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.

 

 

In Praise of Men Who Matter

For more than a few weeks I have had the intention to write a post about my positive relationships with men. And the difficulty starts right there. I can’t just say “relationships with men” without immediately clarifying that I am not referring to romantic or intimate relationships per se, but to friendships and familial relationships with men. I want to speak about men whom I know well, whom I like and respect and whose presence add value and meaning to my life. I want to write about them because they matter and need to hear from me directly that they matter. And the questions that came up for me in this process tell another story, though: Why does it feel risky to write good things about men? What is the significance of being a strong, independent woman and saying nice things about men?

What got me started on this idea was a series of empowering conversations I had earlier in the year with three very different male friends of mine on three consecutive days. Following each conversation I felt so remarkably grateful for the friendship we share and the way we can go deep on topics of personal importance. Each of these men challenged and encouraged me in these talks. Each of them was open to the feedback I had for them and in each instance I enjoyed being on equal footing. There was no competing for air time; no awkward power differential to overcome. And yet I could recognize some differences to conversations I might have about similar topics with female friends. My male friends offered some approaches I hadn’t considered, they shared their estimations of certain situations from unique perspectives as males and I felt enriched.

The weeks ticked by and still the post was not written. More positive conversations and connections had with other males in different contexts, still no post written. Rather, other posts were written, but not the “nice things I have to say about some men” post. And I began to wonder. Of course, public writing has made more sensitive to a host of social and political undercurrents in current discourse. In my self-selected filter bubble which is decidedly left-leaning, feminist, strongly social justice  and education oriented, men are welcome but need to watch their step, check their privilege and avoid saying the wrong thing in the wrong way or both of those. Women acting in the same forums, of course, face challenges in other dimensions (death and rape threats) which put those male ‘constraints’ (for lack of a better word) absolutely  into perspective. It is fairly uncomplicated and certainly a pleasure to write great things about the women in my life as I have done before. It also striking to acknowledge the ambivalence I feel in doing something similar for men.

And this intersection is where I think we need to go.

Appreciation and acknowledgement of men as allies, as valued members of the same society may seem redundant to some. I mean to let major media tell the story, men get all the gold, glory and the credit or at least most of it. Yes, and. This is not true for all men. As a rule it benefits me greatly to listen to women and men. In order to write this post and be witness both to the struggles women face daily and the good things that I observe among men I know, I have to maintain a mindset of “yes, and” rather than “yes, but”.  Holding the space for both realities, for differing perspectives and experiences is critical to taking this walk. “Yes, and” is the walk I commit myself to every time I press “publish.”

When I was a 13 year old boy-crazy girl growing up in Cleveland, my dream was to be surrounded by good looking guys. Well, as the saying, goes: watch what you wish for because you might receive. Here I am at mid-life and when I celebrate Christmas I am surrounded by good looking guys, only (my husband, my Ex, and 2 sons). The irony.  I love them all and I think each time anew about options for recruiting some female energy into our party next year. The ingredients I consistently seek in promoting my own growth and those around me are balance and diversity. So the value of male voices in the dialogues in which I engage is not lost on me, even if their messages can infuriate me. Sometimes I forget that I, too, have the potential to frustrate and infuriate my dialogue partners, male and female. No one holds a monopoly on this capacity, I’m afraid.

On social media I have had the pleasure of encountering numerous male contributors who regularly expand my horizons and stretch my thinking. I find much in common with them on several themes specifically around education and social justice and I appreciate the many ways in which they have supported and championed my voice in digital spaces. I am so glad they are present and engaging and also willing to wrestle with some of the tough stuff. These are also men who can examine and unpack their various layers of privilege which are unique to each of them. In their company I feel safe, valued and welcomed.

I have a brother who is five years older. Although we have lived on different continents for most our adult lives, what impresses me most about him is his role as the family connector. He is the one who has maintained and strengthened ties with uncles, aunts and cousins across the country on behalf of our family. Every cousin imaginable is only a phone call away for him. I love this about him and my gratitude to him is immeasurable. And I applaud the fact that he is a male taking up what has traditionally been ‘women’s work’ in our family.

In my world, the men I care about and value are several. Who they are, the gifts they bring, the time they take – all of these mean so much to me and certainly to many others. Being male is but one aspect of their identity and each one of them expresses their maleness distinctly, uniquely and vitally. Our mutual capacity to sustain each other in life-affirming ways, friend-to-friend, brother-to-sister, partner-to-partner, requires careful tending to from both sides.

In this spirit, I raise my glass in honor of the great men in my life. You matter. Live long, prosper and please stay in touch.

In Praise of Women Who Make Me Think

The end of a calendar year and the accompanying holiday season strike me as a time for gratitude to move into my life and take a front row seat. This is where it starts.

Among the many blessings of this year, I have felt the tremendous effect of so many phenomenal women in my life. They have buoyed me, sustained me, encouraged and also challenged me. They have written to me, spoken with me, made me laugh, made me cry and most of all they seem to understand me. Some of these women are family, some are old friends, some are new friends, some are acquaintances and some I have barely spoken with.

All of them have made me think.

They have made me think about myself, my identity, my reasons for being.

They have made me think about my now, my future and also about my past.

They have asked me to look at my practice – in my home, in my work, in my relationships – and see both my strengths and my shortcomings.

They have offered me examples, templates, their stories, their complexity without shame or reservation.

They have jolted my thinking and spurred me to action.

The have reminded me day after day how wonderful it is to be female and oh so human.

These women are old and young and in between.

They have ambitions and ideas and language that speak to me in multiple ways.

They are my role models, mentors and partners in crime.

They are educators, activists, entrepreneurs, tech mavens, scientists and artists.

They are all that and more.

They all have made me think. And think again.

And for that I am eternally grateful.