Feminist Attempt

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.)

image: CC #WOCinTech https://www.flickr.com/photos/wocintechchat/?
image: CC #WOCinTech

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.



“Caught Up”

There’s this sort of internal breathlessness that comes up when I reel through my twitter feed trying to catch as catch can important events, significant reads, personal check-ins all in the space of a few hours a day. I feel like I can’t possibly catch up. Then I  begin to ask myself the weightier question: what it would actually mean to be or feel “caught up?” And that’s when the other meaning hits me: “caught up” as in immersed, drowning in, emotionally involved and preoccupied. Caught up.

So which is it? Which one am I striving for? How much room is there for a both/and proposition? And what if it’s neither?

Ultimately, the answers do not much matter. I will never be fully “caught up” in this steady stream of information, so I can stop trying to be right now. And sometimes, thank God, I have the capacity to become “caught up” in someone’s story or message. My empathy muscles get a workout when I open myself to words, images and thoughts which move me, which extend deep into my feelings and remind me of who I am  in the world and that I am not alone here.

Recently I have been deeply moved by words by women of color in particular. Their messages, their presence, their use of voice, the chosen topics have reached me on deep levels. One poet creates a sacred space for me to contemplate the complexity of self in the hair I wear. An author confirms that I am in fact in my right mind when I experience the fear of not being liked and I persist in telling my story anyway. A speaker illustrates for her audience the prevalence and perniciousness of unconscious bias and reminds me that I have more to share in this life than I or the world may initially give me credit for.

This poem, ‘Invocation’ by Ariana Brown

Or this commencement address by Chimamanda Adichie.

This TED talk by Yassmin Abdel Magied


Each woman in her own way, speaks to me like someone who knows me; like someone who knows of my struggles. Each message reaches me in a place of humility and also pride. I identify and feel personally addressed.

There are many sources from which to draw inspiration and meaning. For now I feel grateful for the willingness to pause long enough to be moved. To repeat the exercise twice or more in order to experience the impact a little differently each time. To hold off before jumping onto the adjacent bandwagon of ideas that will not hold still.  To do this – to stop, take in and gradually digest such works of personal significance takes practice and a certain fortitude. It is not always easy to linger a moment longer because I want to let a feeling last or allow an idea to resonate to its full extent. Our current tools of communication hardly encourage this. They constantly remind us of how much may be passing us by.

I say, let the things pass for they will likely bounce around again and our gaze will not have been missed. If I want to experience resonance that is full, rich and lasting, finding and creating space in myself has to remain a priority. Chasing the latest leads me in the wrong direction. Taking time to experience and appreciate the profound bring me that much closer to being the self who can allow herself to get “caught up” in the most meaningful ways.  The poet, the author, the speaker they all live in me in some mysterious and beautiful way. The highest honor I can offer them is to continue to create space in me where their messages may land and find a home.

Learning to Push Back

image via pixabay.com
image via pixabay.com

As a kid, I was the proverbial “good girl,” a rule follower, a goody two-shoes, and I liked it that way. Truth be told, I still like it that way. Not surprisingly I put a lot of stock in correctness and being polite. In high school I avoided debate, opted for tech theater instead. Crafting arguments and counter-arguments has never felt natural or pleasurable for me. Yet, in the course of my academic career, I certainly learned to write convincing prose; to back up assertions with data and evidence.

When I encounter a position with which I do not agree, I mentally prepare my pushback, yet hesitate miserably before I dare to write anything.  My disagreement is usually real, has both an emotional and intellectual anchor, and something in me wants to speak out.  As I hash out my thoughts, I often second-guess my ability to build a coherent and air-tight rebuttal.  I talk myself out of using my voice with conviction. Instead, I wait until someone else – who is braver, more eloquent, given to snark – posts the protest I wish I had written and I piggy back on it with a modest retweet.

I could stop there and say, well, it’s a case of individual choice. Which it is. And it is also indicative of a larger pattern.

Since I have become active on social media, on Twitter in particular, I have learned to pay attention to the dominant narratives and what constructive pushback looks like. To do that I had to find some  models and there are plenty.  And in choosing my models I have been highly selective: I have sought out women of color who comprehend intersectionality;  who understand from the get-go what it means to be more than “just one thing” in society, most often from a marginalized perspective.

For both artful and substantive pushback I turn toTressie McMillan Cottam @tressiemcphd, Melinda D. Anderson @mdawriter, @RafranzDavis, @nicloecallahan, @arissahOh, Shireen Mitchell @digitalsista,  and Nicole Sanchez @nmsanchez. These women regularly point out weak argumentation, demonstrate skillful presentation of evidence, employ sass, snark and nuance at will, and tirelessly remind whoever will listen about the issues which mainstream media typically neglects,  higher ed research may sidestep, and industries would rather gloss over.

Some worthy examples:

Tressie McMillan Cottam points out that while everyone rushes to quote Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed, he’s not the first to make the case that education is not the great equalizer:

Because of course, she has said as much and more so often in her writing about  inequality in higher education with a special emphasis on the for-profit sector.

Or Melinda D. Anderson raises questions about what appears to be white paternalism towards civil rights groups with regards to educating children of color:

On another note, Arissa Oh diplomatically distances herself from the widespread Oscar kerfuffle:

And following an exhausting exchange over the wage gap comments of Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, Nicole Sanchez tweeted  a series of portraits of women of color at the top of their game and in conclusion offered this as a positive reset cue:

The lessons here for me are several:

As I cultivate my own voice of dissent, I need to

  • Pay attention: to the message, the messenger, the power dynamics, who is speaking out and who’s voice is missing.
  • Know my intention first and then think about how I will speak my mind.
  • Be clear about what is at stake and prepare to be heard (and also misunderstood).
  • And if I think my voice doesn’t matter, I must know that someone else who is not in my corner is counting on precisely that.  Here is where I have to give myself the benefit of the doubt, rather than defer to the status-quo.
  • Finally I have to recognize that baby steps count. Each teaspoon of resistance contributes to the next. Pushback can be learned and accommodated without becoming a default stance.

It seemed to take a long time to get this post out. And the more I write and participate in social media, the more I think of that as a good thing. I want to remain wary of knee-jerk reactions and the tendency to pile-on after a celebrity misstep. Role models are important throughout our lifespan and I take great pleasure in seeking out new models in new territory.  These mavens of artful pushback provide me with guidance, inspiration and positive examples of meaningful social media engagement. No doubt, I too, will learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable, to bravely push back rather than holding back.