What’s a Feminist?

Sorting through my many files of writing–with the intention of shredding some of it, I came across a questionnaire from my college-age granddaughter…she was writing a paper about my generation of women–the sixties and seventies.

The first question was “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” As I rewrite this question here, I wonder if the concept of feminist even exists in other cultures. I’d like to know. Or does it belong to a time and era, culture and country, localized?

Regardless, it’s food for thought. Once I answered, yes, I consider myself a feminist, her next question was… “How do you define feminism?”

One dictionary definition of feminism is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities…” A second definition: ” Organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.”

I think that it’s important to recognize that in 1787 when the US Constitution was ratified, where it says that “all men are created equal” it refers to educated white males. Though women in this country were granted the right to vote as of August 18, 1920, the mentality that classed women as property and inferior to men exists to this day. Within the mindsets of both women and men, women continue to have less status than men in this country–and throughout most of the civilized and third world countries. Is it changing?

We hear examples of this inequality and outright abuse around the world daily. Though it can be more subtle in this country, wherever women are objectified–popular men’s magazines (like Playboy), sitcoms and movies that portray women as “dumb,” and crimes against women that aren’t effectively addressed. The lack of educational opportunities across the economic strata that would enhance women’s opportunities and self-esteem .

There is a concurrent need for the re-educating of men to foster respect for the contributions of womankind, up close and personal and globally. What is at the very roots of resistance to this? What undermines and contributes to this inequality?

Truly, the personal is political. One thought that I would add in defining feminism is this: Women do have gender-specific abilities, responsibilities, qualities that men obviously don’t have. That said, a reframing of the intrinsic value of women’s work both to a household and its benefits to a society should not go unrecognized and under-appreciated. The tasks that are particular to her gender, specifically, childbearing, nurturing, intuiting, nourishing and any other innately feminine traits be elevated and deemed as worthy and equal to any work that a man does out in the world–this recognition boosts esteem. Different but equal was a phrase commonly used in the sixties when women were burning their bras. I don’t think that the intention of this statement is reflected in our policies yet today.

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Are you a feminist?

How do you define feminism?

A good discussion topic with your friends?

Symbol of Woman’s Emancipation

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was about twelve years old. I rode my bike around the neighborhood in the Sunset District in San Francisco where I grew up. I didn’t travel very far or wide. I had six younger siblings and a lot of household responsibilities. In her late forties, my mother got a bike as a birthday present. It was maroon-colored and called Indian Princess. It seemed somehow exotic to me. My father put training wheels on it; my mother never took them off. It never left the garage.

When I married at age 19 and moved to southern California, I wanted a bike but my young husband didn’t agree. After I had my first daughter, I pictured myself riding through the flat neighborhood of Lemon Grove Estates with her in a bike seat behind me. Again, my husband thought I was being frivolous.

For a long time after that, I thought that I had outgrown bicycles…that I was now too mature to ride a bike. The notions that we have. At 36-years old, I bought myself a Schwinn mountain bike for women…blue, shiny, sturdy, I took up bike-riding. I rode around San Francisco. I never did get a helmet although I would advise my younger self to wear one now. I rode from Daly City, partway around Lake Merced, down Sloat Boulevard to Great Highway beside Ocean Beach. Along the Great Highway past the Sunset and Richmond Districts, then up into Golden Gate Park. Past Queen Wilhelmina’s Windmill and tulip gardens. Up through the park to ninth avenue and the Big Wreck Baseball Field…and then back again. This became a regular route for me.

I brought my bike with me when I moved to Mt. Shasta. I thought I’d ride it often. I rode it sometimes, but rarely. Mostly, it’s been in storage. When polled recently to see what their most valuable possession was women responded…their car keys. I would agree with that. However at one time, the bicycle was a symbol of freedom for women. It changed fashion and gave them mobility at a time when they were definitely constrained.

“One hundred years ago, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester promoting the women’s rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.”

The American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896:

“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”

This little collage turned into a woman riding a bicycle.

Feminist Slogans…a few

An individual woman is going to have her personal interface with the feminist experience.  Continuing with the theme of Feminism…my granddaughter asked me:

“What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the advancement of women’s rights?”‘

These too familiar slogans came to mind:

burn the bra
free love
Equal Pay for Equal Work
Different but Equal

Women wanted equal opportunity for advancement on the job.  In the early 70’s, I worked in a corporate setting in a personnel office.  The male establishment often brought up the oppositional point that a woman would likely get married, then pregnant and leave her job and fall back on her husband for financial support.  They perceived this as some sort of logical reason not to advance a woman on the job.  That said, for many years now, the necessity of a two-income household is without question in order  to afford a certain lifestyle.

I lived in San Francisco at this time.  My ex-husband was in the fire department.  Women were fighting for the right to be firefighters.  There had been height, weight and physical agility requirements.  Most women and men of lesser build couldn’t meet these prerequisites. The requirements were modified to allow women in the department.  They still had to meet certain requirements, but these alterations in the standard entry test opened the door to women.  Whether or not they were capable of doing the job was going to be tested on-the-job.

The sexual harassment laws have been evolving since the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission began defining what that meant in the 1960’s.  It seems to be taking awhile for the male population to take this seriously.

There is the ongoing question around a woman’s right to make decisions about her body.  It seems that with each change of administration, the abortion laws come up for question and review.

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Women come of age at different times.  In our own individual lives as women, it seems to be part of our growth to recognize when we are disrespected, mistreated, devalued. We come to understand that we must first respect and value ourselves.  With the strides forward of the individual woman, the macroscm is affected.  How we esteem ourselves teaches others how we expect to be treated.  No small task.  Lots to undo.