Saturday, December 10, 2005

How I Became a Feminist

In the latest Feminist carnival a whole bunch of women and men write about how they became feminists, and when they started to call themselves feminists. Well I'm a day late and a dollar short and

In some ways I was extremely precocious feminist. I still have my copy of the Railway Children which says "Happy 7th Birthday on the inside" and in which I had writeen RUBBISH in black felt tip pen over the paragraph near the end when the Doctor tells Peter that he must be nice to girls because they're soft and weak. I grew up in the 1980s and really believed Girls Can Do Anything, and was prepared to fight for it.

But something happened in my teens, my feminism faded. I know why, and I know I'm not alone. To middle-class girls in all-girls schools sexism and misogyny often seem far away. I was taught by some of the coolest feminists I've ever known. My school had a quilt hung in the hall that said "Me aro koe ki te hä o Hine-ahu-one. Pay heed to the dignity of Women". But it was an all women world and so feminism seemed unnecessary.

It was ridiculous, because sexism and misogyny were all around us, all the time. We didn't recognise them mostly because we were too busy using them to try and destroy each other.

So all through high school, and into my first year of university I didn't call myself a feminist. I was 18 when this changed, and I remember the change as a revelation. it wasn't of course, I must have forgotten all the small thing.

I was babysitting, I'd put the kids to bed and settled down to do the readings for one of my tutorials. I was reading women's accounts of growing up in Germany towards the end of the 19th Century. One woman was from the aristocracy, one was middle class, and the other were all working class women.

Most of the women had become involved in left-wing politics later in their life and their stories were amazing. The best of the fathers in the narratives were completely hopeless, most weren't that useful, but they survived, and fought for their brothers and sisters. I was blown away by those women and their strength. They had all fought so hard for things that I saw as so basic.

But it was still school work, so as soon as I was finished being blown away I watched a movie the kids' parents had left behind. It was called The Heidi Chronicles and I remember almost nothing about it except that it was about a woman who was involved in women's liberation, and it showed how much she'd gained but how hard it was, and how it had cost her.

My response to the stories of women's lives, both fictional and real was: "I have to call myself a feminist, I owe it to all these women who went before me, who fought so hard and gained so much to become part of that struggle."

And that was the beginning.

8 comments:

  1. Very precocious indeed!! Interesting too, because your story of how you became a feminist is really very different to mine. I'll fill you in (sorry, this might take a while...)

    I didn't even really know what feminism was at high school (NB - Maia and I went to the same high school...). I did understand that, historically, women had to fight for their rights. In fact, I don't think I fully discovered it as an ideology until I started university. And I certainly didn't call myself one while I was there.

    It wasn't until I went overseas and got some perspective on my own life and saw how self-destructive I was being that I began to identify myself as a feminist. That was in my mid-20s.

    I too read The Railway Children as a child. And the Narnia books. And Swallows and Amazons. I loved them all. I read lots of literature with traditionalist, mysogynist and religious undertones (or overtones). But I don't regret reading them at all. It was part of my childhood, and I can still enjoy that literature for what it is.

    But it is a bit scary when I reflect on my life and do a feminist critique of my own behaviour as a child, a teenager, and a woman in her early 20s. However, I see it as very much a learning experience. I am a strong woman now, and I'm also proud to call myself a feminist.

    But I don't call myself a feminist because I owe it to the women who fought before us, even though I do understand that without them I wouldn't be who I am today.

    Ultimately, I call myself a feminist because I owe it to myself - because I'm worth it and because I deserve it. As does every other woman out there, past, present or future.

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  2. esther4:51 pm

    Awww I love you two so much! What wicked cool people were produced by our high school.

    It's funny because I always knew that feminism was a good thing, cos I grew up in the 80s too, all "girls can do anything" and my mum was all "yay feminism!" But yeah, I didn't go round calling myself a feminist and didn't feel like I needed to, even though feminism was important to other women.

    And it was kinda embarrassing to label yourself a feminist when I started university - because I was pretty shy about talking about anything in class and, you know, being a feminist might make people think that you're not into boys and stuff, even though I was.

    But when I started studying politics, they would have a week on the feminist perspective for every course and the lectures would be really good (and usually both depressing and illuminating). But the scary thing was, some people (and not just guys) would dismiss the arguments (or facts) as unimportant or suspicious.

    And then if you made a feminist argument at any other time, people would look at you all, "uh... we already did our week of feminism, do we have to talk about it *again*?". So even though I hadn't called myself a feminist, I agreed with feminist ideas and I was totally shocked by people who didn't.

    So I guess I became a feminist after it occurred to me that other people weren't feminists - even though they had been invited to think about it and had been presented with evidence of why they should be.

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  3. That portion of the Railway Children made me crazy when I was a kid too!

    I wish I'd found your blog sooner-- I just posted a lament about how the Carnival wound up with more U.S. blogs than I would have liked.

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  4. Thanks Happy Feminist - and thanks a lot for putting together the carnival - there's some great stuff in there.

    Knowing what I know about E. Nesbit now, and re-reading it is an adult I'm convinced that the doctor's voice wasn't the authors voice.

    Most of my early forms of feminist action were a little short on analysis, though. We used to sing hymns at school (we're very wooly with that church/state seperation thing here), and I'd get grumpy that they always showed God as a man, so I'd swap the pronouns around. Unfortunately my grasp on theology was a little bit lacking - so I was often referring to Jesus rather than God.

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  5. heh heh i know what you mean about the gendered language replacements - i remember as a staunch 14 year old getting absolutely irate with the Nutrigrain ads (which is what i used to have for breakfast back then). i used to yell at the television whenever they came on, replacing every "man" they said ("iron MAN food", "iron MAN energy" etc) with a very loud "PERSON". it must have driven my parents mad.

    however i note over a decade later they still focus their ads entirely on boys, including an incredibly patronising ad about how nutrigrain is good for mums (because it gives their sons the muscles to lift heavy things for them, etc). Vomit.

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  6. heh heh i know what you mean about the gendered language replacements - i remember as a staunch 14 year old getting absolutely irate with the Nutrigrain ads (which is what i used to have for breakfast back then). i used to yell at the television whenever they came on, replacing every "man" they said ("iron MAN food", "iron MAN energy" etc) with a very loud "PERSON". it must have driven my parents mad.

    however i note over a decade later they still focus their ads entirely on boys, including an incredibly patronising ad about how nutrigrain is good for mums (because it gives their sons the muscles to lift heavy things for them, etc). Vomit.

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  7. So do sewer workers go down manholes or personholes?

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  8. How about maintenance holes...manhole sounds like something much more biological.

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