Saturday, April 2, 2011
And Ain't I A Feminist?
It all began with a few incidents. A few months ago, I'd heard that a male student was talking about me, and among the negative things he said, he mentioned that I was a "feminist". Of course, no one would tell me the worst things he said, but the underlying idea was that calling me a feminist was a really, really bad thing.
Then one morning a colleague mentioned that, regardless of her planning ahead and packing the night before, his wife will repack her bags the morning of a trip. I responded that he just needs to accept that women will plan, but think about what they might need or forgot throughout the night, so they need to repack in the morning. He said, "Wait, I thought you said you were all for gender equality and no gender roles and all that." I asked, "When did I ever say that?" He didn't know; he just assumed that was how I thought because I'm the advisor for the women's leadership group on campus.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I got a phone call from someone who claims to love me. He called me a nickname, which I asked him to repeat because it was a new one. I remarked that people are always giving me nicknames, and he flippantly asked, "What about bitch?" I replied, "No one calls me that", to which he responded, "Not to your face."
All of those incidents, especially the last one, kept replaying in my mind. All night in my sleep, I could literally hear him calling me "Bitch" (Bitch...Bitch...Bitch). (Okay, sometimes I think my life is a television show.) Granted, my friend's humor is usually pretty crude and tasteless, but I don't allow anyone to call me that word, even as a joke. I just can't comprehend how any man who says he loves a woman would call her anything with such a negative connotation. We could debate the word bitch, and how some women have redefined it to mean something positive, but this is my blog, and for me, it's completely unacceptable.
I recall an incident years ago with a male student who worked for me. We were discussing something I was knowledgeable about, and I spoke with confidence in my knowledge on the subject. He asked me why I was becoming so aggressive. I never raised my voice, but I wasn't tentative and I wasn't giggling or smiling as I spoke. (If you know me, you know I'm prone to laughing and smiling A LOT.) I told him I wasn't being aggressive, I was just stating my opinion, and he continued to accuse me of being aggressive and getting angry. Nothing about my tone or affect changed; but his face was turning red and he was obviously offended. By my confidence, knowledge, and serious demeanor. Hmmm.
I have been described as a strong, assertive woman. I wasn't always that way, but I've always been fascinated with learning, and as I grew older I gained the ability to learn quickly and apply whatever I learned successfully. With knowledge and experience, I have become the kind of woman I never really knew I could be when I was a child. Why wouldn't I be confident? After working so hard all of my life to achieve many of my goals, why wouldn't I be strong? After dealing with the adversity that comes with the territory of being a Puerto Rican woman, growing up in the projects of New York City, subsisting on food stamps and getting the ugly eyeglasses that Medicaid paid for, why wouldn't I become assertive enough to go out and get what I want?
I struggle with calling myself a feminist because of the negative stereotypes that have come along with the term. However, I find myself reaching for whatever feminism means, because I've been feeling slapped in the face by sexism and chauvinistic assumptions about who I am, what I think, and what I'm supposed to accept. If a feminist is someone who is confident, I'm a feminist. If a feminist is someone who believes she should have the right to be called what she wants to be called, then I'm a feminist. If a feminist is someone whose life has given her no option but to be strong, then I'm a feminist. If a feminist is someone who is proud of her achievements, then I'm a feminist. If a feminist is someone who doesn't wait for anyone to give her anything, but goes out and gets it for herself, then damn it, I'm a feminist.
Sojourner Truth, the black abolitionist and women's rights activist, in her 1851 address at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention, said,
"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"
Then she stated,
"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them."
I truly believe that my purpose is that which I was created to do on this earth, though I assist my Creator in designing how I carry it out. I believe that my purpose is to empower myself and those who come behind me to turn this world upside down and get it right side up again. As I watch the young women I work with burn with the passion and the compassion to change the world, I ask myself the very thing I am accused of being. "Am I a feminist?"
Well, ain't I?
*"Ain't I A Woman?" address by Sojourner Truth to the Ohio Women's Rights Convention borrowed from the Modern History Sourcebook of Fordham University. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.html