If You Could Mold a Feminist…
My present understandings of gender and my strong identity as a feminist scholar cause conflict. As I stand here today, I know I was a product of socially constructed views of gender, however, I want to blame someone for lying to me, but who do I blame, society?
“To be educated is to be free”, a quote that I believe best describes my transformation from a young woman swayed by media and heteronormative experiences to a strong, feminist. My Women’s Studies certificate provides the chance to analyze my experiences and to challenge the status quo. The most significant part of my education is the ability to identify and label my understandings of the world. I only wish I could have analyzed my surroundings during my youth. However, I recognize the process of self-authorship and identity.
If you could mold a feminist, that would be me. My childhood perspectives range from internalizing my experiences as an outsider to placing myself in normative populations with distance and uncertainty. I actually discussed this reflection with a counselor, after she asked me, “have you ever felt like you fit in?” While this question sounds arbitrary, it is representative of how I have built relationships and processed events (hence the relator in me). I believe I have exhibited the characteristics of a critical Feminist my entire life without putting a label on it.
A “Feminist” Childhood
During my childhood, I challenged normative female behavior; I played football, skateboarded, and played with Hot Wheels. My parents encouraged me to play with all toys, with subtle reminders that I would grow out of it or that these were actually “boy’s toys”. Even interactions during playtime at my babysitters were clearly gendered. I was encouraged to play house by taking on the “mother” or “daughter” role and engaging in pretend weddings. My daycare reinforced the performances of gender and any deviation away from heterosexual behaviors resulted in reprimand or a discussion about, “this is what little girls do”.
During fifth and sixth grade, I remember others calling me a “tomboy”. I remember my love for Major League Baseball and the White Sox, a way of bonding with my dad. I wore Frank Thomas jersey’s, Big Hurt Reebok sneakers, and watched all of the games. My bedroom even reflected that of a young boy with my comforter and walls covered in Chicago White Sox paraphernalia. This stage of life was important to me because of my relationship with my father.
For me, junior high was an awkward stage. I remember feeling lost and struggled to try everything because I did not know myself. Certainly, this stage included the opposite sex and increased inquiry about sexuality and relationships. With the constant struggle of finding an identity; was the pressure to date and perform the “duties” of a female.
The biggest part of junior high and my experiences were being able to negotiate what I thought was self fulfilling was really conforming to the normative standards. There was a part of me that felt empowered by 1990’s female singers, for example, the angst of Alanis Morissette and the song “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks, yet I did not know the real meaning behind them. I think there is a parallel to empowerment as an adult and as an adolescent. The significance is in how we reflect from the additional knowledge we gain.
Teenage Beauty or Brains?
My adolescence was an interesting time because I was delayed in menstruation until I was 15 years old. I remember feeling pressure from friends and even my mother because “you are not women until you get yours”. Even though people said I was not a woman, I felt like a woman. For most of my life, I was a parental child and took care of my sister, many times taking the place of my father in disciplinary actions. It felt unsatisfying that others would not see me as a “person” until I went through, what I thought, was this horrible milestone in my life.
In retrospect, even my relationships with my parents changed as I became more confident as a female. Male privilege influenced the interactions that my father and I had; including his notion that I would marry and not have to worry about money and that my beauty would forever exceed my intelligence. Today, I think men in my life are confused more than ever because I am working on a doctoral degree; beauty and brains.
Many situations in life have included my appearance. I feel like people have relied on my appearance and their expectations for me. The heterosexual feminine ideal influences many individuals perceptions of what are women should look like and expectations for her successes in life. I often found that my parents relied on expressing how beautiful I was whenever I felt disappointed or injustice. Their reliance on “my appearance that would save me” or “get me through the tough situations in life” made it difficult to place accountability on my other characteristics.
Today, I find that people are shocked when they learn I am working on a doctoral degree. Their first impression is a blonde female that must rely on her looks. Most individuals will commend my hard work and validate my education like it is surprising that I can handle such a feat. I find myself sensitive to these reactions and yet they validate my efforts to succeed. I am conflicted, once again, because I like the validation and awareness of my achievements.
I never thought one experience during my high school career would shift my identity and purpose as much as it did. During my junior year, I met with my school counselor to start my college application process; as the first person in my family to go, I was unsure of where to start. When I met with the counselor, he instructed me that I would not need to worry about college because I was a good-looking female and that a male would take care of me. As impressionable as I was, I was not sure how to respond, however I knew that he was wrong!
When I look back now, I believe this was the turning point in my gender awareness. It made me hypersensitive to gendered issues and influenced me to strive for my Bachelors degree. At this point, there was nothing that could get in my way. The feeling empowered me and made me somewhat aware of gender inequities. He turned something on, something big. I could never be the same person after that.
In my undergraduate education, I felt like I had purpose, like I had sense of the direction of my life. Gendered situations were not in my radar, as they are now, however, many of these experiences I now, claim as my own. During my first year of college, I was a victim of sexual assault. Even the word sexual assault, seems minor to me; it was rape. I repressed this experience because I was alone in processing it, I blamed myself and I felt like he had taken my identity. I realize his privilege in never having to confront inequitable situations and the power he chose to exert over me.
Several years later, I have recovered, although it was a rough path. If anything, I understand how society blames victims and makes excuses for masculine sexual control. The experience shaped my identity as a feminist and as an activist against sexual assault. If someone wanted to mold a feminist, surely this was the way.
Graduate education has freed me of mendacity, yet places burdens on my interactions. The burdens are simply, knowing that people walk around this earth ignorant and disillusioned. People act in ignorance to many gender inequities and make decisions based on their experience rather than factual knowledge. I experience gendered conversations on a daily basis within an institution of educated people, which makes me ponder the outside world. I sit in the ivory tower, produce research combating gender issues, and wonder how this will be disseminated to those who need it the most. I believe I have an obligation to break the silence between both genders in response to the inequities that exist in institutions, all over the world.
The Women’s Studies program and one of my graduate advisors initiated a change in me. The change is to never remain silent when I see injustices occur. Having a feminist critical lens to analyze my world has opened many doors for me and how I truly found a strong identity. I reflect back on the injustice that I have experienced and know that I am only stronger because of it.
However, since I can label my experiences and interact with others that identify as feminist, I feel many women are not supportive of each other. The competitive nature of the academe draws females against each other when support and is needed to excel as a group. The more I become conscious of my identity and more vocal of women in society, I see the deconstruction of others. As much as education can be freeing, it can be a curse at the same time.
I believe everything in life happens for a reason. My path has not been easy; it is a learning experience. I will forever reflect back on all of the situations I have been faced with and see them in a different light. If you could mold a Feminist, it would be ME!