Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How I Became a Feminist (and You Can Too!)

"We can never go back to before." - Ragtime

I used to think I wasn't a feminist. I was for equal rights, I confidently told myself, not favouring women over men. I wasn't interested in getting into heated arguments about the glass ceiling or birth control. And I had never once burned my bra.

Part of this disavowal came from my annoyance with the possessive apostrophe in "women's history." Just because I was female didn't mean this was more my history than the male sitting next to me. I felt that with that apostrophe came the presumption that because I was a woman I should be interested in women's history. And I don't take kindly to presumptions. I was grateful for the civil rights this history had given me, but I was equally thankful for other gifts from my predecessors, like germ theory and the Emancipation Proclamation. I was a human. My history was the history of humanity - of women and men, West and East, Emperor and colonist, Native and settler. It was all my inheritance, and everyone else's too.

But as I went further along in my education, my confidence started to crack. I learned that the most crucial years of my career would coincide with the healthiest period in my life to bear children. Suddenly The Feminine Mystique hit me harder than before. I read of the history of gendered violence alongside current news stories of missing girls. I compared the suffrage movement to the battles my mother was fighting in our Synagogue for egalitarian services. It was becoming increasingly clear that women's history carried a significance I had not previously considered.

These academic epiphanies coincided roughly with the birth of my niece. As my family prepared to welcome her, I thought back to my own childhood. No doubt about it, young Shira was a tomboy. I hated dresses and the colour pink. I quit ballet for soccer. My best friends were boys. It dawned on me that this proclivity to eschew anything "feminine" stemmed from my ambition. I wanted to be the leader of a country or a company, to be respected and important, to have an interesting and exciting life. And from what I could tell from society, and especially TV, those sorts of people were men. So I tried to be like them as best I could.

Hallie's arrival sharpened my newfound sensitivities. Within days of her birth, people were already making jokes about which baby boy she was going to marry. I felt like responding that her life goal did not have to be to get married. I realized it didn't have to be mine, either. Her dollhouse came with a mother, father, and baby. With this idea inculcated before age one, how could I ever teach her that families came in so many other variations? And as everyone, myself included, gushed over her looks and clothes, I hoped that her self-worth would never be dependent on such compliments. We all meant well, but I thought back to my own girlhood and feared the potential impact. With all this talk of wifehood and playing house and prettiness, I worried Hallie would learn that she had to be a man to be anything substantial in the world.

I knew that nobody wanted this for Hallie. And that nobody had wanted it for me, either. Social structures and norms conditioned all of us to see normalcy as natural. But I wanted to change that. I wanted to teach everyone in my life that there was no biological basis for gender. That if society had made a culture in which women are paid less and objectified more, then it could unmake it too. I wanted Hallie to grow up in a world in which being a girl didn't constrain her options.

That's when I became a feminist. And realized I had been one all along.

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