Feminism: Nobody told me how

I am the product of activist hippy-style parenting. Not only that but I went to an experimental private school which was founded and run by hippy parents. There was no bullying, no teasing, no cliques, girls did everything boys did (including removing our shirts on hot days) and everything we learned was put forth in the most unbiased, non-“ism” way possible. We had all types of kids in the school too. I remember we were doing projects for history class and everyone had to make a report on an important woman in history. That’s when we found out the encyclopedia in our library had exactly two women in it: Martha Washington and Betsy Ross. So that turned into a class project: we all designed a group letter to the publishers protesting the lack of female inclusion. It took us a few hours of arguing but we sent our letter. Two weeks later we got our reply which boiled down to “we are amazed you noticed, and rather than make a new enclopedia, we were already planning on making a special history book about women. We’ll send it to you when its done”  Even though we were second and third graders, we knew when we were being talked down to by authority. So we went to the public library and scoured the card catalogues for individual women until that book arrived. When it did, we weren’t even disappointed. We were disgusted.

That book was about 60 pages and had, if I recall correctly, about 20 women in it. Twenty women. For all of American history. Harriet Tubman  and Sacajawea were it so far as non-whites. Most everyone else was the wife of someone more famous.

Even in our sheltered little happy-hippy land of education-for-all we knew this was the way things were. Our teachers and our parents fought daily to let us all know how important it was to be kind to everyone, to fight injustice and to believe in equality. I’m sure it was a fight too, considering this was back in the early 70s. I didn’t see it at the time but looking back (and reading old notes from the teachers) it was clear the entire school was set up to push, as heavily as possible, certain notions of justice, tolerance and equality without seeming to push it. The idea was to raise us all with certain modes of thought and belief as a given, rather than to teach it to us. To wrap the education of children with assumptions of equality and justice built in, rather than as a reaction or an after-thought. Pro-active, I guess you could say. Every attempt was made to show us as much of the idealized society as possible and act as if it was always that way. Tolerance and love wasn’t a special seminar it was just part of life.

So feminism, to me, was just part of my existence. All around me I saw strong capable women who were outspoken,  brave and brilliant. All around me I saw men who appreciated their talents and their contributions. All around me I saw adults who insisted, over and over, that everyone on this planet deserved a chance to  be themselves and to reach for greatness. Hell, Ms. Magazine was part of our current events curriculum.

Yet this was in stark contrast to what I experienced in the rest of the world. It did not escape my notice that my parents were always trotting off to marches, rallies and protests because they often took me with them. For all the attempts to teach me the way things should be, I very much learned the way things are anyway.  I knew we didn’t go to protests because the rest of the country believed in equality. I knew we didn’t have things like “women’s support group” because the patriarchy was already smashed. I knew talking about my genitals outside of home wasn’t acceptable just as  I knew why we were told not to talk about my brother’s teacher living with another woman –  it certainly wasn’t because the world welcomed women who were “that way”  Because I was brought up to be a feminist, I knew the world was not.

For all the sheltering they gave us, we couldn’t help but see the contrast. As a teenager, going to public school, I was continually surprised at the “backward” attitudes I encountered. In a magnet school for “advanced” kids. People still thought rape was a sex crime. That all women really want  babies. That a man could probably always do a better job than a woman at anything (except babies and cooking)  That math and science were for boys and English and writing were for girls. That men are animals who only want sex 24/7 and women endured it to “keep” their man. That the only way to get sex was to trick or pressure someone into it.

I saw boys who were teased for being “like a girl”

I saw girls who were shunned for being “too bossy”

I saw the way the rest of the world, outside of my happy-hippy sheltered life really thought.

So even though I was brought up to BE a feminist and feminism runs through me effortlessly and without thought, I came to understand why there was a need for such thought, such effort, such …push.

Now its forty years later and I’m amazed at some of the progress I see. Its strange how its really the little things that define progress the most. A joke that was very popular in my grade school: “a patient is rushed to the emergency room one night, the doctor takes one look at the patient and says ‘I can’t operate on this child, he is my son!’ But the doctor isn’t the boy’s father. Who is the doctor?

Well nowadays that’s not a joke or even a riddle. If you tried to tell it just about anyone, even a child would look at you like you were the biggest idiot on the planet. But when I was a child, I told that joke all the time. And looking back? Its pretty amazing how many people were stumped, then laughed when I told them. There were other versions of the joke but generally, none of them would work anymore. THe idea that a woman could be a working person of ANY stripe is absolutely ingrained now. But it wasn’t forty years ago. How’s that for progress?

So now I wonder…we couldn’t have been the only children who grew up with such a wonderful jump-start on feminism. There had to be other kids whose parents, even though they might have been traditional types, wanted their daughters to grow up feeling capable and reach for greatness. Parents who taught their sons to regard women as people rather than objects to own or subjects to lord over. Is this how it started, really started? Was it really just pockets of people making conscious decisions to change how their children were looking at humanity?

Because although there’s still so much undone in our society, still so much progress to be made, especially in our global perspective and our levels of tolerance towards “the other”, it amazes me sometimes how quickly our society has moved from what I experienced forty years ago, just watching, and the attitudes that my children will pass on to their kids.

Really, think about it: the wholly manufactured environment that a small group of parents worked so hard to ensconce a group of about thirty kids in an effort to completely buck the entrench ways of all society… that manufactured, happy-hippy, idealized perspective in some ways is now completely normal.

I see it everywhere.

And now you know why I’m still an optimist.


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