I don’t know who Gloria Steinem is

Well, ok, that’s not entirely true. I know who she is, and I certainly can Google her and find out everything I don’t know. But I don’t know about her the way that so many other women do, women who really understand the feminist movement and have been doing so much important, admirable work.

I don’t know the feminist movement personally, but I want to.

I consider myself a feminist, yes, but what does that mean to me? I care about women’s issues, and there are so many  to care about! I care about what happens to women and girls, all over the world, I care about what will happen to my future daughters and what happens to my friends, and I want people to hear about it. When I asked my mom what it meant to her, someone born in the ’50s, she talked about bra burnings and said something about the ’70s, and added, "But it’s really not that important anymore, I guess."

Uh… what?

In 2003, Bush passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. As an editor on my high school newspaper that year, I designed and wrote a two-page feature section on partial-birth abortion. I was upset and angry that something like this could happen, even at 16 years old, and I and my journalism teacher knew that we needed to talk about it. But after news of what I was doing spread, I spent two weeks fighting my school’s principals just to get it published.

I attended the March for Women’s Lives the following year, and I took my mom with me.

That same year I entered college to pursuing an English/Cultural Studies degree, and I added a couple of Women’s Studies classes on a lark (Feminism in Islamic Literature, Women’s Studies 101, Women Who Kill — about female criminals through history. Yep, as fascinating as it sounds). Not only did they add credits to my degree and interest me on a personal level (I am a woman; this class will be about women; I should take this class), but the other students were from many different backgrounds, and we all brought incredible perspective to discussions two or three times a week. I went to one of the most diverse high schools and universities in the country, by the way, so, really, I got that in all of my classes.

However, although I felt I was a feminist, I saw the classes more as "study." Which was fine — I had so much to learn. But lessons about self-identity and -awareness echoed my Psych classes than anything else. Learning about sexism wasn’t a real shocker; if it hadn’t been obvious up to that point, then clearly you hadn’t been paying attention. But I never learned what anyone should do about it, so I walked away when class ended worried more about my thesis paper than issues of sexism, discrimination and calls to action. Something was missing, but I was too young and inexperienced to pinpoint exactly what it was. So, unfortunately, I walked away from it.

But I couldn’t stay away. I had studied storytelling for four years. Looking back, what was really fascinating and empowering for me was seeing these women express themselves so openly. They didn’t feel like they had to hold back or edit themselves; they just let it out. But as we discussed and debated so passionately in that "safe space" of our classroom, I wondered if any of us truly felt safe doing the same thing outside of those walls. Campus was a bubble; everyone wandered around pondering things and telling each other about those things, but it was mostly a commuter-school. Many of us (myself included) drove away from it at the end of the day, back to reality (job, family, responsibility) and away from grandiose ideas and theories. How many of my friends in these Women’s Studies classes kept speaking up when they left the building? Did we still feel so empowered and honest when we went home?

The Internet, I realize now, is helping these young women keep it going even when they drive away from the safety of academia. For me, this is about communication and empowerment, two concepts that are solidly linked. Screw the "safe space." There shouldn’t have to be a dedicated space and time when you can allow yourself to share your opinion and feel passionate about something — it should be whenever and wherever you want. I read plenty of blogs, websites and articles written by women who are compelling, informative and proud, and these voices get louder by the day.  Working on this conference, I’m meeting women who have been participating in this conversation for years and who are just starting out, who want to cross generational divides and learn from each other, who want to make friends and want to take action — just like I did back in college.

This is powerful and important, and I’m proud to say that I finally, truly, get it. Feminism, it’s nice to meet you.

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  • Fathima

    KT…Awesome post. I totally identify with understanding the importance of Feminism, but not quite getting it. I’m so glad YOU finally get it because I’m still not sure that I do. I’m still bouncing around the edges of the issue kinda scared to delve into it.

    While I know who Gloria Steinem is, it’s only because I heard her name in a movie when I was in middle school so I looked her up. And me being who I am, the first thought that popped into my mind was how fabulous-looking she is.

    Clearly, I have a long way to go before I understand the way you do, but I’m aware enough to know that it’s still relevant even though it’s definitely not the same as it used to be. The idea of Women’s Studies classes kinda throws me into a panic, so I’m hoping to learn as much as I can by being here, being at the conference, learning myself and learning from YOU.

  • Katie — thanks so much for expressing yourself so eloquently and honestly. And thanks for all your hard work making this conference happen.

  • Loren

    Katie – Loved your post, thanks for sharing. I think your point about not knowing “what to do” with feminism (i.e. how to translate theory into action) is vitally important. And I think you nail it on the head when you pinpoint empowerment, communication and expanding our concept of a “safe space” as the keys.

    It’s inspiring to hear your voice on these issues. Keep up the great work.

  • Thanks, Katie, It’s good to know that younger women embrace feminism, whether or not they totally “get” it. You inspried me to write the above post about my longer herstory with feminists and feminism. I look forward to meeting you at the conference. Stephanie

  • Gloria Pan

    Wow, Katie, you’re certainly much more “aware” than I was at your age in the 80’s. I guess the Chinese imperative of getting a prestigious job (doctor, lawyer, banker), combined with the Reagan era, was for me too thick a soup from which to extract myself. And about that Chinese cultural thing (Fathima – perhaps you and I have more in common in this regard), having a “safe place” for thinking or experiencing was totally alien to me. For a family newly arrived from a radically different country, we pretty much left behind that particular aspect of “safe,” though our efforts were more about fitting in rather than exploring and testing limits. As for taking action, it was very black and white: I remember going with my parents to demonstrate for the boat people; in college, I went to rallies to get companies to divest from South Africa. But all the intellectual preparation that made such events possible? I never was involved at all. I guess what I’m driving at is, for many issues, and especially for something like feminism, there is a gray area that requires curiosity, open-mindedness, learning, a comfort-level with engagement, where ideas are forged and shaped. As a young Chinese-American woman, I had a long way to go to reach that gray area. As a not-so-young woman, I often think I am still making my way.

  • Feminism is a personal experience before it becomes a political experience. Knowing that sometimes
    you feel out of sync with the popular culture, not laughing at the joke made at some woman’s expense that everyone thinks is funny, wondering why certain images in advertising and the media are pervasive…and questioning why no one else is annoyed.

    We all get there in different ways, and it can’t be measured by what icons you know and what books you haven’t read yet.

    You got it on a personal level in 2003. Complete awareness of anything doesn’t happen overnight.

    So glad you are on the ground working on the conference. We all have much to learn from each
    other’s questions and insights.

  • The last thing I want to do to another woman is to make her feel that she doesn’t “get” feminism, and yet, because I’ve been trying to reconcile my feminism with staying alive for a few decades now, I can speak from a depth of experience and study. Some younger feminists don’t want to look through my lens, and that’s ok. My feminism began in the 1950’s when I began surviving my own patriarchally disordered family. Even after I had finished my MA in feminist psychotherapy, I had no idea how I could possibly reconcile my feminism with being a therapist. What needed to change was getting more in focus but how to get there was a gigantic question mark. Fortunately, I’m patient and “get” the creative process.

    Nobody owns feminism and nobody knows how to heal from patriarchal trauma. What I mean is, no one person, or one organization, or one agenda, or one skill set is the answer. We all bring in valuable insights. What I’d like to see more of is real women being real in public space; I happen to think that this is a good way to change consciousness. But maybe I think it’s a good way because I have the skill set for it! As I always say, if you go see a brain surgeon for a hangnail, he’ll (she’ll) recommend you get brain surgery, and sooner than later!

    I really appreciate your post, Katie.