For the next few weeks, while the TOP lecture series takes a vacation, I'll be running a series of stories from people of various parts of the country and of various ages telling us how and when they became feminists. Check out the first installment below!
The Moment I Became A Feminist
For nineteen years I was obedient to my parents’ values and strictures, which were legion, and pretty well-behaved, except for a tendency to whisper in class.
My first career goal was to become a nun. Ideally, I would be posted to Africa and massacred when I reached a ripe old age, say of thirty, like the nun in A Nun’s Story, whereupon the process of canonization would begin. My mother, who had strong views about everything, thought this was a fine idea. My father, who had even stronger views about everything and whose views trumped everyone else’s, thought this was an awful idea, although he was uncharacteristically reticent about his reasoning. He hinted darkly that worse fates awaited nuns in Africa than being hacked to death with machetes, things so dreadful they couldn’t be depicted in the movie or discussed with a six-year-old.
At fourteen, when most of my friends embarked upon their rebellions, I lost my mother to cancer. My father was so sad that for a few years I was extra obedient and well-behaved. My career goal was to get married and have children. And not die on them.
Then, at nineteen, a sophomore in college, I let it rip. I started relatively small, refusing to make my debut and declining my grandmother’s offer of a mink coat; but I built steadily toward complete rejection of all my family’s values. I stopped washing my clothes. I attended family dinners stoned and laughed inappropriately. I dated a gay guy. I protested against the Viet Nam war, in which two of my brothers-in-law fought. When my father, who was the only member of the family still interested in speaking to me, called, I told him I hated him. Usually, I hung up on him immediately afterwards, because he was a brilliant trial lawyer with an infuriating ability to make my best arguments sound foolish, and because if I didn’t hang up, I might cry, which was much worse than sounding foolish.
But sometimes I’d dredge up irrefutable proof of the emotional bankruptcy of my childhood. Like the story of Irma, my black nanny. One day long ago, I related to my father for the first time, I told my mother that I loved Irma. She explained patiently that love was what I felt for Mommy, Daddy, and my sisters and brother; I was fond of Irma, she said, like I was fond of the dog. No, I told her, I loved Irma. The next day, Irma was gone.
How old was I when this allegedly happened, my father wanted to know. How sure was I of the sequence of events? Did anyone tell me Irma’s departure was related to my disclosure? I reminded my father of his membership in the John Birch Society. I reminded him that my mother had savaged my catechism books, cutting out all the pictures of black children holding hands with white children. He said he didn’t believe she had done that. I hung up.
At twenty, in my last semester of college, I flunked out. I was majoring in English and had no career goals. I took “Dimensions in the Absurd,’ one of two graduate-level courses which were requirements for graduation. The professor, Dr. Husband, wore his silver hair in a ponytail and was even cooler than Andy Antippas, who, for his last class in the romantic poets every year, simply read “Ode to a Nightingale,” burst into tears, and ran out of the room (and who was later fired for razoring illustrations out of rare books in the Yale library). (Dr. Husband would later marry one of my classmates, forty years his junior).
In “Dimensions of the Absurd,” we had a real syllabus, real assignments, and real lectures. But we didn’t have to take an exam unless we wanted to. Instead, we could devise a project, anything we chose, and present it to the class. Immediately, my twelve classmates revealed themselves to be the most awesomely talented individuals I had ever encountered. Every week, someone presented a project.
Several students collaborated on a play which they performed to a packed house at the lyric theater. There were epic poems, paintings, short stories, and something thirty minutes long, delivered in speech so rapid I could hardly understand a word, but uttered without notes or pause for breath and phenomenally impressive. I was going to have to take the final exam alone, revealing myself to all the world as the complete no-talent I was. Scoring an A on the test would be no consolation.
And then it came to me. I told Dr. Husband that I would present my project on the last day of class. On the appointed day, I stood at the lectern and explained to the class that we had been talking about the absurd, reading about the absurd, and writing about the absurd. In all of which we had failed to apprehend the true and ineffable essence of the absurd. For my project, I was electing to take an “F” in the course. I would thereby relinquish departmental honors and, indeed, my degree. I felt I was thereby fully embracing the heart of the absurd.
They loved it. I rode on the shoulders of their approbation until my grades came and I had to share the news with my father. I explained my decision to him the same way I’d explained it to my class. “If Dr. Husband loved it so much,” he asked, “why didn’t he give you an ‘A’”?
“You never understand anything I say,” I said, although I confess the possibility had occurred to me. “I think,” my father said, without missing a beat, “that you and your classmates have missed the distinction between the absurd and the preposterous. Also, I think that if this is the education you’re getting at Tulane, I don’t want to pay for any more of it.”
“Fine,” I said, although my fallback position, if I didn’t get the A, had been one more semester of a single graduate-level course, say, the nineteenth century novel, reputed to be a sinecure. All summer, I supported myself by working as a cashier at the Civic Theater, a dive in the Central Business District. I gave every indication of being content to continue on this path for the rest of my life. When I sensed that I’d brought my father to his knees, I revealed Plan B.
Tulane would admit qualifying students to its law school without an undergraduate degree. Even with my F, I told him, I had a pretty good average. I’d taken the LSAT and gotten a pretty good score. I qualified; I’d been accepted. I could begin law school in two weeks. There was only the matter of my tuition.
I thought he’d be delighted at this show of mainstream ambition, my first in several years. He wasn’t. “You can’t be a lawyer,” my father, sometime president of the state bar association, said. “Women don’t have the temperament for it.”
That was the moment when I became a feminist.
And because I was now a feminist, I didn’t cry or hang up. I delivered Plan C. I would join the Peace Corps, then, I told him.
“I forbid it,” he said. “They could send you to Africa.”
I would request an assignment to Africa, I told him, and he couldn’t forbid it, because the next month I would turn twenty-one, and wouldn’t need his permission. I’d checked.
So I became a lawyer, with my father’s blessing, and ultimately, to his delight.
— Margaret from the South