StS Editor-in-Chief, Michele Johnson, on Feminism, Family, and Making a Sandwich for her Boyfriend

While away on vacation this past week with twenty-some family members, we spent time catching up. I answered all of the usual questions: how are things with my boyfriend (as in, when are we getting married), what sort of job do I have for the summer, what will my last year in grad school be like. When I told my aunts and uncles that I was the new Editor-in-Chief of a feminist literary journal, an achievement of which I’m extremely proud, they looked at me funny, as if to say, “Really?”

I was surprised that they reacted in such a shocked way. Coming from a bustling family of liberals who work as teachers, doctors, scientists, and social workers, I didn’t expect that the focus of So to Speak would be something to even comment on. Instead of receiving the congratulatory pat on the back that I had expected, I found myself trying to explain what it means to be a feminist in today’s world. It was more difficult than I thought it would be.

Navigating through the various comments about bra-burning and leg-shaving, I struggled for solid ground in my explanation. I eventually landed on a point that pleased my uncles enough, and didn’t feel too conciliatory, when I said, “If you believe that women who work your job should make the same amount of money as you do, then you’re a feminist.” They all nodded and agreed that this was fair, but they still had questions, most of which I had never considered before. One, in particular, got under my skin: So, if you’re a feminist, does that mean that you think that men should be subservient to women and only used for reproductive purposes?  I balked, reminded my uncle that we weren’t living in a sci-fi movie, and then surged backward into an explanation of third-wave feminism and what that meant to the movement, but I lost my audience to a gooey s’more being proffered by my cousin before I felt I had made any real impact.

I ran into this wall of prejudices and presumptions again and again throughout the week. One of my cousins, who will be entering college this fall, made a comment about how young women who attend concerts should just expect to be felt up, and even dropped the almost irreproachable phrase, “asking for it.” I wanted to rip his sports drink out of his hands and dump it over his head (once being a felt-up girl at a concert myself), but I had to remind myself that he was a spoiled kid from a very privileged and narrow world, and that it had probably not occurred to anyone else in his life up until now to set him straight. I, of course, did, though as nicely as I could. He apologized, and I could tell he felt bad for offending me, but my experience with my cousin helped me to understand that even among well-educated, upper-middle-class people, feminists still have their work cut out for them.

What was most strange about discussing feminism on my trip was that I thought I already had all of these familial bases covered. I assumed that these people, all of whom had had a hand in shaping who I am, would be just as interested in and moved by the plight of women and would understand how much work there still is to do. Instead, they looked at me like some decrepit crusader leading the charge in a battle that had been won decades ago. I merely needed to point them toward some of the things they themselves had said in order to prove feminism’s relevance, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. It was always “stuff that just happened” or “no big deal.”

The complacency evidenced by my family seems, to me, to be a symptom of our society’s relationship to civil rights and human issues. It is not until a very large issue comes to the forefront, like the recent abortion bill in Texas, that people are spurred into action. Happy to remain uninformed about local bills or dwindling funds for women’s health clinics, many individuals are reluctant to step into the debate on issues that aren’t receiving national attention. In my opinion, this reluctance stems from this idea that sexism is something we’ve banished, along with slavery and indentured servitude.

Sexism still exists in small ways that we don’t expect. While on our trip, not a single man or boy helped with the dishes, or even offered to. My father was the only male who cooked a meal. At the slightest murmur from either her son or her husband, my aunt would leap up to accommodate their request. It was believed that no females in attendance could properly start a campfire, but my aunt built one that burned for hours while her husband lounged, drinking his third beer. I’m not trying to come off as some sort of self-righteous, chore-completing woman-warrior, I’m just pointing out the not-so-obvious moments of sexism in our everyday lives. It is my belief that feminists today, while fighting the good fight on issues that exist in the public arena, must also continue to stage little victories in more private arenas as well. Journals like So to Speak provide outlets for women (and men) to explore all areas of sexism, whether it be the quiet kind that creeps around the dinner table every night or the loud kind that explodes in public debate and protests.

Beyond my frustration with the complacency shown by my family members, I was also frustrated by how my explanations and defense of feminism seemed to make me a “certain kind of woman” in their eyes. You know—the kind of woman who wears boots perfect for stomping on the egos of men, and thinks that being domestic in any way is practically a death sentence. It’s not that I disapprove of these women and their lifestyle choices, I’m merely curious to know when this caricature became the collected perception of “the feminist woman” in today’s society.  I’m curious to know when a love of baking while wearing a flower-print apron became a sign of weakness, whereas a love of the outdoors and beer makes one “too mannish.” In all reality, it seems as though women can’t win. Whether we are trying to play the role created by a DIY and wedding-obsessed culture (another blog post entirely), or working in direct opposition to those expectations, we are cast into particular molds and told to stick to them, whether they chafe or not.

This is an aspect of life that I’m still wrestling with on a daily basis. Does my love of rap music make me a hypocrite? Does the fact that I really do love preparing a sandwich for my boyfriend every once and a while mean that I’m less of a feminist? Even the fact that I worry which actions validate or invalidate who I am as a feminist is troubling to me.

I think that being a feminist today means more than simply putting on the boots or casting aside the apron. It means taking the males in your life aside and telling them it’s not ever okay to use the phrase “asking for it” and taking the females in your life aside and telling them the same thing. It means taking small opportunities to shatter gender hierarchy wherever possible in your everyday life, as well as swinging the wrecking ball that eradicates and defeats legislation which limits the rights of women.  More than anything, it means listening to the people around you and being aware; it means being more than complacent.

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