“I am not a gender. I am a person with dignity. All I ask is to be treated with the same dignity and respect as any other person, regardless of race, gender, religion or socioeconomic status. I am a PERSON with unlimited potential.” Sciencegranny
I was asked recently to define “Feminism.” As a single mother, who raised three sons, who all claim to be “feminists,” I thought it might be time to define feminism according to a woman who has grown and developed in a male-dominated society, church, academia and professional arena.
What exactly does feminism mean to a woman of my vintage and life experience?
When I was growing up, I knew my place as a child. The adults were in charge and the male role models were the head of the household and the head of the church. The men in my life were honorable, dedicated, and clearly in charge. The women in my life were obedient, intelligent, rebellious, and to some degree, they too were in charge. Their control seemed to be intrinsic and counter to societal norms, yet subdued to keep the peace.
We must let the men think they are in charge so that we may eventually get our way.
I didn’t buy into this, but the women in society seemed to live by that silent code.
Men are sexual and stupid. We have to be smarter, endure their stupidity, grant them sexual favors and then do what we want to do while they are happily unaware.
Roles in Nature: Spending summers on my grandparent’s farm taught me about how important roles were in the natural order of things. The bull in the field had three functions that I could discern, 1) protection of the herd – stomping and chasing predators, 2) impregnating the cows so that they could give birth to calves and produce milk, and 3) to model role behavior for young calves, keeping the young bulls in line until they could be sold for slaughter. The rooster in the hen-house, had basically the same role, except he helped produce eggs…he would also attack snakes and kill them.
My grandparents would rise with the sun and go about their daily chores.
My grandfather would get on his tractor and go to the barn where he collected hay or grain for his cattle. He repaired fences and built things. His labor was physical and was essential to the sustainability of the farm.
My grandmother would milk the cows to get milk for the family. Her job involved feeding and caring for the animals that provided milk and eggs.
He tended the crops and used the tractor to keep the furrows clear of weeds.
She hoed the excess weeds and tended the daily crop upkeep. They both worked together to maintain all. She was clearly an equal partner in this sustainable life that they had.
They produced everything that they needed. They made their own soap, built their own home, carried their own water, raised their own crops and canned their crops.
My grandfather milled his own grains for feed for his chickens and cows.
During the summer months, he bailed hay and worked in the fields. He also was the one who bartered and traded with others (men).
My grandmother got up early and started the wood stove where she prepared cornbread, biscuits, dog bread and food for the entire day.
It was understood that men would eat first. They labored in the heat and were physically exhausted.
We, the women, cooked, cleaned, did the dishes, the laundry, etc. We canned, milked, gathered eggs and actively worked in the fields during harvest. Everyone worked and no person was considered better or worse than the other. We all had our jobs and they all added to the efficiency of sustainable country living. It seemed perfectly reasonable and efficient.
As a pre-teen, I enjoyed learning from my grandmother, who seemed to magically know how to do everything. I also found myself wishing that I could go with my grandfather and learn about what he was doing too. When I asked, it never seemed to be an option.
Being a timid child, I didn’t push too hard, but I always dreamed of getting to do what the guys were doing. It just seemed more exciting to me, perhaps because I wasn’t allowed to do it.
Why can’t I drive the tractor? At some point in my adolescence, I began to want to be challenged physically, and do the fieldwork with the men. It seemed more enjoyable to me…much more than cooking, cleaning, and canning.
Why was I stuck with the stupid jars and “they” got to go ride on the tractor and chop down trees?
It was at this point that I began to see beyond the need for “roles” and to see that gender should not be the reason for doing a specific job and fulfilling a specific role.
We could all work together and get the same results without this nonsense about “girls do this” and “boys do that.” It seemed illogical to me. It also began to feel “unfair.”
It always seemed better to be the male in any species, especially humans. They got to pee standing up…why wasn’t I allowed to do that? I definitely tried it anyway. haha, It clearly was not an efficient process for women. They got to leave the home and go on adventures, while the women were stuck with dirty diapers and paying the bills.
My dad was so cool. He was always off fishing or bowling or being a photographer or collecting samples of plant life. His work seemed so much more appealing and creative to me.
My mother was a workhorse. She made sure that the money they made as teachers was managed and that all bills were paid. She maintained the home while daddy did all of the cool stuff.
I later learned that my parents were just two different types of people. Their roles were not what they were because she was female and he was male. She preferred hard physical work and reading. She liked nothing better than reading for hours and hours.
He didn’t enjoy reading unless it was to gain knowledge. He preferred exploration and discovery as a scientifically minded person. He was creative in different ways than she and their roles seemed to work for our family.
My Progressive Parents: My parents were far more progressive than my grandparents and gender was not a limitation for either one of them.
My dad engaged me in the sciences and my mother taught me how to work hard and appreciate a job well done. Together they allowed me personal expression and the freedom to explore who I was and wanted to be. Society, on the other hand, was not as engaging and nurturing in this manner.
My dad would take me fishing with him. I loved to fish. This was typically a guy activity in most families and my dad allowed me to learn from him about fish and the “art” and “skill” of casting a line near the bank and then reeling the line back in to catch a fish. He taught me all about fishing…including how to bait a hook with a worm or a minnow. I loved this experience. I loved sensing all of nature in the process. Air, sun, waves, insects, ….the forensics of the process. Why don’t fish have teeth? What do they have if they don’t have teeth? Why do dragonflies skim the top of the water? Hey, the waves from our boat are bouncing off of the shoreline and coming back toward us. See the patterns they make? That part of the experience I loved. The part that I didn’t like was the killing of the fish and cutting them up. It became clear that I didn’t have the stomach for such barbaric things, which then opened me up to ridicule for being weak and silly. Not by my dad necessarily, but by others. Only girls were weak and silly.
So, I liked all of the things that guys liked, but I didn’t like some of the things that guys liked, so I was a weak, silly female who shouldn’t be doing those things?
What the heck? And so it began….my socialization to either choose a gender-specific role or face conflict and humiliation for engaging in all experiences. It didn’t matter if I had a forensic mind and enjoyed the process of discovery and exploration if I wasn’t willing to murder innocent animals, I had no place in that arena. Some things are just guy things and some things are just girl things.
Gender roles were established by society and to cross those lines meant conflict that was uncomfortable to experience.
Strong women like my mother, who had crossed those lines, had adapted themselves and lived up to the double standards.
She was soft, but she was also very macho. She could be soft, yet punch you in the gut and take you down. I certainly had no desire to live up to her integrated model of the incredible superwoman who could walk with the men, chew like the men and kick any man’s butt.
I was a pacifist and a little fraidy cat, so that was not a reasonable role for me either. Why couldn’t I just be a person who loved to explore and discover everything without having to also become something or someone I was not? That seemed very unfair.
Societal Expectations: Even though “the times they were a changin,” the female was still groomed for reality and that was as a housewife, mother, model, teacher, nurse, secretary or nun.
We could be very bright, but we were still expected to be women, and women were clearly not in charge.
Very few of us were seen in leadership roles. The women who did were not particularly fair in appearance and seemed to possess a machismo, which separated them from other women. Strong women were seen as burning their bras and wanting to castrate all men…a radical extreme. And then there was my grandmother, who knew exactly who she was and what her role was…no questions, no stress, and she was in charge of who she “needed” to be.
The men were the ones who were presidents, priests, governors, superintendents, principals… Women were in support roles.
If women were in the sciences, they were the ones doing research, collecting data, analyzing data, while the men got the Ph.D.’s and published the work. While there were a few women who did break through the glass ceiling, they did not receive the recognition deserved.
Many men, like my dad, knew that women were equal in ability and intellect, but they too had to conform to societal norms so that there would be no major conflicts. He could motivate and inspire me on a personal level, but that wasn’t enough to overcome my anxiety of not being accepted or deemed as weird.
Bullies: In the ’60s, elementary students were given aptitude and intelligence tests. These tests were used to “caste” us academically and prepare us for a more progressive social order. Even though education was working to break the gender inequality, society was still lagging behind.
The socialized norms created a cognitive dissonance with the educational objectives. I emerged from grade school as a college-bound scholar with a high aptitude for math, science, engineering, and music. I was cast as “college preparatory” and was expected to perform at that level in my classes.
This casting meant that I was one of the very few girls in those classes. This led to bullying by other girls, and boys, who were in the “lower” classes. I was weak, afraid, a freak of nature. Liking the things that traditionally were “guy” things, while lacking the machismo needed to pee with the big boys. It was confusing and very, very damaging to me.
Survival: So, what did I do? I adapted and learned to survive the behavior of bullies, sexist men, and women. I learned from my grandmother and my mother. I had to use my higher-order thinking skills and the animal female intuitions, passed on in my neocortex and learned life experiences, to my advantage.
I had to adapt and adjust and that meant to “problem solve.” Problem-solving meant to…
- know and accept my place in any given situation…with men and women
- work within the system and problem solve how to accomplish my goals while still not upsetting the accepted norms
- learn to posture myself so that I appeared less frightened than I truly was…I had to appear confident even if I was scared to death
- accept sexual harassment and pretend it didn’t matter
- ignore the things that I had no control over and work to overcome the obstacles placed in my way
- become a superwoman who could do it all
How is this feminism? This sounds like conformity and resignation. NO!
I worked within the male-dominated framework and within the societal expectations and struggled personally and professionally. I tried to be a great wife, best mom, best student, better than the men in my class or profession…why? Because society expected it of me. I imposed those things upon myself.
Development of True Feminism: Over 50 years of problem-solving, I came to realize that patience and tenacity allowed me to reach my goals. My goals were not gender-specific. My mind and my thoughts were my own and no other person could interfere with my desire to gain knowledge and to know more. That limitation was set by me and me alone. My own perceptions of myself were what limited my potential.
The limited societal framework, which was not adequate for achieving my potential, did not define me. I did what my grandmother did…I conformed to what I needed to be but controlled my own identity and potential.
When I stopped viewing everything from a “gender” specific, unfair, competitive reference frame, I realized my full potential didn’t depend upon what a man, woman, or society thought of me. My own thoughts are what mattered.
It is still a male-dominated world, but it doesn’t matter. I am not in competition with a man, a woman, a gender, a rich or a poor person. I am a human being, who is in love with experiencing life to its fullest potential. I am the only one limiting my ability to make a difference in a limiting space. I can allow that space to define and restrict me, or I can define my own existence in that space. We are not simply male or female. We are human beings and we all have unlimited potential, even if the space we fill is not an adequate vessel for our brilliance.
Having said all of this…? Once you know your true self within that space, you are free to speak up and defend the dignity and rights of all, not just women, but all people.