This is What a Feminist Looks Like

I was digging through a box of photographs when my husband asked me what I was doing. I responded  “Looking for a good picture of me when I was thirteen”. I stopped, realizing that this was like a hunt for bigfoot or the fountain of youth.  I don’t believe good pictures of thirteen year old girls in 1994 really exist in nature, because this was before easy access to digital cameras so a 13 year old can sit in front of a mirror and take two hundred pictures of herself making different facial expressions all resembling a duck.

So here’s my way awesome 8th grade picture. I really needed to get my carefully curled bangs out of my eyes. Also, awesome vest. I made it myself.

jr. high

I am subjecting myself to this humiliation to show you what a budding feminist looks like. I wouldn’t have described myself that way at the time, due to the only references I had to feminism at the time had were Rush Limbaugh yelling out the word “feminazi” on air, references to pro-choice activism, and some kind of vague idea that women burned bras in the 60’s.

However, even younger than this age I was beginning to form feminist ideas without even knowing it, which was surprising considering my über conservative evangelical church and school I attended. The first place I got feminist ideas was listening to Your Story Hour cassette tapes (we didn’t have the internet or iPhones back then and for a while, we got two channels on a black and white 12″ screen). The fact that these were instrumental in my feminist ideology is pretty ironic. The tapes began with a booming voice stating the title with ominous music  and the subject matter was very religious. However, the one that I played over and over again was called “Fury in Petticoats” about  Belva Ann Lockwood, a suffragist, politician, attorney, and author who fought for women’s rights.  When I got a bit older I was a voracious reader and read books about Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross; Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing; Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India who worked with orphans; and my favorite book  of all time Christy  by Catherine Marshall, which was a fictionalized version of her mother’s life as a 19-year-old who teaches an Appalachian school run by Alice Henderson, a Quaker and itinerate pastor/school teacher/missionary.

Meanwhile, in the church I grew up in, there were no female pastors or elders. Women could be in the worship ministry, could speak in front of church, and could teach highschool Sunday school.  In a lot of churches, they are not allowed to. Our pastor often taught wives to submit to their husbands. One of the pastors taught that a wife should never divorce their husband and if they had to protect the children or they’re husband divorced them, they should never get remarried. There began to grow a disconnect  in my head between these fabulous women who I held up as heroes and what women were expected and allowed to do in real life. Once, when I was 13 (hence the picture), I furiously defended the right of women to be in combat in the military against a 14-year-old boy who just scoffed at me. I ended up screaming at him and then felt terribly guilty for years afterwards. I learned that perhaps screaming isn’t the best way to get your ideas across.

Graduation

Here’s a picture of my entire graduating class: All four of us. I graduated and was bound for college. I had an idea that I would probably get my degree and live alone in an apartment with a cat (lol! boy was I wrong… except we do have a cat). I thought my lack of dating experience in high school didn’t bode well for getting married, so I headed off to college, thinking that I would probably need to get the skills in life to live on my own.

College was a culture shock. Not because I didn’t have the skills to be independent, but because I did and many of my friends were still completely reliant on their parents for everything.  I had a paying job since I was eleven, and had run my own finances, buying everything but the necessities my parents bought and saving for college. These kids were calling their parents asking to change a class because their parents were paying for it. I was happy that I was independent, but along with the shock that other kids weren’t I began to experience a more subtle undercurrent of sexism.

College

Here’s me and my first roommate standing in front of my freshman dorm named Baldwin-Jenkins and unfortunately refered to as BJ.

I was used to the homestead and with life in Alaska comes a certain amount of expectation of self-sufficiency. Both women and men are expected to be able to do hard manual labor, have some basic survival skills, and self-reliance. Life can be hard here.  When I went through a door first, men don’t bat an eye when I held it open for them. At Whitworth, the guys were a little shocked when I held the door. Usually, they rushed to get it. The boys signed up for “safe walks” that  we could call if we were walking across campus after dark. There was a respect for the equality of my intellect at college, but not necessarily my physical body. It was a different sexism than I had run into before.

When I dropped my Fine Art minor due to the craziness of the professors available, my advisor suggested a Women’s Study’s minor instead. I took my first Women’s Study’s class and I was hooked. The first day, the professor stated the definition of feminism, and I found out that I had been a feminist all along. I had known enough to realize there was inequality between the sexes and that was unjust, but with Women’s Studies I learned the history of the inequality of the sexes, but also that feminist had been fighting this sexism for over a hundred years, getting the right to vote, fighting for equal pay, speaking out against domestic violence and female infanticide.  I was inspired to join the ranks of these fabulous women (and men).

From then on I have identified myself as a feminist: someone who believes that women and men should be treated equally politically, socially, and economically.  There were many ideas that were presented in that first Women’s Study Class that were new and I had a hard time understanding or agreeing with. There are some that I still don’t agree with. That is the beauty of feminism. It is big. It encompasses a lot of agreement and disagreement.  I am excited that for the next four weeks I will explore feminism in relation to my faith, Christianity.

Any Questions?

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4 thoughts on “This is What a Feminist Looks Like

  1. Very well said. I also remember some of those first experiences at Whitworth and how shocked I was to meet other students who were still so dependent on their parents. I also remember a young woman, who after taking a Women’s Studies course, cut off all of her beautiful thick hair:) and I remember a young woman who wouldn’t date a boy until he asked her dad for permission to date his daughter. Most importantly, I remember a person who was an amazing student and friend, who I think, in many ways, made me a better person.

    Do you think young men signed up for “safe walks” because they thought we were less physically able to fend off a possible attacker, or do you think that it is because the world at large seems to respect women and their bodies less so than they do a man’s body. I guess what I am trying to say is do you think a creep who is lurking in the bushes is more likely to attack a woman walking by herself or a woman and a man. By the way I was at Whitworth earlier today and now there are blue emergency phones all over campus. Although I think these are now necessary for student safety, I do miss the days of being protected by the “Pinecone Curtain.”

    • I remember discussing with you about how everyone seemed so clueless and dependent compared to us. I don’t know if was our high-school jobs or growing up in a rural area that did it (or just our natural maturity 🙂 -oh wait, there were Nate’s underwear escapades).
      When I was looking through pictures of college to put on this post, you with Erin’s hair glued to your face barely missed the cut.
      I think unfortunately both reasons you list are true, they are different sides of the same coin. The guys at Whitworth saw women as more vulnerable and so needing protection and the “bad guys” saw women as more vulnerable and so easier to attack. The problem I had with the list was 1. I didn’t know most of the guys on the list so was much more likely to call you to walk across campus with and 2. what about the male student’s safety? This seems to have been solved with the phones being installed. I think I noticed the difference because up here it seems everyone kind of expects people to carry guns or at least bear spray to protect themselves from critters or creeps while walking in the dark (not that carrying a gun will protect a woman from most rapists, but that’s another blog altogether). I guess it’s just the expectation of independence up here for women physically, however sexism pervades other areas (high sexual assault/domestic violence rates).
      All in all, Whitworth was one of the best experiences of my life due to the quality of people I befriended (you!) and what I learned both from classes and from the late night discussions and crazy things we did.

  2. I enjoyed this post! I was thinking back to my middle school years and realized that I, too, showed signs of being a feminist without really understanding it. It wasn’t until much later I have the language and information to talk about it! Also, thanks for following my blog!

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