It feels as though, after years of hearing predictions of its immanent demise, feminism is having a moment: I for one could not be more thrilled.
As someone who has proudly called herself a feminist since age 17, its lack of popularity has always puzzled me: who wouldn’t want to support gender equality, especially as a model for social justice overall? Plenty of people, it seems.
That said, one of my favourite things about feminism is its okayness with folks who don’t like labels or “isms” on principle: the freedom to self-identify trumps all.
I started my “career” as a feminist when, as a first-year university student in 1985, I realized that my English Literature 100 survey course syllabus did not contain a single woman writer – yes that’s right – no Jane Austin, no Mary Shelley, no Bronte sisters, no Virginia Woolf, no Elizabeth Barrett Browning, no George Eliot, no Emily Dickinson – you get the idea: not a single sentence in an entire year’s worth of books by any one of these overwhelmingly canon-worthy writers.
It blew me away: how could this possibly be? It’s not like these people and their works were relatively unknown. In hindsight, I believe that it was this jarring realization, coming rapidly on the heels of a highly unpleasant incident in my first week as a student, where “frosh” (freshman) women – myself included – were forced to lie down in a muddy field while male football players did push-ups on top of them as part of a ritual hazing activity, that made me a feminist.
There was a name for people like me who felt like things like that were wrong and needed to be corrected, a club to join where others understood me: feminism. I headed down the hall to the Women’s Studies (as it was then called) department, signed on to train as a counselor at the local Rape Crisis Centre, subscribed to Ms. magazine and read Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. I felt like I had come home to a world of sanity after being deeply lost in an alternate universe.
When the opportunity to meet Gloria presented itself recently, I jumped at the chance to hear her words and thank her personally for everything that she has brought to my life.
Seeing her step out onto the stage last Sunday night in Seattle in the company of some of my closest likeminded friends and colleagues immediately brought to mind how absolutely wonderful it is to have heroes, leaders, mentors and role models.
As a leader myself, being led is, counterintuitively, one of my most intensely joyful places. This may sound odd, but it really is: being able to let go and hand it over in total trust and confidence is one of the most freeing experiences that I have the good fortune to enjoy, whether it’s in a yoga class, with my business partner or in the presence of one of my personal all-stars.
I should add that Gloria was accompanied by the one-and-only Cheryl Strayed, a remarkable person in her own right. One of my only regrets of the evening was not to have been fast enough on the question-lineup draw to ask Gloria what her favourite part of Wild was: oh well!
Gloria was funny – hilarious even, which is both funny and hilarious because feminists are so often accused of being humourless. Her wry anecdotes included being told – as a young journalist – by an editor that her article on why women should be treated as equal human beings needed to be “balanced, for the sake of objectivity” with an article next to it that offered the opposite opinion. “You can’t make this stuff up,” she giggled.
When asked how she counters people who say that they don’t need feminism, she offered a big smile, a wave and “I just tell them, good luck!”
On a more poignant note, she told the story of how, as a 22 year-old recent college graduate en route to an internship in India, she discovered that she was pregnant. She was in England at the time, and was able to persuade a doctor to sign off on her receiving an abortion “for medical reasons” – a highly illegal act for which he risked his medical license.
The doctor asked her to promise him two things: first, that she would never reveal his name, and second, that she would do what she wanted to with her life. “I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job at doing what I wanted to with my life,” she proclaimed to loud applause. Her most recent book, My Life on the Road, is dedicated to him.
I have come away feeling more grateful than ever for feminism and its proponents: as much as it has meant to me, there is no label that I more keenly anticipate shedding – one bright, shiny, beautiful day when we no longer have need of it.