The other day I had drinks with a friend, and the conversation turned, as it so often does, to feminism. She asked me how I personally had come to feminism, and I had so much fun thinking about the answer that I decided to write about it as well. It’s a long story. Here’s part one.
When I was a very little girl, any kind of feminist awareness that I possessed manifested itself very simply in a profound belief that girls and boys were equal, and that I should never be ashamed of being a girl. Since I was more or less raised a feminist (if not in so many words), as outlined in my post about my mom, I never really experienced a dramatic feminist awakening; it was more like a slow feminist development that began to unfold as I realized that not everyone saw girls as equal to boys.
The first time I realized that not everybody felt this way happened when I was in kindergarten. The fenced-in playground in front of the school had a large tree in the corner, and every day at recess the boys would claim this tree as their “fort.” One day, the other girls informed me, excitedly, that we were going to take over the fort. I liked the idea, and was up for the challenge. We made our approach, tiptoe-running at the tree and whispering to each other. But when the boys jumped out from behind the tree, yelling and running at us, all of the other girls giggled, screamed, and ran away. After a few more rounds of this, I was stumped. Weren’t we going to take over the fort? Were we really giving up that easily? What did we think the boys were actually going to do to us if we persisted? If this was how the game was going to go, I was out.
The next year, I decided I wanted to be the first woman president. However, the year after that, our class followed the Bush / Dukakis presidential race, and we learned about what it takes to be president: for instance, that a candidate has to be at least 35 years old. I quickly realized that I didn’t want the country to have to wait 28 years before there was a woman president, so I decided that I’d rather be the third or fourth (hm… how’s that working out?).
The word “feminist” didn’t become a part of my vocabulary until I was ten years old. In a way, I was lucky; the first time I heard it, it was being applied to me, so I never developed any negative associations with the concept. My feminist identification occurred, perhaps appropriately, at the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. The scouts at our school held a siblings’ race along with the official race, so the brothers and sisters of the Cub Scouts could be involved as well. I was as excited making that car as if I was a Cub Scout myself. My dad and I picked out the colors, embedded weights into the well-sanded chassis, and rubbed a graphite pencil over the axle to eliminate any wheel-slowing friction. I named my car “Girl Power,” a direct tribute to, “Kid Power,” one of the many books my mother gave me that featured independent, brave, and resilient girls.
When I handed my car over to the Scoutmaster, I was bubbling with confidence, and my car didn’t let me down. She won round after round, quickly advancing in the brackets. But I noticed something unsettling. The better my car did, the more scornful the scoutmaster sounded when he announced her name, “Girl Power”. By the last round, he was practically sneering the words into the microphone. I was sadly unsurprised with his actions as he encouraged the crowd to jeer at me, but I stood my ground, refusing to act embarrassed – I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
Girl Power won, as I knew she would. Exhilarated and breathlessly exhausted, I triumphantly carried my shiny plastic trophy to where my mother was sitting. As she congratulated me, dutifully admiring my trophy, another parent smiled at me indulgently, and said to my mom, “that’s quite the little feminist you’ve got there”. I’d never heard the word before, but I repeated it in my head as they returned to their conversation.
“Feminist.” Yeah, that sounded about right.