Sunday, September 18, 2011

Confessions of a Child Feminist

I cannot remember a time before feminism. No, really. I was the kid who scandalized other first graders by saying, "sexist." The one who wrote to local clergy and asked if they were really listening to women - they didn't respond. I was the child who quietly instigated arguments in Sunday school by asking why the boys would all receive the Priesthood in a few years, while we never would. I was the child who associated masculinity with stupidity. And I was the child who bluntly shared stories about my aunt's abusive husband and couldn't understand why girl scout leaders wanted to pull me aside and talk to me individually after the lesson. After all, wasn't the oppression of women at the hands of men all out in the open?

As you might guess from those examples, I wasn't just a feminist as a child - I was a second wave feminist. To me, gender was all about oppression, and not just the kind that comes through cooties. I grew up with constant reminders that I was not, under any circumstances to call my aunt's husband Uncle. I heard stories of women, both in and out of the family, who were afraid to leave men who brutalized them. I watched grandparents focus all their attention on male cousins and heard friends and family asking my parents if it bothered them that they didn't have a son (my brother was only born when I was ten). So I felt as if I were at constant war with boys who kicked shins, pulled hair, and in general bewildered me by wrestling each other on the floor.

Since those childhood days of second wave feminism, I've revised my initial theories. I'm no longer bothered by LDS men holding the Priesthood while LDS women don't, because I recognize now that to hold the Priesthood is not to personally become more powerful than those who don't - it's to become responsible to serve others. I also recognize that there are many brilliant men in the world, no matter what their first grade handwriting led me to believe. All around, I'm a more moderate feminist than my childhood self.

But I still wonder, as I recall my childhood, when I first identified myself as a feminist. I can point to any number of influences that helped me become one. In addition to the many influences I've listed above, I happened to go to church in a ward (congregation) that was known for having many feminists. Many women in the ward were intellectuals, influenced by the local University of New Hampshire. Among the intellectuals, there was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Widwife's Tale. Certainly the author of such an openly feminist book as Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History influenced me indirectly, but I knew of her only as Sister Ulrich, the nice lady who sang in the choir and who once offered me homemade grape juice. (It was delicious). And who occasionally said remarkably frank things about LDS women, in public interviews.

So no, Sister Ulrich was not the reason I became a feminist, or at least not the primary reason. Others must have influenced me, from my grandmothers and mother to the friends I spent time with. Erica and I have been friends since kindergarten, and we influenced one another where feminism was concerned - but in what ways?  When I think back on that friendship, it's probably like wondering whether the chicken or the egg came first. Erica has always had a hankering for causes, and I've always had a lot of anger about injustices. In fact, I'm on skype with Erica right now, and neither of us can recall to what degree the other influenced our feminism - we simply know that we did.

I suppose what I'm discovering in all of this is that feminism is so deep in my bones that when others suggest I need to turn off my feminist lens for a moment, they ask something that is nigh on impossible. How can I deny my reality? But I'm curious what experiences others have had with feminism. How did you first come to the realization that you were a feminist?


  1. I don't remember becoming a feminist, as you said, but I do remember little things- like writing to the Pope because I wanted to be a priest and I couldn't- that, as with you, indicate a very early awareness of sex-based social injustice. Crazy, isn't it!

  2. This is a funny title for me: I don't claim it, but others apply it to me. The first time I was called a feminist was by an ex-girlfriend's mother, who apparently thought some of my blog posts were very interesting.

    I know there's no litmus test required here, but what does the word feminist even mean?