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A Feministís U-Turn: A Torrid Tale of Disappointment and Discovery
by Megan Carpentier
When my parents instilled in me the belief that I could do anything a boy could do, I’m not sure they really knew what they were going to get. They probably pictured me playing baseball (I turned to ballet) and taking calculus (I chose car repair), but what they got was a hard-cursing, Feminine Mystique-reading, hyper-independent, precociously-sexual hellion who set off a pitched battle at the age of 16 when she announced she was refusing confirmation into the Catholic Church on the basis of its opposition to abortion and birth control and its 2,000-year-old refusal to allow women into leadership roles. In other words, they’d raised a feminist.
I suppose I qualified as a third-wave feminist, not that I knew what that was when I was a teenager. I was shocked to find out the Equal Rights Amendment hadn’t ever passed, pissed that I could expect to be out-earned by my male peers (even the ones I was beating at academics), fired up about domestic violence in my school and even more about the importance of Roe v. Wade.
I also coped with a less-than-thorough schooling about my body at home by educating myself as best I could about what my body was doing (and would do). I expected the few boys I dated to treat me as an equal (and acted like I was) and I refused to buy into the virginity-equals-wholesomeness message.
I also got into what I later learned was called the intersectionality between women’s rights and other social justice issues but saw as an important part of the equality my parents taught me was important: standing up for my friends who were out or who coped, as best they could, with being people of color in a very majority-white and sometimes unfriendly environment. I tried hard to incorporate the messages my parents taught me about how everyone is equal into the way I treated people and the politics I supported, trying out that whole personal-is-political thing before anyone told me what it was.
Of course, the girl whose friends would get her a vibrator and a copy of Backlash for her Sweet Sixteen -- let alone the one who goes on a lobbying day in her state capital with the League of Women Voters -- is going to end up taking women’s studies classes in college, and so it went with me, once I’d disposed of prerequisites, distribution requirements and the move from the English department to the sociology department. But my semester stuck in “Introduction to Women’s Studies” came at a price: the cost of my overt feminism.
It wasn’t like it disappeared all at once. It was more like it came off the way you put weight on, pound by ignored pound, until you look at yourself in the mirror one day and no longer recognize the person in it.
First, the requirement that we keep a daily personal journal to be reviewed for its feministiness by the professor inspired a resurgence in teenage-style eye rolls and series of faux-incidents with which to populate it. A rigorous introduction to feminist theory -- where was Friedan? Steinem? Even Paglia? -- was replaced by rambling lectures about personal experience from the professor and books about “Important Women”(mostly white) that ran counter to my academic experiences with structural history in the history department and my increasing interest in stratification theory -- and the intersection of race, class and gender in society -- that I found so fascinating in the sociology department.
Oh, we learned about Dworkin, but there was no discussion about sex-positive feminism. We learned about rape culture in a mandatory group discussion of our experiences with sexual assault that didn’t take into account that the survivors in the group might not be ready, willing or able to relate to a group of students and a professor those experiences. We learned about gender pay equity in one class, and the problems faced by women of color in another -- and the idea that race and gender are both part of the kyriarchy that oppresses everyone but straight, white men remained unexplored.
Losing the Faith
But it was when the professor told us that, one day, when sexism is over, the government could make abortion illegal again, that I truly lost it -- both my patience and, as it turns out, the A that I’d been biting my tongue to earn. She presented this nugget of information not as an idiosyncratic view of her feelings about abortion, but as a tenet of feminist thinking about abortion, and it was one that stood in opposition to everything I understood about abortion and its importance to the feminist movement
I asked questions. Who would get to decide that sexism is over -- a majority vote of the still mostly-white and mostly-male Congress? A national plebiscite? Does the end of sexism mean that no one is ever raped again, even by the emotionally disturbed? Do feminists really concede that abortion is wrong-but-necessary, and isn’t that just feeding into the stigma attached to it? It’s hard to ignore a raised hand in a room of 12 students, and harder when the student isn’t going to be ignored -- and the sheer stupidity of the idea that abortion policy should be based on a political decree that sexism is “over” was just too much for me to bear.
For my professor, the challenge seemed to be more than she was willing to take. There was no Socratic give-and-take that I’d come to love about my other classes; I was supposed to accept that she was right, I was wrong and that what she said was feminist gospel.
Shutting up was a lesson that my parents hadn’t quite managed to instill in me, but if my professor’s word was Feminist Gospel, then I wasn’t sure where I belonged any longer. I was just sure that, if she was the Perfect Feminist, then I wasn’t willing to sacrifice what I thought about women’s equality to be one.
It was a disheartening experience. I supported pro-choice politicians with my votes and my voice, but it never crossed my mind to support women’s groups with my (admittedly limited) money. I eventually became a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and lived the dreaded gender wage gap and had the joyful experience of informing no less than two bosses about the sexual harassment I was experiencing from politicians, it never occurred to me that this is part of what galvanized a generation of feminists before me.
But then two friends of mine who worked on reproductive justice issues asked me to join them for the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, and we hopped on a train full of women and went down to the National Mall. We ended up standing, briefly, by a booth staffed by NARAL volunteers who were overwhelmed with stickers and buttons to hand out and questions to answer. They asked me if I could take a few and hand them.
Streaming Crowds, Streaming Words
For two hours, as the crowds streamed past me, I handed out 20,000 stickers to the people marching. I handed them to women and men; to young people and old. I gave them to lesbian couples with children and straight couples with dogs; I stuck them to strollers and toddlers’ cheeks; I pulled off five at a time for teenagers to bring back to their classmates and ten at a go for women who were my mom’s age to give out to their friends. And I just looked at the faces as they all marched past me, and the metaphor got to be too obvious, even to me. Feminism wasn’t the Rich White Lady version presented by my college professor; it wasn’t a fait accompli; and there were plenty of people that didn’t view abortion access as a stopgap measure on the road to equality, but as a piece of the equality for which we were all still fighting.
And while I still had to get up and go to work the following Monday, I decided I didn’t have to wait around for my company to pay me at a rate equal to my male colleagues. I started reading again; I started getting more active in politics.
Eventually, I started writing and then blogging; first for myself, and eventually for others, but always under a pseudonym. My sex-positivity in a column for the once-female headed Wonkette caused commenters to speculate that I wasn’t actually a woman -- a comment that amused my father to no end.
The more I wrote, and thought, and read and shook off years of ignoring everything that had initially interested me in politics, the more untenable my career path in lobbying became.
Flash forward to 2007, when I was laid off from my latest lobbying gig. With time on my hands in a suddenly iffy economy, I published my first piece on Jezebel.com, a relatively new women’s website: it was a satire of the breathless celebrity interview, a staple of women’s magazines, but the “celebrity” was a foreign policy analyst. A couple more pieces led to a guest-blogging spot, where I wrote about everything from my search for a contraceptive that worked with my body to a host of other subjects: statutory rape laws, how they are disproportionately applied and have negative effects on young women’s access to reproductive health services; abortion; circumcision; pornography; evil health insurance companies, and workplace issues. I engaged with a commenting community, with editors, with critics and fans, and, best of all, with other feminists writers who were mostly my age and younger.
The discussions I’d missed in my women’s studies class, I found on the Internet; the conversations that I’d needed to make me think harder, better and more critically about gender equity, intersectionality, the personal and the political, I found ten years later outside of the classroom and in the company of strangers I might never actually meet. Writing about women’s issues made me learn more about those issues and the feminist theories about them than hours in a classroom ever did, and allowed me to finally feel right reclaiming the word “feminist” for myself.
Megan Carpentier is a freelance writer whose work has been published by RHRealityCheck.com, the Women’s Media Center, Jezebel.com, The Guardian, Alternet and Ms. Magazine, among other places. She was previously the editor of news and politics at the now-defunct Air America.
Also see The Poet's Eye in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Women’s Liberation Consciousness-Raising: Then and Now by Carol Hanisch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
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