Friday, March 31, 2006

"I'm not that!"

Another brilliant post by The White Bear, who is subbing for Dr. B over at Bitch Ph.D.

Whether you grew up an oppressed female or a free-range type like myself, you probably weren't actively a feminist in any real sense for most of your young adulthood. You heard about feminists and their arguments, and maybe they sounded "shrill" or "churlish" or "bitchy" to your patriarchally-attuned ears. You either didn't care about the issues they raised or didn't experience them as problems in your own life, so you had a hard time thinking of feminism as either valid or necessary. Then you read something or heard about someone, a feminist, and you thought about her experience and her struggle, you compared her to yourself, and suddenly it all fell into place. That's what the patriarchy is, you thought. The bastards!

I also like this bit, later on -- Bear is explaining about the feminist that made her a feminist -- Frances Williard: "[Williard argues that ] men only know how to read with their own best interests at heart. A woman is raised to think of everyone's needs at once -- her parents', her partner's, her children's, and her own -- so women read more generously, with everyone's best interests at heart. Until men learn to think of others' lives with the same immediacy with which they think of their own, they must relinquish exegesis to the female sex. This strikes us, of course, as sexist in its own way. Who is Willard to say what a "woman" is or is not? I think what she is arguing is that only those who have been oppressed can see the system for what it truly is."

This post by The White Bear resonates with me for several reasons -- one being that the Kid and I are doing a kind of feminist tussle at the moment.

She's reading this book, The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, by David Starkey, and keeps coming to me with fun facts about various wives and historical questions and demands for explanations(Henry VIII is outside my period, I am not a history major, I know that Elizabeth resulted from this union but that's about all I know, anyway, shouldn't she be reading, I don't know, Little House on the Fucking Prairie? Where was I?)

She wants to know why Anne Boylen (I'm probably not spelling that right) would have married Henry and why she would have had "such a hot temper" after she married him.

I don't, in fact, have a clue. See above disclaimer.

But I point out that Anne's time is pre-feminism and that Anne might not have had much of a choice. In those days, I tell her, before feminists, I tell her, women had to marry who they were told to marry. It wasn't up to a woman who she married.

I don't want to get married, she says, because she's seven.

Well, I say, if it wasn't for feminists, it wouldn't be your choice. Aren't you glad feminists changed the world?

She gives me a mutinous look and takes her big fat history book into the next room.

Then, about a week later, we're channel surfing, waiting for Bones to start -- she loves that Dr. Brennan -- and I stop for a few minutes of Yentl. It's the violent bit where Yentl is getting knocked around by Avigdor after she reveals to him that she's a woman. The Kid hates violence of any sort. She howls and demands to know what's up, why he's doing that. I explain what's up, that Yentl had disguised herself as a man, because in that place and in that culture women couldn't study, and she wanted to study so much, and that he's angry because he has just found that out.

"Change that channel! Change it!" the kid wails. "I don't want to see that!"

I change to Animal Planet. "But you ought to see it," I said.


"Well, because," I say. "That's what things were like. That's how the world was."

"I don't want to know! I'm glad feminism happened! I don't want to know how things were!"

"Yes, but," I hesistated. "First, if you don't know how things were, then you might think feminism isn't important. That you don't have to be a feminist. Second, you know, things still are like that, in some places."

I am thinking of blogs like this, specifically:

and folk that think like Mr. Akin, but of course we can add CWA and Scott County, AR, and places like the town in Indiana where my relatives come from, and well, you all have your own list, don't you?

I too was not a feminist always.

In fact well into my twenties I insisted I was not that.

I despised feminism as a youngster. Those feminists. Always insisting on making trouble. Couldn't they just sit down and stop blaming men for all their troubles? Men were good! Everyone knew that! (All the men I read knew that anyway. And who else was there?)

When I was a kid, the books I read -- almost all of them -- and somehow I never really seemed to hear the others -- said that men were what mattered. And women were whiny, noisy, silly, shrill, trouble. And if I did not want to be that -- whiny, noisy, silly, shrill, trouble -- well. I had better not -- be.

Or not be a woman.

When I was fifteen or sixteen I read Joanna Russ' A Female Man.

It's a record of exactly what I'm talking about here. But I was way too young to hear it yet. Way too scared too.

I spent my childhood and adolescence doing what I could to not-be those things that woman were (so the men told me): I worked at not whining, at not being noisy, at not being silly, at not being any trouble, to anyone.

(I knew another sort of woman existed -- the "mother" sort, the sort that wasn't trouble, that was just invisible until you needed her to provide cookies or comfort -- but like the Kid, I didn't want to be that woman either. I wanted to be in the plot! I wanted to be part of the story!)

The trouble -- as you can clearly see -- with not-being whiny, not-being silly, not-being X -- is that whole not-being bit.

About 29 or so I noticed I was spending most of my energy not-being. I was sitting in the backs of classrooms. I was drifting through the aisles of libraries. I was spending a lot of time watching other people have lives.

I had met a feminist about two years before. She had been pointing out to me a few problems with my definition of feminism. She and the other feminists in the graduate school I was then attending were pointing out to me and the other mutinous non-feminists in the program how, well, odd it was that only the men in the program ever seemed to win any of the awards that were being handed out to graduate students (almost all the professors in the program were male, and played poker and went drinking with the (male) graduate students -- but I was sure, at the time, that this had nothing to do with it -- and anyway, I could have gone down to Roger's Rec anytime I wanted, with the professors, couldn't I? I could have joined the poker game any time I wanted, right? It was a free country, wasn't it?).

I re-read The Female Man. I brooded. I listened to the feminists around me. A professor who was teaching me Chaucer called me a harpy one day in class when I asked him a rough question. I stared at him with my fangs (just barely) covered.

I went out of class that day and stood looking through the window of the breezeway at the Boston Mountains and tried to think what he would have said to a male student who had asked him a question he didn't know the answer to. I told myself he was joking. Which he was. But he wasn't, also.

I looked at the storm clouds gathering over the Boston Mountains. Thirty years ago, I thought, I wouldn't be here. In my boots. In my jeans. With my Israeli Paratrooper bookbag.

But if I don't speak up, am I actually here?

So that's how I became a feminist.

I ain't shut up since, either.

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