In 2013 I was reborn a Feminist.
You know how people say, “I’m not a feminist but…”? And then they go on to say something perfectly reasonable about women’s rights? This was the year I swore never to allow those words in my presence again. I’ve taken my marching orders from Caitlin Moran, whose How to Be A Woman had me howling with laughter:
We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?
Reading How to Be A Woman was just the beginning. Starting in the fall of 2012 I began reading women’s memoirs about their adolescent forays into the jungle of sexuality. Was it just coincidence that during that season, the women in my writing classes began revealing stories of bad boyfriends, funny uncles, and worse? Much of this stuff— both the women whose memoirs I was reading and the experiences of the women in my classes—was about asymmetrical and frequently abusive power relationships between men and women. It became increasingly clear to me just how deeply the personal is political, as the second wave feminists had proclaimed.
In February 2013 I began blogging my rising consciousness of issues around violence against women and girls. I danced in a flashmob on Valentine’s Day as part of One Billion Rising, a global movement for gender justice. And I kept reading. After Caitlin Moran came Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities, A Secret History Of Female Desire. It brought dozens of clicks of recognition.
Then I read When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins, and everything changed.
I saw for the first time the societal arc that paralleled my own—the mass of “aha moments” that led women to work for equal rights, which led to tackling its many components, from equal pay to reproductive rights to universal childcare to prevention of domestic abuse. Women found wherever the political met the personal and dove in.
An unintended side effect was the splintering of a united front into multiple fronts, and some of them at odds with each other. The most confusing was the issue of porn: if we consumed, were we liberated or co-opted? What about sex work? Was it economic opportunity or female slavery? And at that point the whole movement seemed to stall. In part it was our discomfort with conflict that drained the Second Wave. But more, it was simply a matter of timing. My cohort of feminists aged out of the radical lifestyle. The personal no longer left time for the political. As we began marrying, raising children, and clawing our way forward in our careers, the Second Wave lost its momentum. Reading When Everything Changed allowed me to see this progression clearly.
I felt so important, reading When Everything Changed! We have a cause worth fighting for, and the battle isn’t over! To the barricades! Except for my flashmob moment, I hadn’t felt like this since back in the early 1980s, when I carried a placard in Take Back the Night marches and pasted up Andrea Dworkin articles for a radical journal.
Sad to close the cover on Gail Collins’ book, I sought out more. I read The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer, then In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, by Susan Brownmiller. By this time the territory felt familiar. I felt ready to take feminist action. But what to do?
And that’s the moment when an opportunity emerged. A Fund for Women (AFFW) tapped me to collect and edit women’s stories about the personal experiences that convinced us we needed to stand up for women’s rights. I spent the summer of 2013 in my yard, editing my “binders full of women.” The result is What She Said, which rolled off the presses in December. (See the cool book trailer here.)
Somehow I also found time to read Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, and to find the words “executive feminism” increasingly in the news. Women and men are undergoing their own consciousness-raising, tuning into the buzz around Sandberg’s book.
In August I began to read No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, by Gloria Feldt. I didn’t finish until December. That book is so charged with political call-to-action that I could only read a few paragraphs a day, making notes like there was no tomorrow. “Until we understand and redefine our relationship with power, we will stay stuck in our half-finished revolution.” “Power-over is passé, power-to is the next iteration of leadership.” “Money, sex, power, and reproductive rights are linked.” ”Women’s history is the primary tool of women’s emancipation.” “Whoever is most comfortable with the ambiguity change creates will thrive.” You see what I mean. Charged words. Call to action. But dense!
Now here I am at the dawn of 2014, better informed through both research and field-work to understand the territory of today’s feminism.
At the beginning of the What She Wrote project, I asked my friend Jesse what she thought was most important for young women to know about feminism. Above all else, what message should I weave into the book? “Two things,” she said. “First, reality is socially constructed and can be reconstructed. Second, you don’t need to wait for a leader.” I worked those thoughts into the Afterword of the book (thank you, Jesse.) And I tucked them in my brain for further rumination.
My Boomer cohort is about to retire. With jobs and children in the rear view mirror, I believe we’re ready for a new wave of feminism. We don’t need to wait for a leader; we can start the reconstruction right now.
Working on What She Said confirmed what I know in my heart: Each life story is unique yet universal. In each, the personal is political. Once you accept that, there’s no need to say, “I’m not a feminist but.” If you see something, say something. If it feels like gender injustice and it upsets you, you’re a feminist. Take action.
Let’s make 2014 the year feminism becomes cool. And hot. Like jazz, we can have it both ways; if we’ve learned anything since the Second Wave, it’s to welcome multiple points of view.