Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Re-Imagining of the Word "Feminism"

Emma Watson gave a brilliant speech at the UN recently, and what made it inspiring was the fact that she included both sexes and the societal norms forced upon both of them.

I have considered writing this more than one time, but I finally found the right way to put into words how I have been feeling in the last year since feminism has become the hot button issue. So, today, I will focus whole-heartedly on my experiences and my understanding of feminism, because I have a voice that can be heard.

There is something quite sound and reasonable about the word “feminism” that is often overlooked.

When I was younger, even as young as six or seven, I understood, without a doubt, that I was a privileged, white person—even as the minority in my town, school, and neighborhood, I knew it every day. Despite being poor and living in a trailer park, it wasn’t a question. The most obvious of those reasons was often forced on me by prejudices carried by others and labored onto me, but it was never about me. It was about a struggle I couldn’t understand, the pangs of which are still being felt to this day when a young black man is shot dead in the streets of Hometown, America with no other plausible reason than their race. It is even felt when people let racial slurs slip from their lips, under their breath or out-loud, because a young, black man or woman chooses to dress a certain way. As southern, white people, we hear such offenses fall from our parents, and grandparents’ lips without conscionable hesitation—instead it is rationalized and validated poorly.

That’s because we have been taught to argue and defend our actions rather than others.

Growing up a southerner, I have women in my family who do a poor job of expressing to young women, such as me, what it means to be a feminist. Despite how strong and courageous they can be at times, they are also loud and unequivocally the worst examples of what ignorant feminism can wrought. They are the pride and examples of what a poor understanding of feminism can birth without enough education. They are the man-haters. They are the women who spend more time berating their husbands than uplifting everyone in their family equally.

If a better understanding of love and equality does not begin in the home, how can it ever be expected to expand beyond those doors?

I grew up a tomboy—I was a daddy’s girl, and still am. I played sports outside in the backyard, played with more boys than girls, even, and I hated the color pink and dresses. It was my elementary way of rebelling against what I had been introduced to as feminism growing up. It was also, in some inadvertent way, my way of refuting gender roles. I was the heavy in my family with my dad, not my younger brother. When my brother got older, he grew much taller and stronger than I did, and became the heavy, but my father didn’t hesitate to ask for my help if he needed it. This made me feel important and empowered, in my own way. But I hated calling myself “empowered” in any way, because it never equated to humility, and it certainly fell in line with what the women in my family most often barked about.

For years, because of those family members, I refuted heavily my need to not be a feminist. It wasn’t until I got to college and took a feminism in art course, simply for credit, that I began to see more of what feminism was supposed to be. Unfortunately, my professor was also very bitter towards men, leaving no room for question in her lessons each day. Thankfully, such prejudices were overshadowed by conversations of Greek goddesses and Venus of Willendorf, but it still irked me when it happened. Looking back now, I see that she was probably hurt by a man, or men, in her life, causing her to feel great pain and an inability to trust men anymore. Hearing the women in my family talk about their lives before me, or marriages I barely remember, it’s likely the same occurred.

Growing up a nervous person, it was easy to be put on edge and on the defense, but it was never made easier, especially in college, by cat calls while trying to walk to class, or aggressive men in the dorms trying to follow you to your room. I have three roommates who remember vividly a time I was verbally harassed so severely that I was in tears in my dorm room with all three of them holding me. It is one of my fondest memories because we were brought together by our own anecdotes and heartaches, and it was one of the many times that we had some of our most open and honest conversations with one another. But feminism shouldn’t be born of hate and pain. Feminism should be a drive by every member of the sexes to uplift one another and love one another sincerely, because harassment is scary and leads any victim—man or woman—to believe the worst is about to happen to them. And for the even unluckier ones in those situations, some are left with very deep scars, while others have left us.

I am still privileged. I know this because while many of those classmates and neighborhood friends that came from my hometown never left and are still living impoverished, our family got out. We made more money and we moved on. That’s a privilege afforded to very few in that town, or anywhere. And growing up, people expected me to make something of myself and didn’t expect me to get knocked up at a young age or work at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. It was understood that I would either have a “respectable” career or have a family—both of which would be afforded to me at the proper time. Even still, I was luckier because people thought I could make a career for myself without a man. But having a man was a perk, of course.

Growing up a tomboy came with its drawbacks, I grew up without the expectations that most “girly-girls” had, but I often heard from most of my family laments of me refusing to wear dresses and skirts and not caring to wear makeup until my junior year of high school. These were all personal choices, but they were often part of a discussion I was left out of. I could say more about beauty standards impressed upon women (and even men) but I want to centralize this conversation as best as I can.

When I was 11, I remember spending time with extended family in North Carolina. I still love those mountains to this day. Even at 11 years old, a time where girlfriends and boyfriends shouldn’t be a topic of discussion for a child, I remember my Aunt Alma saying, “She’s so beautiful, I don’t know why she doesn’t have a boyfriend.” As if my worth was weighted in my beauty and significant other alone. If I had dared to reply with such a thought, likely the conversation would be, “That’s not it at all! We’re just surprised we don’t see a lot of young boys around.” As if that changes anything. Instead of focusing on the fact that I had a good head on my shoulders, and I was working hard in school, my family would regularly wonder why I didn’t have a boyfriend.

Sure, growing up mostly single was rough at times, you do wonder if you’re desirable at all, but the worst thing a family can do to a young girl, is make her feel even more that way by putting it in her mind more when they are around.

I still urge myself to say I am an equality advocate, before feminist, because there are inborn problems in this country that extend way beyond a woman’s ability to be paid as much as a man in the same job. But I am feminist, and it has taken me years of understanding and development to get there.

“Feminism – noun - the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”

Young girls should be held to the same standards as men, and men should be held to the same standards as women. We should be raised to all be strong and sincere human beings.

There are girls, younger than 16 who are being married off and having children—and dying because of it—without their consent or want. They are enslaved by not only the men who enslave them to these unions—if that really should be the word to use here—but also the women who do not stop it. We are all privileged by circumstance in this country, and as such we are given the rights—fought for by feminists before us—to do something with our voices. We are allowed a chance to speak and, more importantly, be heard. Hell, we are even given the opportunity now to read and write and make something of ourselves with these skills denounced of pseudonyms or expectations of genre. We are granted aid to go to universities and learn and later educate. So, why waste these opportunities?

Be a true example of feminism, and remind men and women that not only do we still have a long way to go to dissipate the regulations of gender roles, but also to know our daughters and sons will have equal footing in this world, in whatever path they choose alone.

6 comments:

  1. This was beautifully written, and I can relate to much of it, considering I was a tomboy, and lived in a trailer park at one time. It really shocks me to see people post those "I don't need feminism" videos because I really feel it is because of a lack of education on the subject.

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    1. If I hadn't been given the opportunities to learn what feminism was supposed to be, I would be in the same boat, my friend. And I hate admitting that, but it's true.

      I'm glad we can relate to each other's stories in some way. :)

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  2. I, too, felt that Emma Watson worded it all so well. I love that she really pushed the point that men also suffered from inequality, because I think this is a point that is missed more often than understood.

    I also grew up in the south and had the same understanding (or lack of understanding) of feminism as you did. It has only been in this last year of living on the West coast that I truly understand what actual feminism is and is supposed to be... and I have suddenly started calling myself a feminist too! But like you, I'm urged to call myself more of an equalitist (is that a word or did I make it up?) because the word feminist is so horribly misunderstood and almost has a nasty man-hating thing attached to it. Education is the only thing that can change it. Our generation will be the one to change it. I pray my daughter will not understand what life would be like not having the same pay, social allowances, etc, the way that we have difficulties understanding the racially segregated society of our parents' generation.

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    1. I'm happy to hear I wasn't alone. There are many women who believe that women are superior and their husbands would be lost without them. These kinds of attitudes don't create equality. It just creates more men vs women mentalities. And these sorts of things constantly bother me.

      When I was a little girl I used to roll my eyes if I saw stickers or t-shirts with "girls rule" on them. It just always bugged me to put myself before the boys when often I felt like I was one of them. Or I at least preferred my guy friends to my girl friends.

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  3. You're from the south? Okay, so it's early and I think we MAY have discussed this before, but now I'm picturing Sookie Stackhouse accent and True Blood sets. (I don't even watch any more, it's been years! What flash back)

    Now I would have "ADD" if the docs got their diagnosis when I was a child so I'm a little bit hyper at the mo and lost concentration when a term was used, that I was unfamiliar with. Heavy? You were the heavy? What does that mean? It better not be anything to do with weight or else I'd be disappointed in the US, having a term for crap like that? I just can't think of the life of me, for what it could be...

    I believe in gender equality and even though I have never had parental figures who believed in such (I grew up in a physical and mentally violent household), I see EVERYONE as equal. I take time out to question the sexist comments my friends and customers alike with this little "gift of the gab" everyone keeps telling me I have. I believe everything is only going to change if we communicate and educate younger generations, it simply sucks that the system isn't set up that :(

    Thank you for sharing your story.

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    1. Nonono, no worries, doll. In the sense that I'm using it, "heavy" here would mean that I helped as the strong-arm--I did the heavy-lifting and handiwork with my dad. But I could see how you thought it might be that way.

      And I've never seen True Blood, so I can't tell you if it's like it or not, but I imagine it's probably a bit overdone in comparison to whatever the south actually is, hahaha. :P

      And yes, gender equality is awesome. We should be teaching that much sooner than we do. :D

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