On Motherhood and Feminism: A GrandMOMocrat speaks

May 22, 2009 by

Feminist_mothers

I am the proud feminist mother of two grown feminist daughters and a teenage son who might be embarrassed at the moment to be referred to as a “feminist,” but who has a finely honed sense of justice that fits the bill. One of those daughters has asked me to give some of my personal history and perspective on feminism and motherhood — so here goes.

Like a lot of women, I think, I was a feminist before I ever heard the word uttered, from the first time I was forced to act against my own inclinations and even my own best interests with no better explanation than “Little girls don’t. . . should. . . can’t. . . never. . . always. . .”  I wondered why, and learned to do so silently most of the time. Even as a very young child, I burned with indignation, disappointment, anger, fear and confusion over many, many contradictions.

Why was it OK for my father to be angry and loud and hit my mother, and why was she required to lower her eyes and her voice and take it? Why did the school rules demand that I walk to school in a thin dress and tights in the 20-below windchill of a Minnesota winter, while my brother was allowed to wear heavy jeans, thick socks, and boots with three times the insulation of my flimsy vinyl ones with the fake fur trim? Why was I redirected by the kindergarten teacher (first with kindness and finally intense irritation) every single time I tried to play with “the boys'” building blocks and wooden train set?  (She dragged me by the arm to play with plastic pots and pans and a box of grimy, hair-challenged baby dolls instead.)

Why were boys my age allowed to wander several blocks away, while I had to stay within range of a back porch shout? Why were adults always quick to call me pretty (although I was not, in particular) and loudly ask me how many boyfriends I had or whether I was married yet, confusing and mortifying my five, seven, twelve year old self? Why did they always ask my brother whether he was getting good grades in school and what he was going to “be” when he grew up, instead of telling him how handsome he was and asking him how many children he was going to have?

Why did my mother work the night shift in a nursing home, lifting patients twice her size and changing their diapers, only to come home white-faced with exhaustion and start in on laundry, dishes, cooking, getting kids off to school, and silently bringing my dad his cigarettes, coffee, beer, etc., while he read the paper and ran down everything she did? Why did my dad get the first shot at anything good that came in to the house and the last say on every aspect of our lives? Why did I have to fill in for our mother as I grew older — cleaning, looking after the younger kids, asking how high when our father said jump — while my older brother got to lock himself in his room for hours and hours at a time and shut out the shouting with books and music? And why, why did Uhura get stuck running the galactic switchboard while Kirk saved humanity (again) by killing Klingons run amok and stripping the gold lame bikinis off hot alien women?

When I did finally hear the word “feminist” it was nearly always being used as an insult, and was frequently paired with the words “lesbian” or “dyke.” What struck me most at the time was how elaborately, viciously and lovingly the necessary lessons for such women were described. There was an unmistakable sexual bent to the violence, and an emphasis on extreme humiliation. “Feminist” was not a safe thing to be, whatever the hell it meant.

It was a long time before I understood that I was already one of “them,” like it or not, and longer still before I claimed the name out loud. Once I did, in my mid-teens, I felt a thrill of courage and connection that is difficult to describe. I had been taught as long as I could remember that I was “other” and “lesser” — irredeemably so — but in claiming the name “feminist,” I felt changed in some vital, inexplicable way.  Even without personally knowing ONE woman of any age who would firmly and openly declare herself a feminist, I no longer felt so utterly alone.

I signed on to the revolution as whole-heartedly as if my life depended on it — because it did.  I had only to look at my own mother, and the mothers of my friends and relatives, to see what road I was expected to go down, and what I would endure if I submitted to it.  It wasn’t that I saw NO happiness or fulfillment in the lives of any the older women around me, although many were unhappy and bitter to one degree or another.

But their happiness seemed to me born of accepting and choosing between the options you are handed, and no more. For some people, that might be enough, might even be what they felt they wanted. But I had already lived my whole life up to that point at the mercy of adults who might be cruel to a little girl one moment and kind the next, who never questioned their right to make decisions for her, punish or reward her, destroy or build her up, treat her as their little princess / servant / sex toy / doll / lap dog / punching bag, or whatever else might suit them.  I knew I could not bear to spend the next 50 or 60 years of my life living under only slightly more liberal circumstances as a woman than I had lived under as a child.

I was slow to make changes, of course. I was still a kid, really, and my life was dangerously close to not being worth the hassle and pain. In the middle of chaos and desperate choices, though, sometimes good things happen. My good thing was having my first daughter at age seventeen. She was a reason to live, a reason to get very serious about making sense of things, and she awakened a fierceness in me that I had seldom felt on my own behalf.

For your child, you can move mountains, even the ones inside you that block the path to being a better, stronger person. I wanted to change the world, starting with myself. I wanted to teach her that anything was possible, and that she was worthy of compassion and respect not just from me, but from everyone. I wanted to show her the obstacles she faced being born as a human being and a woman, and I wanted to teach her to look beyond them. I wanted to teach her that her body was and would always be her own, strong and beautiful and her own private country, open to no one she did not welcome freely. I had grown up with silence and lies and rationalizations of every kind of wrongness, and much of the harm that was done to me was done with the understanding that it was what I deserved (and even ought to welcome!) for the sole reason that I had been born a girl. I wanted her to comprehend to the bone that the personal truly is political, and that to engage in one is to engage in the other.

I understood that I was putting my shoulder against the weight of the world, and that my daughter would never grow up without learning some of the self-doubt and self-loathing that every girl seems to absorb to some extent by about the age of eleven or twelve. But I believed in her in a way that I still very much struggled to believe in myself, and I believed in the power of honesty and love to give her the strength to survive and grow past the worst of that poisoning. And she has — she has grown into an aware, intelligent, kind woman with a passion for justice and a willingness to fight for what she believes is right — a feminist! — and she has changed the world a little for the better in the process.

Like me, she might have come to see herself as a feminist without anyone else’s help. But the values and viewpoints I worked so hard to expose her to were not standard fare. If I didn’t share them with her, no one else would be knocking down the door to do so. She had the right to disagree with me at any time, and was always encouraged to look at issues from every possible side, not just the one I presented as my own. She gained over time a depth of understanding and a habit of questioning the status quo that I believe she owes in no small part to a feminist up-bringing. Living in a world that remains decidedly undecided about the equal rights of half of the human race is a challenge, and self-awareness, openmindedness, and a strong sense of fairness are feminist values that make it a little easier. She sees the rightness of looking at things holistically as well as dissecting them thoroughly. She understands the necessity for inclusiveness and of actively seeking different perspectives from her own. She is seldom afraid to be either right or wrong, which frees her to re-examine her assumptions and conclusions. (And if all this sounds too much like just a mother’s love, I will admit she can be a bit sharp and cranky at times, neither of which attributes she learned from me. Naturally).

My other children have not invited me to display their lives on the page, so I will only say that I am very proud of both of them and could say equally enthusiastic, truthful and impressive things about them here if they were up to speed on the whole project and gave me the OK.

Now, I have been involved in organized activism, totally DIS-organized activism, and spontaneous “teaching moments” on and off throughout my adult life. I believe that there has been significant value in those activities, and I am proud to have taken part in them.  (I am proud to have simply survived some of them without pinching off the head of a particularly obnoxious opponent — or fellow activist. Me? Sharp or cranky?) But I believe to the bottom of my soul that the most powerful and revolutionary thing I personally have ever done is raise three smart, good-hearted, strong-willed kids to look at the world and themselves through the lens of feminism.

I can’t even begin to separate the threads of my work as a mother from my work as a feminist, and don’t see the point in trying. And I imagine that there are many, many others out there who feel the same way. My love and respect to all of you for contributing to a better world in whatever ways you can. I hope we can all continue to support each other in doing that good work with honesty, respect, and compassion.

Author Diana Harvestmoon-Stewart is a former social worker, former Associate Professor of English and Women Studies, and the mother of MOMocrats contributing blogger Jaelithe.

The MOMocrats will be co-hosting a chat on motherhood and feminism this Sunday with Fem 2.0. We’d love to see you there!

Twittercast: Feminism is Where You Are/What You Do
Sunday, May 24, 2009, 10 PM EST

For information on how to join the Twittercast, visit the Fem 2.0 website.

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