Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism. Until recent years, I had never really thought of myself as a feminist. I didn’t ever really give it much, if any, thought. I was just me. I was who I was, and I didn’t ever try to lump myself into any category.
I was a country girl. I married young. I was pregnant seven times. I have four living children. For a large portion of my life, my focus was on my family; my children, my husband, and my parents. The roles of wife, mother, and daughter were something that came naturally to me. It is aging (YUCK!) that has caused me to look back and really examine the choices I made as a younger woman.
When I went to college, I lied. I told my dad that I wanted to major in English literature, and he scowled and grumbled, “What are you going to do with a degree in literature?” Instead, he advised me to get an Associates degree in “Business Management.” That was a fancy name for secretarial school. He said that this would be a good skill for me in the event that I would ever find myself alone. By alone, he meant if I ever found myself widowed or divorced, I would have a skill to fall back on.
As I said, I lied. I took one semester of secretarial courses, and I knew it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t imagine taking dictation for a boss. (Yes, I learned shorthand!) I wanted to dictate a letter to someone, not type someone else’s words on a piece of paper. I changed my major, but I compromised my dream. Instead of a degree in English, my degree was in accounting, a more serviceable degree. I still didn’t tell my dad. By the time I would have graduated from secretarial school, I was married. I continued my education as a young married woman. I was a rogue student. I didn’t tell my parents that I had lied to them about getting a “real” degree. They never knew. My diploma came in the mail, and I didn’t participate in graduation. I look back on this now, and I feel sad that my dad didn’t encourage my passion, that he hadn’t thought it was necessary or worthwhile to educate a woman. I loved my dad, and he was an amazing father. I hold no resentment towards him. He was a product of his generation. I am a product of mine. He never knew about my lie. He probably thought my exemplary secretarial skills had served me well.
When I graduated from college, I worked for a couple of years. I loved working, and I loved the business environment. What I didn’t love was working in the accounting department of a large corporation. I wanted to understand the business of the business, not just crunch the numbers. I asked a multitude of questions. I recall my boss, a VP and Treasurer of the company, basically patting me on the head and telling me not to worry about why, just do my job.
Then the years and years of babies became my life. There was a pregnancy, a loss, and a pregnancy that quickly followed. I was bedridden in an effort to give birth to a healthy baby. Those years seem like a blur, but a wonderful blur. I loved being home raising my children. Yes, we were poor, but we always managed to get by. Without a doubt, those were the best years of my life. We had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our backs. T worked hard outside of the home, and I worked hard at home. The years flew by. I look back now in wonder. It’s hard to imagine a time when I was home with small children. For twelve years, I didn’t work, but it was hard work not working.
I certainly didn’t spend my time during those years thinking about feminism or wondering if I was hijacking my employability. I felt blessed to be able to be home with my children. Taking care of my family felt like my calling. I knew that my purpose in life during that time was being fulfilled. My presence at home strengthened my family. I still believe that to be true. I was THERE. I connected our children to their father at the end of the day. The fact that the household chores were done by me during the day meant that my husband and kids were able to enjoy each other during the evening hours. I prompted them to tell their dad the stories from the day that were already old news by 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. Our weekends were not a string of household chores and errands. I took care of those things during the week. Weekends were for family time. I have absolutely no regret about the years when my career was being a mom. I was in the “traditional” role of wife and mother, but I didn’t feel oppressed. I didn’t feel secondary. I felt important and whole. I felt needed and useful.
For over a decade, I have been back in the workforce. Maybe I am lucky, but I don’t feel that my career was derailed by the years I spent at home and not working. I hadn’t let my mind turn to mush by watching soap operas or reading trashy novels. I had remained involved in the community as a volunteer, and my volunteer experience and connections quickly propelled me into a new career. Yes, I am very lucky, but one thing I’ve realized is that it often doesn’t make sense to look too much into the future. (Even though I am often guilty of wondering what’s next and trying to peer into the crystal ball of my own future.) What comes next will come. The future has a way of finding you.
Today I attended a luncheon held in honor of Women’s History Month. The author of a well-known book on gender equality gave a lecture. The women attending the luncheon were successful community leaders, amazing women, many of whom have become wonderful friends. I looked around the room, and I had a moment of “imposter syndrome.” Surely, I didn’t belong in this room among these women! It sometimes makes my head spin to realize the journey of a life that has taken me from barefoot and pregnant to a feminist luncheon and lecture.
That brings me back to my original question. Am I a feminist, and if so, what has brought me to embrace this concept? Yes, without a doubt, I am a feminist if by feminist you mean that I support the rights of all women to choose their own personal path, to expect equal opportunities and pay, to be treated with the respect of human decency irregardless of their genitalia.
I don’t hate men. I love men! 🙂 What I hate are men who behave in a condescending manner towards women. Case in point: I was recently a greeter at my Rotary Club meeting along with a male Rotarian. We both stood at the door wearing large badges that read “GREETER.” As people entered the meeting, our job was to welcome them. What happened that day shocked me and made me feel sad, terrible, and less of a human being. I shook hands with most people as they entered, but a certain demographic of attendees walked right past me as if I was invisible. Men. Some men, approximately over the age of 55, refused to acknowledge my presence. The Good Old Boys Club was alive and well that day. It deflated me.
I am accustomed to often being the only woman in a meeting room full of men. At one time, I found such meetings daunting. Now I rarely notice. Men have come a long way, too, baby. Most men don’t have a problem with women in the workforce, even in roles that were traditionally male dominated. As the old guard retires and is replaced with a new generation of workers, inequality and the subtle shunning of women will fade into the memories of previous generations.
So why is there still a need for feminism? Is feminism a thing that will fade away along with the Good Old Boys Club? No, of course not. There are places in this world where women are not allowed to drive a car, young girls are forced into marriage, women are killed for attending school if the men in their lives forbid it. It is women who need to keep feminism alive for other women. We need to be supportive mentors of other women. We need to support the choices that only women face; reproductive choices, career choices, and the choice to embrace our own femininity in a way that celebrates womanhood, not commercialized sexuality.
My own daughter, at the delicate age of 21, claims to eschew feminism. She wants to be a wife and a mother. I try to explain to her that those are admirable choices. I try to explain that to her while at the same time trying to prepare her with the cold, hard facts that she needs to equip herself with the ability to support herself without the assistance of parents or a husband. I’m not quite sure how to get that message across without pessimism or the appearance of belittling her desire to do exactly what I did with my own life for many years.
On days when work has stripped me of my energy, and I still have piles of papers to go through on my desk, I sometimes fantasize about standing in the kitchen making bread or sitting at a table near a window sewing quietly while sunlight streams across the room. I think back to the days when I had a rug loom set up in my dining room, and I wove all the rugs in our home. I remember watching my children play in the sandbox, or holding their hands as we walked to the library for story time. I long for the simplicity of those days. A traditional, domestic life brought me a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t felt in years. I tell myself that someday if I’m lucky I will live long enough to retire, and I’ll do some of those things again.
I feel blessed that I have been able to live my life in a place and in a way that has allowed me to experience choices. I have been a wife and a mom. I have a successful career. I have had choices. I have been blessed with choices, and these choices are why I am a feminist. I want to encourage other women to bravely explore the choices in their own lives. I want all women to have choices.