Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How I became a feminist

A week or so ago, I was poking around on Twitter and came across a link to this post titled "How I Became a Feminist." And I realized that while I've blogged quite a bit about feminism, I haven't actually written about how I got here in the first place.

I come from a very traditional family. My dad's the breadwinner, and my mom's always done the stay-at-home thing. I like to think that my parents might not have assumed traditional gender roles had they been given the chance to figure out what else was out there, though. They were both raised in very traditional settings, and married young.

Kids worry about all kinds of weird things. And because my parents were the people with whom I spent the majority of my time, I tried to picture myself in their shoes and worried incessantly about what my future would be like. Neither of my parents were born in the United States; they're not native speakers of English. I remember thinking that in order to ever be considered a "real adult," I, like my parents, would have to learn a whole new language/culture. And it scared the shit out of me.

But the funny thing is that in becoming a feminist, I've done exactly that.

Although feminism was not a part of my upbringing, it entered my consciousness when I was still very young--long before I had a word for it. I distinctly remember being in the first grade and going to a friend's house after school to play for a few hours. I was surprised to find a babysitter there instead of my friend's mom. I'd never had a babysitter before, and asked my friend where her mom had gone.

"She's at work," my friend replied (with a tone suggesting I was an idiot for not having known that instinctively).

She didn't know it, but she had, in only three words, eliminated the anxiety I'd felt about my future. I didn't have to grow up to be a stay-at-home mom. Maybe that meant I didn't have to be a mother at all. Maybe I didn't even have to get married. To this day, I think this is the most liberating realization I've ever made: Holy crap, people have all kinds of ways of going about things; there are choices.

From that point forward, I looked for affirmations of what I'd discovered at my friend's house: that as a female, I was equal to males and wasn't limited to gender-specific roles in society. This was hard to do, being that I was an elementary school student with a limited vocabulary. (Feminism? What's that?) But I got lucky anyway. I grew up in the 1990s--a time when women dominated the music scene. My mom was a big Tracy Chapman fan. And I don't even think she paid all that much attention to the socially conscious lyrics, but I couldn't help but take notice. I've always had a fascination with language, and can't deny that those lyrics shaped the perspective from which I viewed the world.

I finally came to identify as a feminist as a high school senior. I have my friend Stephanie to thank for that. She had transferred from Interlochen Arts Academy, where she'd focused on her poetry. That year, I was the editor-in-chief of Looking Glass, the art/literary journal at school, and Stephanie joined my editorial staff. We were also in the same AP literature and creative writing classes.

She and I entered the same poetry contests and submitted our work to the same journals. We were both recognized with Detroit Free Press Writing Awards and placed in the Albion College Michigan High School Poetry Contest. We were on the school poetry slam team, and got to compete at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Because of that, Stephanie and I got to spend a lot of time traveling around the state together, and I took advantage of every opportunity to pick her brain. I was passionate about writing, but she brought something to hers that was missing from mine: focus in terms of subject matter. She viewed the world through a feminist lens, and was able to articulate everything I'd believed in all my life, but had never had the words for.

Armed with what Stephanie had taught me, I enrolled at SVSU. Not having her around actually gave me the chance to further develop my own views. And the classes I took gave me a safe environment in which to do that.

I took a zillion English classes at SVSU, but none of them had anything about gender or feminism in their titles. Still, many of my professors did an excellent job of integrating feminism into their classes--such an excellent job, in fact, that I craved more and was disappointed when I had trouble finding it. Most of what I learned about feminism during my years at SVSU came from the English classes I took, rather than classes such as The Psychology of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender.

And so I learned firsthand what makes women's studies an interdisciplinary topic. I find it impossible to separate feminism from any of my other interests. It's a mindset, a lifestyle. I don't think I ever "became a feminist," exactly. I just learned that there was a word for my version of common sense. I try my best every day to use that word well and often.

What's funny is that even though I've openly identified as a feminist for quite a few years now, I'm still surprised whenever I hear anyone refer to my "reputation" as such. Maybe that's because of the negative connotation. Again, I don't separate feminism from anything else I believe in or do. It's not like I'm this average, ordinary woman with a "secret life" as a feminist behind the scenes. Please.

I'm still learning, and will be as long as I live. That's what's so incredible about it. I'm in awe of just how much I don't know. Maybe that means I'm still becoming a feminist (which would explain why I can't pinpoint the moment when I "became" one).


  1. Aww Amy, you gonna make me cry. I am flattered that you attribute your feminism to me, but give yourself some credit! If it wasn't me, it would have been some other green haired, pot smoking, sexually confused teenager to put a label on your beliefs. You've always been a feminist, and the better feminist between the two of us.

    This also makes me actually miss high school. Why do you do these things to me?

  2. This was such an amazing post. Thank you. It's so interesting to hear other people's experiences and so refreshing to hear my own sentiments about learning echoed here.

  3. Thank you so much for the positive feedback. I tend to feel that because my upbringing was so traditional (read: 1950s housewife), that my identification as a feminist is actually kind of old school. Reading others' posts on this topic, I was wondering whether I'd been specific enough, delved deeply enough into personal experience. So I'm glad you enjoyed it. I was afraid I'd been too vague.