The following is a guest post by Sheryl Rivett, George Mason University MFA Fiction student and StS 2013-2014 Blog Editor.
During the second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies, my mother referred to herself as a “feminist.” She was a schoolteacher, a mother of three, and the daughter of an educated, single mother who had divorced her first husband in 1945, despite public shunning in the Catholic community where she was raised and despite the cultural expectation that women were to stay in their marriages. Feminism didn’t fall far from the tree. When Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” topped the charts in the seventies, my mother and her friends, all college-educated women who were juggling work and family and cultural chauvinism, would gather in their living rooms to dance and sing the Reddy lyrics at the top of their lungs.
When I attended college in the late eighties, feminism was the last thing with which I wanted to identify. I wanted to be anything BUT like my mother. In fact, I remember raising my hand in Public Communication and asking my professor, “I don’t understand what the big deal is about words. I don’t care if we say MANkind, or “man” for woman.” By the end of that class, my eyes were open to the reality of the power of language, of the nuances of word choices, and the inherent misogyny in the cultural rhetoric. By the end of my undergraduate education, I would understand the importance of feminist theory, whether male or female, white or black, gay or straight.
A year ago, my oldest daughter started her freshman year of college at a private, all-girls school, known for its progressive academics and culture. Leaving the relative stability of a middle-class upbringing in a small town in Virginia, where most families looked like hers, she entered a new world on the college campus. Feminism was a word used proudly and liberally, it was the vogue ideal to ascribe to, and she saw freshman girls acting out their ideas of feminism in ways that didn’t match what her feminist mother had modeled during her childhood: working for equality in women’s healthcare, lobbying for choice in maternity care settings and providers, supporting and fighting for marginalized populations. She arrived home confused, uncomfortable and uneasy with feminism. I struggled in those moments, feeling as if generations of strong women who came before me were staring at me, waiting for the proper response, waiting for me to give voice to the importance of all their hard work, their sacrifices, their need to be heard.
As we talked, I reminded her that when a person has felt oppressed or silenced that it’s natural to feel anger, to strike out and act out, and that being a feminist was not about imitation and what was in vogue, but about being true to yourself and your sense of personal power. I explained that even among feminists, there can be divides. Radical feminism is the outgrowth of years of women, often lesbian women, feeling silenced and marginalized. Radical feminism was an enthusiastic, sometimes angry and sometimes joyful, expression of a marginalized population for which feminism was a necessary outlet—and they advocated for radical social upheaval as a necessary end. But, radical feminism is not what all feminism is about. It co-exists with liberal feminism, which is considered the more moderate feminist thought, a movement that advocates for political and social equality. What was happening on her campus was not necessarily political feminism, but actually typical teen and young adult behavior – a wide range of experimentation and a stretching of boundaries.
Over the weekend, we talked about feminism at length. Sitting on her bed, listening to her worries and concerns, I thought about my great-great-great grandmother who locked her husband, a physician, out of the birthing room, so that she could birth on her own terms with the African-American midwife; about my great-great-grandmother who stood up in a town meeting to give a speech about illegal moonshine and the effects of alcoholism on women and children; about my great-grandmother who was widowed at a young age and who sewed baseballs for a living so that she could send her daughters to college; about my grandmother who had a college education and economic independence and who divorced her first husband and embraced single motherhood for more than seven years in the 1940s and 1950s; about my mother who danced in the living room with her friends to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman, and I thought about the day that I told the vice president of a large corporation that there was no amount of money or title that she could give me to make up for the time that I wanted to have with my daughter when I chose to stay at home and leave my career. These were the stories that I wanted most to tell her about. This matrilineal line, these women who she came from, they were all feminists in their own way—facing life on their own terms and finding their voice. I told her finally, whatever choices you make, if you make them on your own terms and with full agency, then that is what feminism is about.