‘Love Letters’ is a Petal + Sass blog feature that regularly asks a group of diverse women in their 20’s and 30’s about their experiences with health, sex, emotional wellness, body image, college, careers – and what they wish they had known themselves as teenagers. Visit the ‘Love Letters’ To My Former Self page to learn more about the contributors.
Question Posed: What does feminism mean to you? Did you think much about feminism when you were in high school, or did it become more or less important to you later in life?
Miss Magnolia: To me, ‘feminism’ is making sure all things are equal. You are a feminist if you care about females and males being treated fairly; that’s how I know I’ve always been one.
As Caitlin Moran put it in How To Be A Woman:
a) Do you have a vagina? and
b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.
‘Feminism’ has always been important to me, I just found my tools later in life. In high school I was into the concept of feminism, but the actual word was frowned upon because someone, somewhere, made it negative – boys definitely didn’t like the word feminist. I remember equality being important to me. I remember wanting the female’s voice to be heard and to be considered important. I remember the feeling of injustice in history class when I would read about how women were treated; from voting rights to the diagnosis of hysteria, to how women around the world are currently being treated (i.e. when they have their period, are married off to much older men, and female genital mutilation, etc.) Now, I use the word ‘feminism’ all the time. If people react negatively to it, I assume they don’t have Google or a dictionary and I just ignore them.
Later in life I became better at articulating what I felt in high school. I read more and learned more and even read the opposing sides to feminism. I still feel the same sense of injustice and will always be a feminist with a capital F. In fact, if I ever have a son, I will ensure he is one, too. I married a feminist so hopefully it leaks out of my home and onto the streets. #FEMINISM!
Miss Bluebells: To me, ‘Feminism’ means ‘Humanism’, except we aren’t evolved enough as a society to truly call it that yet. When women are no longer denied basic rights and protections under the legal system; denied autonomy over their bodies; paid 75 cents to the man’s dollar; genitally mutilated; epidemically raped and murdered; over-sexualized and airbrushed in the media; and forced to pay luxury taxes on tampons, maybe “humanism” will be a more ubiquitous and appropriate term. Until then, ‘feminism’ means the pursuit of elevating women and men to the same level of autonomy and respect.
I have always, always been a feminist. In high school, even hearing that the F-word might cause someone to wrinkle their nose in disdain would send me into a paroxysm of side-eye. I was brought up to believe that I could be anything, so it seemed like a non-issue – laughable at best – if I was told otherwise. For the most part, my parents, friends, and educational system seemed to support this notion of gender equality. I felt annoyed that women were always portrayed as sexualized anorexic waifs or victims in the media, but I never necessarily tied this to a grand, systemic misogyny. I felt that my generation was on the scene to prove patriarchy was over; maybe my mother and her contemporaries needed to burn their bras, but we had inherited an amended culture – “Thanks, Ma – problem solved, things are different now.”
I was so, so wrong. And I didn’t even truly start to notice I was wrong until I was out of college and ushered into the ‘real world’. Little by little, you discover that the same protections aren’t in place for you as they are for your male colleagues. You notice that you sound different in your e-mails – a little sweeter, perhaps; that you seem to apologize more for your ideas; that your ideas are often great, but not often enough valued until a man pitches the same thing in a more arrogant way. Having children changes the game all together, and you look around at men with perhaps even less education than you (and even children of their own) leaping forward while you struggle to balance family and career.
We’re just not there yet as a society; feminism is as critical now as it ever was. Pass me my bra and a pack of matches.
Miss Rosebud: Feminism is easy when you are young. Everyone is treated the same, is given the same opportunities, and is basically dealt the same hand. Of course I was a feminist – but it wasn’t all that hard. Until you get married, feminism isn’t really put to the test. When you have kids, it’s REALLY put to the test.
Our system is a bit of a joke on women. It says all the right things about equality, but, at the end of the day, the cards are still stacked. Women all receive the same training and the same opportunities early on. We are told that women can do it all. We go through college and graduate school and take the same classes. We get the same initial jobs.
Then you get married. It’s subtle at first. But, the balance slightly shifts. You’re faced with the expectation to take his name. Decisions crop up where there may be a tension between your career and your spouse’s career. You notice that family members ask him more questions about his job than they ask you. You work everything out easily enough, though. Perhaps you point this undercurrent out, and, being the good feminist that he is, he agrees and course corrects.
Then you get pregnant and the sh*t hits the fan. Immediately, you’re half the performer you were at work. You are more exhausted than you have ever been, and can’t think straight. Then the child is born. Since you are nursing, you are the one attached at the hip to the baby, all day and all night. And, since you had more time off when the baby was born, you know it better, and are implicitly the “primary parent.”* Your maternity ends, and you’re beside yourself. Juggling a full time career and your family seems insurmountable and extremely expensive. You find yourself grappling with possibility of scaling back on your career or opting out entirely, a struggle you had of course heard about but never thought would apply to you. And the kicker? You may well WANT to scale back to spend more time with your baby. Your husband, meanwhile, has gotten a promotion and is working harder than ever.
What does feminism mean to me now? I don’t have the tidy philosophy that I did in high school or college. But, in practice, it means making choices – sometimes hard choices, like staying at work – to keep myself economically empowered. It means not setting myself up to be screwed if something happened to us or to him. It means protecting myself against pressure to stay with him for economic reasons.
And, finally, it means understanding – really understanding – that feminism looks different for everyone. It is an equally feminist choice to stay home with your kids, provided that you are doing it because you want to or for reasons that make sense to you.
*Funny how even maternity policies are drafted with the term “primary parent” – who do you think they mean?
Miss Peony: To me, feminism is about dismantling the patriarchy – a system that socially and financially values men’s contributions over women’s – and putting together a system that treats everyone equally.
What sucks about the patriarchy is that it gets inside of your head, all of our heads, and subconsciously trains us to think about women as lesser. If a man gets attacked, we want to get that criminal. If a woman gets raped, we want to know what she was wearing and whether she was out along at night.
In high school, I was definitely not ready to question the patriarchy. I had this strange sense of accountability which allowed me to feel in control of my life; admitting that there was something bigger than me, some systemic level of gender discrimination that influenced my behavior, was frightening.
Of course, on this issue and all other important issues, there came a point where closing my eyes and hoping it would go away just wasn’t a feasible solution any more. My freshman year of college, I got an abortion and vowed to stop lying to myself. All the things I wouldn’t let myself believe because they were scary or hard, I decided to face. Global warming, feminism, racism, everything I didn’t want to acknowledge because then it meant I’d have to do something.
Feminism is a journey, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully “get it” enough to stop asking questions. But to me, feminism is the #1 most important value in my life; not being a feminist, is a huge deal breaker. That means having tough confrontational moments, having to reconcile practicality with my values, and all the other tough stuff that comes with caring about something.