IS DESCRIBING A FEMINIST THE SAME AS DEFINING ONE?

This blog was inspired by one I read recently at Wednesday’s Woman, a site I truly respect and one that always challenges me to think.

This time what entertained me the most was the author’s asking if any of us could pick a feminist out in a crowded room today. That one question triggered my memory cells back to a very specific evening in the early 60s when I was on holiday from college and was having dinner in Manhattan with two high school friends. (Maxine, Dorothy, and I had all graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, NY. Maxine was a scholarship student at Radcliffe,which had not yet merged with Harvard University; Dorothy was a scholarship student at Rochester University, and I had been given a scholarship to attend Bennington College.)

So, there we were on a cold, winter’s night getting together in NYC.  No longer “high school kids,” we no doubt felt sophisticated meeting at a Chinese restaurant in “the city.”  Yet, soon after exchanging hugs and kisses and stories about mutual friends we’d been writing to at various other colleges, the subject somehow changed to politics.  Dorothy and Maxine got into a heated conversation about a woman whom they referred to as Betty Friedan.  Maxine began by saying: “Finally, women like Friedan are once again addressing the issues so desperately in need of being addressed.  We all have to become a part of this rising movement, this new feminism.  Dorothy concurred, adding that she had read Friedan was in the process of writing a book addressing the frustrations of all educated women who were no longer satisfied with being stay-at-home mothers with no voice in government policy or the ability to fight for the rights of women around the globe.

The book to which Dorothy referred was later published and released as THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, an instant best seller, and one which introduced other like-minded women to the movement where she claimed she was addressing a problem ‘that had no name.’ In words that spoke to millions of American women, she wrote, “the problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.  It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States.  Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question:  ‘Is this all?'”

Attacking the notion that “biology is destiny,” under which women were expected to devote their lives to being wives and mothers and give up all other pursuits, Friedan called upon women to do whatever it took to discover other meaningful activities.

Then, in 1966, three years after its publication and three years after Dorothy, Maxine and I had earned our undergraduate degrees, Friedan was one of the leading founders of the first major organizations established since the 1920s devoted to women’s rights: the National Organization for Women (NOW). As its first president, she led NOW in their work for political reforms, helping to secure legal equality for all women. She also paved the way for other trail blazers whom I came to recognize and know as Bella Abzug (the woman in the big hats), and Gloria Steinem (the beautiful lady who was often seen sporting over sized, stylish eyeglasses). Each of them became a household name to those of us interested in the Woman’s Rights Movement.

But, on that evening in Manhattan when my two dear friends spoke so knowingly about Friedan, I sat there in utter horror. I didn’t know who she was nor did I know about the cause for which she stood. I was embarrassingly unaware of what they were referring to as feminism; and worse yet, I was attending one of the most magnificent liberal colleges for women in America. So, what did that say about me? I sat there with more than just proverbial egg on my face. All my insecurities about my intellect, my ability to be an independent thinker and contribute to the world in a meaningful way made it impossible for me to enjoy my won ton soup. Instead, what resurfaced were the all too frequent belly aches of my adolescent years. My legs underneath the table wobbled and without saying a word, I vowed that I would go to the public library and read anything and everything I could about Betty Friedan.

In that state of feeling totally inferior, I was tempted to ask them if they had picketed any Woolworth’s near their campus as I had done in the town of Bennington. Those of us who did picket, however, were laughed at “big time” because while we were picketing the store’s policy not to allow “Negros” to sit at the counter and eat along with other customers, the fact was that there were no Negros or people of any color other than White in Bennington in those days. All who passed us by simply referred to us as bratty college girls who were merely trying to call attention to ourselves but knew nothing about the rights for which we were claiming to be fighting. So, I thought better than to open up that issue for discussion. In fact, I said absolutely nothing to my friends. I simply sat there, mute, feeling terribly inadequate, unaware of what was apparently something I should have known about, a movement that would soon be known around the world as FEMINISM.

And while the so-called feminists or would-be feminists of those very early years, I must admit, did all seem a bit left of center or a bit off center, it took several years and many more women(including myself)to raise our consciousness to where it was no longer possible for me or any of us to spot a feminist, just as it is no longer possible to know – simply by looking at any woman today – what her social/political/ creative agenda may or may not be.

Perhaps we older feminists – those of us who were birthed in the earlier years of the movement – do appear to be more ordinary-looking, the greater truth is that whether our hair is black, brown, blond, or purple, or whether we wear pearls or sport tattoos, or live in countries where oppression of women is the norm or live in America where we at least profess to respect women’s rights, the fight is far from over.

It is still true that women’s health and life expectancy are still dropping worldwide, and the economic wage gap of the 1970s still exists, despite the fact that women account for 60% or more of undergraduate and master’s degree enrollment.

That being so, we must continue to stand together, our voice must be one voice as we express our belief in a woman’s right to good health care, the right to higher education, job opportunities and equal pay for equal work. And, perhaps, more important than anything else, we must fight for the right to defend ourselves from any and all abuse. Whether the abuse is in a workplace, a family, or in a culture which still sees us and treats us as property and/or as second class citizens, we must let our voices be heard! We must act knowing that knowledge is power and gain that power by whatever peaceful means are available to us!

Does anyone believe it to be more than a coincidence that it is in the most oppressed countries of the world, countries such as Iran, in which freedom of the press is a joke and where women – even those who are permitted to be educated – are not permitted to show their faces or speak their truth?

As I find myself saying in most of my blogs, these times are more than merely challenging! Now, perhaps more than ever before, we must fight the fight, join all brave women who are willing to speak out – some even at the risk of losing their lives – and yes, when possible, we, too, must take action. We must do so here in America as well as in foreign countries. We must help our sisters to live in freedom, to be given the right to see their dreams realized in good health, and to fulfill their intellectual/creative potential with hope and with dignity.

I wish nothing less for all of us.

~Linda