Ain’t I a Woman?

Brace yourselves. I’ve decided to enter the conversation about feminism. Fear not, this is not an angry post and I have no blame to put upon anyone for my life choices except myself. I only aim to offer a peek into a woman’s life for those out there that are not sure what to think among all of the rage and rhetoric #Howtospotafeminist has awoken.

At first I was going to write something for Mother’s Day. I have a different take on it because it is actually the most difficult holiday of the year for me. Mother’s Day is for thanking loving, dotting, cheer-leading mothers for all of the affection and guidance they gave us.

The problem is I don’t have that kind of mother.

Every year I spend about an hour in the card aisle sorting through cards that read something like “Dearest Mother, you were always there for me, through thick and thin, I owe everything I am to you…” and eventually getting the one that just says “Happy Mother’s Day” on the inside.

It is hard for me because my mother was not the culturally expected mother. She did not cook. She did not clean. She was not waiting five minutes before choir practice let out to pick me up like all of the other mothers. I never remember her hauling a camcorder or a home-made poster to a school play. She was never in the front row. She did not teach me how to do my hair. She did not teach me how to shave. She did not teach me how to wear make-up. She did not teach me about my menstrual cycle. I have never talked to her about a boyfriend. She declined my offers to go wedding dress shopping with me. Almost every experience the greeting card industry capitalizes on for Mother’s Day is an experience my mother and I never had. So every Mother’s Day I struggle with this message from society that I had a bad mother with the actual experience that I had, which was that she was not a bad mother, just a different kind of mother.

I learned plenty from mom. I learned how to dress like a business woman. I learned to love female literary characters that prized adventure above all. I learned women can work and have a family. I learned women can have coherent arguments and debate with men respectfully. I learned if you don’t like a job after two weeks, quit while you’re ahead. I learned to love traveling. I learned to love nature and how to make bird feeders. My mother was not a bad mother just because she wasn’t societies idea of what a mother should be. Overbearing with affection or not she gave birth to me, claimed me, brought me home and taught me the values she had.

It might come as a surprise though to learn she is not a feminist. When my sister and I begin with any sort of feminist rhetoric, my mother insists she did not teach us that hogwash. My mother is a product of her generation. A generation that knew their goals in life were to find the perfect prom date, go to college, join a sorority, graduate, get married to a good provider, have babies, and (as the 1970s and ’80s suggested) work if they wanted. I asked my mother once why she had children. Her answer: “It’s just what you do. What kind of question is that?!”

I am part of a new generation. A generation who always had women in the workforce. I remember female astronauts and governors when I was a kid. This week I had an appointment with a female gynecologist – a choice my mother did not always have. While my mother’s only question was how many children to have, I am allowed to question if I want to have children or not. It is indisputable women have made large gains from my mother’s generation to mine. But the work is not yet finished.

Below I have outlines 3 scenarios – all true stories – seen through my eyes as a woman in this new generation. These are areas that yet need improvement.

Scenario A:

When I was nineteen, I was a sophomore in college. One sunny, Tuesday morning I went to my journalism class like it was a normal day.

Only it wasn’t.

With a front row seat in the center of my university’s media center I watched the second plane live as it crashed into the World Trade Center. News savvy professors, student broadcasters and reporters swarmed around me as the live feeds came on tvs and radios and printed from newswires. I listened as the man being interviewed at the Pentagon heard a loud boom down the hall and wanted to step outside for a minute to see what was going on. Seconds later footage of billows of smoke rising up from the building were on every tv screen.

Like many young people I was sickened, confused, enraged, shocked and a slew of other emotions. It wasn’t long before many college students wanted to help in any way that they could and decided to join the military.

I was no different.

I remember what I was told: “Don’t join. Your heart is in the right place, but its not a safe place for a young woman.” Statistics of military sexual assault against female recruits are still staggering today. Another adviser told me: “It won’t be the experience you think it will. You’re a girl. They’re going to put you behind a desk somewhere. People aren’t ready for their daughters to be slain in battle.”

I didn’t join the military. It was my own choice. But it was a choice I came to after multiple advisers convinced me I wouldn’t be safe with my own fellow recruits. The few women I know that have served in our military have vivid stories of their sexual assaults. It’s almost a given for girls that join the forces.

A few years ago the Veteran’s Center at my university asked for employees to assemble care packages for the troops. I put together a box that included feminine products (I figure military grade sanitary napkins are no one’s friend). The Veteran’s Center was hesitant to accept my donation. “The girls aren’t usually sent to the remote areas and they get care packages with this stuff from their families” I was told.

Area # 1 for improvement: Make the US Military a safe place for any American soldier that wants to serve their country. As a woman I was willing to lay down my life for my country. I was willing to go to dangerous, far-away places to fight. I was willing to be a prisoner of war. I was willing to come home in a box. I was not willing to be attacked by my own unit because of my sex. I was not willing to face the constant psychological trauma that I would never be safe from boot camp to discharge from my fellow soldiers. I was not willing to be trained with a rifle and wield nothing more than a phone chord on active duty just because I was a girl.

I did go to New York a few years later on a mission trip. I was able to do something about all of the feelings I felt that day. But it haunts me still that there are women out there that want to serve and feel that they cannot without accepting they will at some point during their duty face rape from other American soldiers. We can do better. We must do better.

Scenario B:

Eight years ago I graduated with my second degree. Immediately I went into the work force interviewing at many of the same companies as a number of my colleagues.

People talk.

Imagine my surprise when one of my colleagues five years my junior with less education and work experience interviewed for the exact same job and was offered higher pay than me.

I asked if he negotiated the higher rate? He said he did not, he took their first offer. I remember trying to negotiate a higher rate and was told the pay rates were fixed.

So men at this company regardless of experience or education were “fixed” at a higher pay rate than women.

I managed to marry someone in my field and he and I have compared notes. Again I hold higher degrees and certifications and in our work history (at many of the same companies) he has always made more than me.

Area # 2 for improvement: Equal pay for equal work. Appropriate pay for varying levels of education and work experience regardless of gender. When comparing notes with my husband we also learned he has never been asked to fill in at the front desk answering phones or bake for the office. I have. At every job I’ve ever had. Other joys reserved only for the fairer sex are having to explain my romantic status to employers during interviews and fielding the “where do you see yourself in five years” question away from their goal of figuring out if I will get pregnant and leave.

Scenario C:

Something went terribly wrong with feminism. Somehow “feminist” became a dirty word. Somehow women turned against feminism. Is it just me or is that like African-Americans turning against the NAACP?

Recently I joined an international women’s aviation organization called the Ninety-Nines (or 99s, they’re not picky). Shortly thereafter I was “warned” about some of the “crazy feminists” I ought not rub elbows with…wait for it….by other women….IN AVIATION!

I have also been warned about some “crazy feminists” at the university where I work (“that are definitely lesbians,” they whisper).

Somehow by marrying a man, sporting sun dresses and choosing to only sporadically use my sailor vocabulary words I have unintentionally pulled off the guise of being an anti-feminist. Women approach me all the time about those “crazy feminists” (“crazy” always seems to accompany the word “feminist”) that I should stay away from. They show up in every social setting and apparently making eye contact with them turns you fat and gay.

Area # 3 for improvement: Teach women that feminists are not the enemy and they come in all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations. It is not a network of male-bashing crazy women. It is a cohort that includes both men and women (yes, men can be and some are feminists too) that strives for the mutual respect and opportunity of the sexes. Some are more militant than others, but that can be found in any group. God bless the crazy ones. They bring the attention that starts the conversation. Feminism is what earned women the right to vote, and own property, and keep our own last names after marriage, and be doctors and pilots and mechanics. It is a beautiful thing and it needs all the support it can get. For just as women are allowed to come out of their boxes, men will be allowed to too. We need feminism for the health of our society. For the men that feel ashamed of their tears and the women that are shamed for not wanting children. For the men that have no outlet to express their depression and the women that have no outlet to express their rage. For every emotion and reaction that is labeled masculine or feminine and not allowed by the other sex.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of where improvements can be made. But reflecting on my life tonight as a woman in a country that says it grants liberty and justice for all; that tells the tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free that this is a land of opportunity for everyone, I think it’s a great place to start.

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