality and shifted my short-term fantasy career to that of helicopter pilot, but I recognized the unfairness of it all - wasn't I just as capable a future pilot as any six-year-old boy? - and knew that things would have to change in the future.
And they did. Obviously, my little ten-year-old self had nothing to do with the repeal of the DoD "risk rule" and the subsequent entry of women into combat aviation, but I thought it was pretty cool all the same. And though my fickle career aspirations had, by then, shifted to race-car-driver-slash-ballerina (do they make pink Nomex?), I still recognized the progress that had been made and the progress that was yet to be made elsewhere.
That helped lay down a pretty firm feminist foundation for me, and I was fairly observant of the world around me after that. I noticed that my mom mowed the lawn much of the time, and I noticed that my dad made most of the pancakes. I saw my mom working outside the home (resulting in fond memories of my dad learning to curl my hair in the mornings), and, alternately, not doing that. Up the street, my best friend's mom was the manager of the gift shop at the hospital, which I thought was incredibly cool; I wasn't really sure what a manager did, but it sounded important.
I saw the "girls can do anything" lecture played out in my life. I had female relatives as role models in just about every field - IT, medicine, teaching, science, law (I had no idea that you could be in the Army and be a lawyer at the same time, and I thought it was awesome), government. I was shown that a woman's voice could be every bit as powerful as a man's, as long as she was willing to use it. And when any of my little elementary-school guy friends expressed an opinion that girls couldn't, for whatever genetic reason, take part in an activity or play a sport or have a certain career, I found it absolutely ridiculous and brushed it aside. They obviously just had a lot to learn.
I, on the other hand, was learning plenty. Beyond Introduction to Prepubescent Women's Equality, I also got a really important education in self-awareness. I didn't get any euphemistic birds and/or bees; I got the penises and vaginas and sperm and eggs, and I got it when I was about five, and I got it (as one can expect of a five-year-old) from a pop-up book. I was never taught to be ashamed of my body. I was never taught that any part of me was dirty or bad. I was taught that there were activities that took place in the bedroom and activities that took place out of it, not because they were wrong but because they were private. And I was taught that I had authority over all the parts of my body, and that if anyone wanted to try to take that authority away from me, I was fully in my right to defend myself and to tell anyone who would listen and not be afraid or ashamed. It's hard to imagine an empowered six-year-old, but if such an animal exists, I was it.
As I grew older, I got the feminist curriculum to go with the practicum and learned exactly how badly women had had it in the past, and how much work had been done to clear the way for me. Women's suffrage. Women's liberation. The pros and cons of the sexual revolution. Famous Female Firsts. Bra burning (a myth, actually). The gender wage gap (neither a myth nor a memory, unfortunately). Affirmative action. The ERA. Birth control. Reproductive rights. Abuses of women across the globe.
The extracurricular accompaniment to that education was real-life exposure to things like sexism and gender stereotypes. Why were the smart boys popular and the smart girls geeky? When I got into a fight with Stephen in middle school, why was his behavior excused as "boys will be boys"? In history class, why was it "debate" when the guys said it and "argument" when the girls did (not you, Mr. Touchberry)? Why was it so important that girls be pretty and popular and smart but not too smart, all at the same time? Freshman orientation: Why did they tell the girls to cover our drinks and never walk alone, but never told the guys not to force sex on people? Why were men, human men, being treated like animals who were unable to control their sexual urges?
Why did my 3.75-GPA biology-major roommate turn into a blithering idiot when she attended sorority events?
Those self-centric observations soon led to something more other-centric: Why are there so few women in Congress? Why are there so few women CEOs? What's wrong with having a family and a career? Why is the government trying to tell women what to do with their bodies? Why is the government withholding aid from women's groups in developing nations? Just because they talk about condoms and abortions? Why is the government telling lies to schoolkids about sex education? What's wrong with a vaccine that prevents cancer?
I cared about these things. A lot of women, actually, cared about these things, and having the kind of agency to debate them and change them was a thrill. The real shock to me, though, was how many of my "liberated" girlfriends balked at the designation "feminist." I did it myself, at first; despite the message of equality that had been pounded into me since birth, the image I had of a "feminist" was a hairy-legged, man-hating hippie chick in combat boots and flannel, waving a placard and shouting. And that wasn't me. Yes, I agreed with most of the things that feminists had done, but that didn't mean I was one, right? Could you still care about women's rights without wearing a henna tattoo?
I thought I was doing something groundbreaking and revolutionary when I decided to defy the stereotype and show the world a kinder, gentler side to radical feminism. I was standing out on my own - alongside, it turned out, millions of other women who already knew what I would soon learn: that the man-hating hippie chick was a stereotype, a strawfeminist, employed to derail the important issues, and that if you believe that women should enjoy every right and privilege accorded to men as a matter of course, you're a feminist, whether you like it or not.
I love to shock people who aren't aware of that fact.
Women's rights activists are being arrested in Iran. Rape victims are being blamed for their attacks. Funding for women's health is being withheld as retribution for the recent controversy over emergency contraception. A women's rights activist was recently murdered in Pakistan. Women in rural India don't know about AIDS. Women in Israel are being forced to the back of the bus by religious fundamentalists. Rape is just another tool of war in the Congo. Women are being reduced to the status of "baby machines". Women are getting the message that even our vaginas aren't good enough without plastic surgery. Young girls are constantly sexualized and objectified. Presidential candidates are campaigning on their determination to take control of women's uteruses. And if that bothers you? You're a feminist, so you might as well get with the program.
Hat tips to Feministing, Feministe, Pandagon, and so many others for reminding us all of what's been done and what needs to be done, and for putting strong voices out there. And a big hat tip to all of the fantastic feminist women - and men - in my life who've shown me just how feminism really does benefit everyone.
And I'm still totally going to be a helicopter pilot.