Please don’t use the “f” word. I may be a feminist, but I don’t want the label.
I grew up in the 1970s, when I was told I could have it all. I wouldn’t be “limited” to being a mom, a nurse or a teacher. I could be a doctor or an astronaut, and have a family.
I played the recordFree to Be . . . You and Me hundreds of times. I loved the positive messages of sharing, caring and fairness, and that girls and boys could achieve whatever they set their minds to.
(I still wanted to be a teacher.)
My mom took me for walks in nature and made me hold a garter snake. She also baked cookies with me. She was the first person I knew to get a divorce (and to be the one to ask for it).
“It isn’t fair!” was one of my rallying cries. Portions of cake had to be fair, turns doing dishes had to be fair, and there was no point playing board games unless the rules were adhered to fairly by everyone.
I didn’t notice “unfair” gender issues while attending grade school. I excelled in both academics and sports and was not limited in any way.
In high school, however, my male physics teacher told me I would go nowhere in math and science (somehow my A average seemed unimpressive). Until then, I had planned to go into civil engineering to enter the family business.
It wasn’t until I started to work part-time that I began to notice gender differences more critically. Why was I being asked to get people coffee, not the male intern? Why was I getting $6 an hour to do something that the guy before me was paid $18 an hour to do? Why did men stare at my legs so much?
These things didn’t sit right with me and they surely didn’t seem fair. I looked forward to the end of summer to get back to school.
As my career progressed, so did the notion of sexual harassment. Men and women clumsily muddled through what they thought it meant.
Once, the male human resources manager propositioned me. How was I supposed to cry foul on that? I noticed that if you didn’t “play along” you were labelled a feminist. I quit.
“Feminist” became a dirty, derogatory word. Like the swastika corrupted by the Nazis, feminist became tarnished by the male workplace.
“You’re not one of those are you?” a male colleague would say preceding or following a highly inappropriate remark. “Oh, no, of course not,” I would reply laughing.
I sought out other women to find answers. I asked a powerful, strong, beautiful woman at work if she was a feminist. She said: “No! I shave my armpits and I like men.” I learned that feminists were unattractive lesbians and men haters — clearly I could not be, and was not, a feminist.
It became easier to tell who was totally sexist, because men at work would start up conversations with strange questions, such as had I baked anything good that weekend, or had I bought any shoes? The fact that I had been canoe camping rarely helped.
I tried to be more like the guys, making the right kind of jokes or at least laughing at theirs. It didn’t make me comfortable, but it did improve my upward mobility. I drew the line when I was asked to go to a strip club with a male client and work colleague. I didn’t want to be a turtle with a hairbrush strapped to its back in a world of porcupines any longer.
My resume became a patchwork quilt of uncomfortable moments, glass ceiling strikes and pay inequity.
I started to hate Oprah for telling me that I could have a career and a family seamlessly. Funny though, she doesn’t have children.
So what could I tell mine? I will teach my daughter and son that they can be whatever they want to be, even if it is “just” a teacher. I will teach them about similarities as opposed to differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.
I will strive for fair for them and me. I will let them choose which fights to fight and which ones to walk away from, but I will hope they choose to fight more than I did.
I was born a feminist, because I have always believed in fair. Although I’ve seen improvements in organizations and in marital/parenting/gender roles, we still have “a long way to go, baby.”
Yes, I believe in equal rights and opportunities for women and in equal pay for equal work. But I can’t see myself ever spelling women with a ‘y’. By definition I am a feminist, but I would still rather you didn’t call me one.