I was sitting in the back seat of a white, 1974 Gran Torino station wagon, the model with the stylish wooden panels on each side. It was a sticky, southern summer day. The windows were rolled down and my long hair was blowing wildly. I wore my favorite outfit of cut-off blue jean shorts, a Welcome Back, Kotter t-shirt, tube socks with stripes at the top, and tennis shoes. Mom pulled the car in front of The Nashville Boys Club in Nashville, TN. She asked me to go inside to find my cousin so that he could come home with us. I obeyed, right after peeling my legs off the olive-ish green, faux leather upholstery. I spoke to an attendant at the front desk and was allowed to go through a door where the boys were. Once inside the inner sanctum, I cased the joint, coveting what was not mine. There were many activities to choose from, and most included balls of various varieties—basket, ping-pong, foot, soccer, and fooze. I stood at the edge of the basketball court with my arms folded, wondering, “Why is there no Girls Club?”
This question was the spark that lit a curiosity that ignited a passion that still burns in me today.
Back then, I was still learning what it meant to be a girl—the expectations and the limitations. I did not realize I was learning my gender role. I did realize early that acting like a lady was zero fun and highly uncomfortable. I usually chose to play kickball outside instead of dolls inside. Dresses, those God-awful Mary Jane shoes and hosiery were blessedly only Sunday attire and were strewn on the bedroom floor within minutes of getting home from church. I had a Barbie that I renamed Pat, which I thought sounded strong and independent. Pat worked in an office and lived in the dream house alone while Ken lived in the toy box. (Pat? Really?)
Based on what I was taught in school, the only history that mattered had to do with wars and white men. A handful of women and “minorities” ever did a damned thing but start an underground railroad, sew a flag, and make all kinds of cool stuff out of peanuts. Male generic language was still the norm, so I was to accept that “he” or “his” could also mean “she” or “hers.”
I remember watching the TV shows The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, and Policewoman. The female characters were different from Carol Brady and I liked it. (Looking back, I see that those women were all hot and white and little diversity existed in the media.)
At home, my mom was not bionic, but she was not lacking in amazing feats of resourcefulness and creativity. She could (still can) take a few groceries and whip the ingredients into a tasty and aesthetically pleasing dish. She could (still can) take old draperies purchased at a yard sale and turn the material into Halloween costumes and decorative pillows. She was not an angel; she was not a strict law enforcer. Mom had dinner on the table every night and the scent of warm cinnamon rolls always hung in the holiday air. She earned her own money from various business ventures and submissive is not an adjective I would ever use for my Mom...ever. Yet, she always pushed herself (still does) to the point of exhaustion to show her love by being what our culture and Proverbs 31:10-31 would require of her sex.
My Dad was a singer and musician and “gigs” were often out of town. When he was home, he took time to play with me and my brother and sister—really play, using our imaginations, laughter, and affection. And there was always music. He did not build stuff, unless you count a tricycle he assembled at Christmas when I was a toddler. The front wheel fell off before our breakfast of warm cinnamon rolls. He did not ride a motorcycle; he chose a Motobecane bicycle instead. He was not super macho or aggressive, but he pushed himself to the point of homesickness to show his love by being what our culture and I Timothy 5:8 would require of his sex.
Although I had a fondness for Helen Reddy’s I am Woman, I do not remember hearing much about the second wave of feminism roaring through our country. I do remember continuing to have feelings and beliefs and questions about the way things were. “Why can a boy do _________ and I can’t?” grew into, “Why are there so many double standards for men and women?”
As a young adult, I was told (by a man) it is worse for a woman to lose her virginity than it is for a man. I was told (by a man) that I was “ruined” because I had a baby at a young age. Thanks, is my son’s father also ruined? There were always conflicting messages being hurled at me from every direction. Look sexy! Don’t have sex! Make him want you! Tell him no! There was some idiom about milk and cows. And as it turns out, I am lactose intolerant. There were rules and regulations for being a woman that seemed to be part of a super secret manual written by the ghost of Southern woman past. Heaven forbid I wear white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day. And bless my heart for thinking my dreams or my potential deserved as much attention as a man’s.
I progressed to stating that I had a feminist “streak.” I recognized and criticized double standards. I do not remember if I knew the word sexist at the time, but I knew when something did not feel right. I used such tentative language as “streak” because I did not understand then what the word feminist meant, but I knew it had a negative connotation. Don’t all feminists hate men? I loved men. Several. Many even. And if I professed to be a feminist could I still wear cute sandals and an un-singed bra?
When I went back to school in my 30s, I learned that women had actually contributed more to society than I ever knew. While I was glad to learn this, it also pissed me off that so much had been left out of my history books as a child. Women invented, created, developed, and healed. I learned about the different waves of feminism with different groups and different objectives. There are also male feminists. Who knew, right? Feminists are not all pro-choice and anti-men. Feminists are not all anything, although stereotypes abound. A stigma still desperately clings to the word with a fervor that dismays me. I often hear women say, “I am not a feminist, but _________”, followed by the insertion of a concern or complaint about our culture, a policy, a law, a workplace occurrence, or a horrific local, national, or global news story.
Thankfully, The Nashville Boys Club is now the Boys and Girls Club. I remember seeing for the first time that “and Girls” had been added to the sign on the building. I smiled knowingly. Change does take place. Renaming a building is not much different than renaming oneself. It takes time and most likely takes a fight.
I now not only claim the label of feminist, I have chosen a definition to match; never let it be said I cannot accessorize. There are many positive and negative definitions from which to choose. I borrowed the definition from author and activist bell hooks (lower case on purpose). “Feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression.” Let that marinate a moment…not just women’s oppression? Men also experience sexism and whether it happens to men or women, let’s call it what it is. Sexist oppression. Sexist messages are tightly woven into our culture and communicated publicly and privately and range from comical to costly, leading to losses of livelihood and lives. I am passionate about studying the causes and effects of these messages.
So here I am with a blog, a label, and remaining questions about sex, gender, communication, and culture. I learn. I teach. I learn some more. I am a woman. I am a feminist. No streaks. No excuses. No apologies.
This is my wave of feminism and when I drive by The Nashville Boys and Girls Club, I still smile.