Tomorrow is International Women's Day, and I've been wanting to write a post in honor of this. For days, I wracked my brain for ideas, unsure just how to commemorate this day. Then, inspiration struck me: I'd write about the people who inspired me to believe in equality for women across the board. Not all of these people have held positive roles in my life, but from each one, I've learned a valuable lesson that I've taken with me as I've learned and grown.
Sadly, many people still associate feminism with the image of angry, screaming, bra-burning women. I have encountered people who think it's a man-hating view, but conversely, I've encountered plenty of men who are not at all threatened by feminism, who agree with the principle that women are equal, and our rights and pay should reflect that. I remember, a year or so ago, telling a guy friend, somewhat defiantly, "See, I'm a feminist..." before launching into a rant about why I wouldn't be supporting Komen's Race For the Cure in 2012 (after their now-infamous and temporary de-funding of Planned Parenthood). Curious and half afraid of his reaction, I stared right at him as I delivered the "f-word." He didn't even blink, just smiled and nodded, as if to say, "Go on..."
That's not always the case. In my adventures with online dating, I'm sure that having "feminist" proudly displayed on my profile has chased off many a guy who originally looked at my pics and thought, "Hey, she's cute." Fine. I will pay that price if it means not wasting time on a coffee date with someone who answered "yes" to the question, "Are women obligated to keep their legs shaved?"
But how did I get here? It's been a lifetime of learning and growing, and I was lucky to be born into a life where I not only had ample opportunities, I was encouraged to take them. Along the way, others have taught me life lessons that have shaped me as a person, but also as a feminist.
"When You Go to College..."
I cannot remember a time when responsibility for my actions and thought for my future was not emphasized in my home. My parents never said, "If you decide to go to college..." It was always, "When you go to college..." and there was no question that my aim was "university or bust" all through school. Dad insisted that the world I was growing up in was not one in which I could easily count on being taken care of, and he wanted me to have the tools to take care of myself. Because of this, I worked hard in school, finished my degree, and gained valuable work skills I've taken with me--even through unemployment.
My parents stressed to me that I had to put the responsibility for my own care on myself; that turning to others to keep me safe wasn't always going to be feasible. Even if I had married at 18, they always wanted me to have options because we live in an uncertain world.
"Don't Be Immature, Megan..."
For the most part, everyone adored Mr. Wolfe, a popular history teacher at my middle school, who transferred over to the high school with my class. I ended up having him for 9th grade history, too--I loved his classes and excelled in them. But Mr. Wolfe and I disagreed on one major point in 8th grade: women in combat.
Our great debate over this came rushing back from the depths of my memories recently when women were finally authorized to have a combat role in military operations. I remembered, suddenly, thirteen-year-old Meg, earnestly debating with her U.S. History teacher as another student stood nearby, watching.
"Women just don't have a place in combat," insisted Mr. Wolfe.
"I think they're just as capable as men are!" I retorted.
"Women are more necessary on the home front," was Mr. Wolfe's response. "Without them, the population can't grow." Twenty-one years later, I can still remember my hackles raising, as I realized my much-admired teacher was insinuating that women should be treated as baby-makers, not defenders. It was the first time a trusted teacher had made that claim to me.
"Well, you kind of need men for that, too!" I said with a huff.
Mr. Wolfe dismissed me with a roll of his eyes. "Don't be immature, Megan."
I still maintain that Mr. Wolfe was absolutely wrong to diminish women's role in society to being baby-popping homemakers. Should they wish to, women should be allowed to serve and defend their country, and his attempt to dissuade me from that point of view not only didn't work, but proved to be on the wrong side of history...and part of the making of a feminist.
"It's Not You, It's Me..."
From the moment "Helen" breezed into my life, smelling of fancy perfume and sophistication, I was smitten. I wanted to be just like her--owning a cute little house, living the city life, wearing nice clothes and adorable shoes. Helen and I were "past-life twins" and instant friends...and always, perhaps, a bit more of a big sister/little sister combo than true friends.
When my life started to change in big ways, around 2008/2009, Helen had recently married a man who was, by all surface accounts, everything a woman should want. He was successful, owned property in San Francisco, and he treated her like a queen...except for the fact that he cheated on her over the first six months of their marriage.
Many a strong woman I know says, "If my husband/boyfriend/lover ever cheated on me, I'd leave him right then and there." But Helen didn't leave, and the lesson I learned from her is that even the strongest feminist can fall into the black hole that is not believing anyone else will ever love you, and stay with a man who makes you lesser. As I watched her marriage progress, I saw her fade more and more into the background. Her profile picture on Facebook would be a picture of her husband standing slightly in front of her, dominating the picture in the same way he dominated her whole life.
When our friendship finally crumbled--rather pitifully--in 2010, it was through a letter Helen sent me, in which she actually wrote the words, "It's not you, it's me." I've always wondered if, as she watched me get stronger and more confident, just as her own sense of self crumbled, Helen just couldn't take it anymore.
Sometime in 2008, I discovered a blog called Jezebel. Part of the Gawker media empire, it is "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing." I was immediately smitten. Here was a site where I could learn about women's issues, and interact with like-minded feminists. I had just moved to Stockton, I was opening up my own world view more, and soon would embark on my great weight-loss Odyssey. The Jezebel community was exactly what I needed.
Through Jez, I befriended a ton of like-minded women (and men) who want the same things I want--equality for women the whole world over. Equal pay, reproductive rights, freedom from the misogynistic rape culture that continually holds us back...all of these issues were discussed. But we also talked about pop culture, fashion, and eventually, our lives.
As the quality on Jezebel had its ups and downs, people disappeared from the commenting sections, but we moved our friendships to Facebook and Twitter. To this day, I count among my friends many people I met via Jez.
From these ladies, I've learned that I can be a proud feminist and still love romance novels. I've learned that even the strongest feminist I know can be weakened by addiction, but come out the other side even stronger, even better. I have learned that while white women have their share of complaints, women of color face even harsher challenges on the road to equality. And I have learned that there is no shame in creating a community of like-minded people that exists almost entirely online (though I've met a few of these awesome ladies in person).
Reading Jezebel helped me find my own path in my feminist beliefs. While I'd always sort of quietly said, "Yeah, I'm pro-choice," Jezebel helped me understand exactly why I am. It's not because I think abortion is a good option, but because sometimes, the alternatives are worse.
Queen Bees and Careers
In my career as a teacher, I've had the pleasure of working with and under the supervision of some pretty awesome women. Women who, like me, are passionate about education and providing opportunities for children.
But I've also had a boss or two who weren't so great, who taught me, the hard way, that just because we're both women, and both educators, does not mean that we are necessarily on the same side of anything.
Case in point: my boss a few years ago, the one who decided, without once seeing me teach, that I was a "bad" teacher. The one who blatantly lied on my performance evaluation, and sat across from me in her office telling me one lie after another, all the while knowing there was nothing I could do about it, as a "probationary" employee. She had the power and authority, I did not.
Studies call bosses like this Queen Bees, and they point out the hypocrisy of women who complain about how hard it is to rise to a position of authority (like being a school principal), but then turn around and try to squash any other woman that might offer a hint of competition. I'll never know her reasons for taking an almost-instant dislike to me...but I did learn some important lessons from the experience. I can't rely on other women to take care of me--some women, like my friends from Jezebel, have a "we're all in this together" kind of mentality, but others do not. Women in positions of authority walk a very fine line--if you're too nice, people won't take you, the "little woman," seriously. If you're not nice at all, you're a bitch.
One of my intentions this year has been to forgive this former boss for her terrible behavior as a school administrator. Writing this, and thinking about Queen Bees, is actually opening me up to the first step of finally, firmly, leaving her in my past. I can see, in hindsight that her own insecurity in her authority must have led her to act the way she did. I can't hate her for it...though I do hate the system that spawned it.
Lessons From Myself
Obviously, our society promotes an impossible standard of beauty for women, and for years, I struggled to come to terms with my own inability to fit that ideal. I'm not going to lie--a very large part of my initial reasons for training were my desire to be "thin." I was so tired of being invisible to a society that didn't want my round body.
Over time, however, I started to notice a very important change in my mindset. While I appreciated being able to wear smaller clothes, that started to matter less as I discovered muscles building where they never had before, and as tasks at the gym became easier. As I realized I was just as strong as some of the badass women I looked on with envy, my journey became less about the number on the scale (though seeing 130 in September was amazing) and more about celebrating all of the things my body can do that used to be impossible. Running, lifting, moving.
Throughout my "Odyssey," I've realized that more than wanting some unattainable ideal, I want to be strong. As my body got stronger, so did my confidence. As my confidence grew, so did my optimism. My voice got louder, I became better at asking the world for what I want.
Being a feminist often feels like it comes with great responsibility. I worry about things like what I take for lunch on the days I'm at Petite School, because I want to set a healthy example for my kids (I often am seen at break munching on apple slices or baby carrots) but I also don't want to emphasize food to them and give them the idea that they have to be so strict with themselves. When, a few years ago, a sixth grade girl mentioned lying in bed with her 8th grade boyfriend, I had to decide how to react. I never want to shame a girl for her behavior as she learns about her sexuality, but I also knew that she was very immature and might not realize what this boy was trying to do until it was too late. In the end, I asked my (female) principal for advice, and she spoke to the student about our concerns.
I suppose we all just keep learning as we go. I am a proud feminist, and will work to show people that it's not a "man-hating" point of view, that we're not calling for "abortions for all!!" but rather a common sense approach to comprehensive sex education and access to birth control. Words like "legitimate rape" should never cross a politician's lips...ever. I will always maintain that if you pay a male CEO of Big Corporation $----, you should pay a female CEO of same corporation the same.
Women have made a lot of strides, though we still have a ways to go. I'm happy to do my part.