By Sarah Fancy Fürstenberger
Now I got you...
When I describe myself, one of the first things I say is that I am a feminist. Feminist is something that so many people I know are simply afraid to be. They don't want to be labeled with a word that has so many negative connotations. In Germany, people associate the word with Emanzi, which probably has even more negativity than feminism does. But guess what? I have raised my girls to be feminists too. And one especially isn't afraid to speak up for herself and even call herself a feminist - in public, no less!
So, what is feminism? One of my favorite explanations comes Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, who is a Nigerian-born novelist and MacArthur prize winner. She says:
"We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.
Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes."
I was raised in a charismatic, non-denominational Christian church. We were given very clear rules about what and what wasn't allowed: no Halloween, no sex before marriage, no divorce, no abortion, no non-Christian music. Neil Diamond was allowed. Lots of talk of Satan and the non-believers and lots of fear and guilt. I went to church camp and I learned the Bible. My parents did teach us to think critically, just not about Christianity. I believed it all and I lived it -- and that came with a lot of guilt. Until my senior year of high school - I remember arguing with my best friend about abortion and a woman's right to choose. At some point she said to me something about why the government should be able to make choices about my body. I stopped and thought about it. I know this topic is a controversial one and I am not trying to start some sort of war here, but this is my story. This was the beginning of my transformation. I realized then and there that my beliefs were evolving.
The next year I started college at the University of Michigan, which is known to be a liberal university. I started playing rugby and I stopped going to church. Many of my teammates were gay. My best friend had been raised by a single mom and was an unabashed feminist. We played rugby together and spent most of our time together. After my sophomore year, I took a job as a "Diversity Faciliatator" for the University. During Freshman orientation, a group of deliberately selected diverse people (a straight football player, a gay man, and Asian woman, a Jewish man, etc. -- and me, a straight (?) white woman who dressed like a rugby player. Umbro shorts, giant T-shirts, and short hair -- this was the nineties, and all of my teammates were pretty butch) talked to incoming students about racism, sexism, and sexual orientation. We held a workshops and showed a film. We talked to them about what they would encounter at Michigan. Farm boys from pre-dominantly white Northern Michigan might end up with an African American roommate who grew up in a big city. Their roommates might be gay. They might have never "met" a gay person before. How do they deal with it? We also talked about Affirmative Action and inequality. It was a rewarding job. Lots of people came in with preconceived notions about the "other" and went out ready to start talking about things.
My younger sister, who was 9 or 10 at the time, came to the workshops and listened. On the way back to my apartment she pointed out a sign on the road that said "Men Working." She said, "Not just men, right Sarah?" Fast forward eight years. She came out to my parents when she was 18 and promptly shaved her head (I can't remember which happened first). My parents struggled with the news for a while. They didn't reject her or throw her out of the house. But they struggled with the beliefs that the church enforced about homosexuality and they struggled with disappointment. I don't think they were disappointed about the fact that she was a lesbian. I think they were disappointed because she might have a harder life because of it, and maybe because they thought they wouldn't have grandkids. Side note: Ann has a beautiful daughter, Rosie, with her partner Gina. No problems there. When I talked to my mom about it early on their process she said two things to me that still stand out, "I thought you were the lesbian!" and "I blame you and Oprah." Yup. My sis was the cool one who always had good clothes and good hair. Guess it goes to show.
Since that time, my parents have done a 180 in their views on many things. They left the church. My mom sometimes still goes and sings in the choir, but when they announced a series on the perils of homosexuality she went to the pastor and told him exactly why she would not be attending. They are completely and totally supportive of my sister and her family. And as my sister said when I asked her about this post, "They ultimately rejected the church...I'd even venture to say they are feminists these days."
So what turned the tide for me? I was a tomboy as a kid. I always had short hair and I played "Kill the Guy" with the boys. I was happy when someone thought I was a boy. I was bullied merciliessly for it in New Hampshire. When I turned was in seventh grade, we moved from New Hampshire back to Michigan, where I was born. I knew I wouldn't be accepted as I was in middle school, so I tried to be girlier. I got a perm (it was horrible), I wore prairie shirts (remember 1983)? I tried. And it felt wrong. I was afraid to be myself. And maybe this doesn't directly relate to feminism, but it took me a very long time, almost until college, for me to feel comfortable being and wearing what I wanted.
I don't want my daughters or my son to feel like they have to conform or to be someone else in order to be accepted. I don't want them to have the same issues about their bodies as I do -- that is a story for another post. I want them to know and to feel accepted just as they are. And if that means fighting my own internal issues with my body or my words not being "acceptable" to the outside world and to society than I will do that. But it is working. My oldest speaks up when she sees inequality. She is happy with who she is and is not afraid to wear what she wants. That makes me proud.
I am 43. I am no longer willing to shrink myself. I am no longer willing to make myself smaller. And believe me, it's not gonna happen. Neither with my body, nor with my voice. I will do by best to support other women rather than seeing them as competition. Let's build each other up. And let's not be afraid to be called feminists. And as Ellen Page said in a 2013 interview, "... I don't know why people are so reluctant to say they're feminists. Maybe some women just don't care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?"