I don’t know how to write about feminism without it becoming a performance of my hyper-personal interpretation of feminism. I have quotes on tap. I have a family history to share. I have some vague notions of how I want to tie all these into tight little piece under 1000 words. It’s probably not going to happen quite like that. I am willing to fail. (And hold on to that thought about performance because I’ll come back to it later.)
Listen for a moment to bell hooks:
“No black woman in this culture can write “too much.” Indeed, no woman writer can write “too much.””
-bell hooks, Remembered Rapture, The Writer at Work, 1999. p.30
Those words. It was Melinda Anderson (@mdawriter) who first brought them to my attention in a tweet this year. And they felt like manna from heaven. Words to keep me going. Words to affirm my right and need to be here: visible and in writing. I cannot write “too much” and thus will continue.
I think I need to tell you about my mother. I grew up in a feminist household, although no one in their right mind would have called it that. My parents were happily married for over 50 years and clearly had a shared understanding of how to achieve the ideals they had in mind for their life together. Over the course of their marriage they owned their own home, put 3 children through college and lived to see each of us become independent and capable adults. My father had his own contracting company which he ran out of our garage and his van next to his day job at the Post Office. My mom worked for the Cleveland Public School system in a variety of roles – reading specialist, social worker, job development resource and was otherwise active in several church and civic organizations. Both of my parents were avid readers and our home, where stacks of newspapers, magazines and books populated the living room and basement, was a towering testament to that.
So I grew up in a household where 1) education was king, 2) church was central, 3) everyone went to work, and 4) independence was the lesson. What I understood from my mother’s example was that I had choices in deciding whom I wanted to become and that whatever I did, my education and exposure to a variety of experiences would be important in helping me to reach positive decisions for myself. Exposure was my mother’s personal buzz word and it expressed so much of what she sought to cultivate in us as a family: curiosity, a spirit of exploration and discovery, and the nerve to do that in places where our presence might not be anticipated or welcomed. That said, my parents supported me in my pursuit of various adventures: a summer of farm work in New England, a scholarship business program for minority students in New York City, ballet and theater lessons, team sports and private schools for the whole of my education career. When I moved abroad after college, there was no debate, only support and well wishes. I had mastered the independence lesson and the gift of exposure had clearly taken root.
Having seen my mother in various leadership roles at church, in local and national social welfare organizations, I took it as a norm that women routinely pursue interests outside the home. It was my assumption that women work for a living even though most of the moms I saw on TV didn’t. My mom drank scotch and gin, wore pants as often as dresses, spoke her mind, read as if the book-of-the-month-club was about to shut down, and insisted that all of her children learn how to navigate public transportation before learning how to drive.
One time when my mother was dropping me off at the airport, I asked her to carry a small bag for me briefly. Her response set me straight for a lifetime: “And what would you do if I weren’t here?” Stunned, I grabbed that bag and have since learned to travel with only as much as I can realistically manage. The message is one I have internalized to a fault and means that I sometimes need to remind myself that it is in fact okay to allow someone else to help me carry something once in a while. Self-reliance and independence are my feminist inheritance.
But I never felt a need to call it that. Because that was just me doing my thing. I’ve been pretty good at doing my “individualist feminist act,” I guess. And if I go back to bell hooks for a moment and consider my writing – there’s a connection, or rather an opportunity for connection. When I write in my most authentic voice, I cannot help but express and animate my deeply personal feminist values: independence and self-determination. They bubble up to the surface because what I write and how I write flows from who I am and who I aspire to be. Given that context, I realize that I am not much interested in other people’s definitions of feminism as a guide for what mine should look like.
Roxane Gay provides a welcome antidote to monolithic thinking about feminism:
“The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality. There seems to be little room for multiple or discordant points of view.” (Bad Feminist, p. 305)
“Alas, poor feminism. So much responsibility keeps getting piled on the shoulders of a movement whose primary purpose is to achieve equality in all realms between men and women. I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because they suggest there’s no way for women to ever get it right.” (p.310)
“Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write…Like most people I am full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” (p.318)
In these passages I find myself again, allowed to be who I believe myself to be. And I am with Gay on this one, I am happy to be a bad feminist, rather than no feminist at all.
But how does my “individualist feminist act” serve a larger purpose? Who benefits from my story? This is precisely where this post and the thinking that led to it run the risk of becoming and remaining a performance – a shallow public display of my unique (and clearly privileged) take on feminism. I do think that individual women can do a lot to support other women. We can read each others’ works, attend each others’ conference panels, mentor and coach each other. If we are in a position to hire, then hire and pay well. Support each others’ businesses. Speak up. Act up. Form alliances. Practice tolerance, compassion, kindness with ourselves and others. The possibilities are too numerous to list.
I’m over 1200 words. But I have already forgotten that I cannot write “too much.” The irony! Failure belongs to practice. We have to fail on the way to getting better. Bad individualist feminist. Let’s see if I dare to venture back into these fraught waters again soon. No apologies, and I wonder.
I highly recommend reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Harper Perennial 2014. You’ll thank me.