29 December 2009


Please enjoy the "becoming a feminist" stories below as well as prior blogs that sprang from the fall TOP lectures while I enjoy the sea and sand of Jamaica. My next new blog post will be Tuesday, January 19. If you live in MA, remember to vote that day for Martha Coakley for Senator, a wonderful person to take us where Ted Kennedy left off. And Happiest of New Years to all!

—Cheryl Suchors

Joining the Club

My feminist journey began with a cliché.

When I was a freshman at Boston College, I took Intro to Feminism, learned about the myriad injustices facing women today (We only make 80 cents to the male dollar!? Are you serious, professor?) and was forever changed. I declared sociology as my major, became involved in feminist activities on campus, and began volunteering for progressive political campaigns. Since that first college course, my life has more or less revolved around fighting for feminist change.

The political climate at the time was extremely discouraging for women's rights activists. I began college two years after the attacks of September 11, a period in which George W. Bush held a lot of political capital.

Bush had taken many anti-woman actions, including instituting the Global Gag Rule, appointing fringe, anti-choice judges to federal courts, and declaring January 18 "Sanctity of Human Life Day." But perhaps worst for me was his administration's hawkish foreign policy doctrine, which, while less traditionally "anti-feminist," I still viewed as hyper-masculinized and a direct affront to my values as a woman.

It was a difficult time in my life—coming to grips with what it meant to be an adult woman in this culture while living under such an oppressive and hostile government. In college, you're encouraged to become an advocate for the causes you believe in, yet often I felt overwhelmed or even paralyzed by the challenges feminists faced.

A trademark of the Bush administration was its "we-could-care-less-what-you-think" attitude toward those who disagreed with its policies—whether college activists or diplomats at the United Nations—and I wondered if any of my activist efforts would make a dime's worth of difference.

What I've realized since is that feminism isn't just a call to action; it's an invitation to a community. Identifying yourself as a feminist is like learning the handshake to a secret club, only it’s a club

that everybody is allowed to join.

And once you're a part of the feminist club, the world somehow feels easier to manage. You gravitate toward other feminists, and with each connection you make, you feel the chokehold of patriarchy weaken.

In the years since taking that first college course, my feminism has expanded from an outlet for my political frustration to my main source of inspiration.

—Katherine from the West

22 December 2009


Another woman shares the story of her becoming with us below. Happy Solstice to one and all. May the diminishing of the dark throw increasing light into all the areas of our lives where sexism lingers and, like our sister in this week's story, may we renew our commitment to see and eradicate this perilous disease of patriarchy.

—Cheryl Suchors

It Happened in '69

            You were alive in the fifties? My son can’t merge this information with his view of me. I think he’s considering how long I’ve lived and how little time I must have left. To my kids, my birth date sounds impossibly distant. I am ancient. Yes, I say, I used to sing Whistle while you work, Stevenson’s a jerk in the “way back,” the cargo section of the station wagon, during the Adlai Stevenson/Eisenhower presidential campaign. My son is horrified. You were a Republican? My parents, I explain.

I was born in 1954, an astonishing year, a year of firsts. The first color TV. Transistor radio. TV dinner. Burger King. Broadcast of the Miss America pageant. The USSR tested a nuclear weapon.It was a year of changes, too. The Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Edward R Murrow produced A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu ended in French defeat. President Eisenhower gave his “domino theory” speech. Vietnam was split into North and South. Eisenhower warned against US intervention in Vietnam while Vice President Nixon warned that “our boys” might end up fighting in Indochina. Events were sent spinning that year, like shards of glass on a highway after an accident, with effects that have yet to come to a full rest.

Marilyn Monroe, about whom it has been said—by whom?—all women want to be her—married Joe DiMaggio that year.

Here's another image of a "typical" woman in 1954.

I became a feminist in 1969. Although there was plenty in my family background to prepare me--a mother who was discouraged from studying math in college and who gave up her job charting bombing raids during WWII with the Army Map Service to get married to someone she hardly knew, because he was shipping off to war; a family dynamic that buried uncomfortable subjects; my own feelings of seeing things differently from the people around me, and wondering if I was a little crazy--these were just the stage. The undeclared war in Vietnam, the “Conflict” it was called by the government, was the event that changed the lens through which I saw the world.

The government lying, the cynicism of the military-industrial complex, somehow made me look at everything differently. I couldn’t help but see the imperialism, genocide, racism, homophobia, destruction of the environment, and sexism we were steeped in. Something had to change. Everything had to change. I didn’t sing Republican jingles anymore.

In high school, my dearest women friends and I called each other “sister,” we wrote pamphlets, we demonstrated. I created a slide show on women’s liberation, and my friends and I performed the script, featuring songs, poems, and stories at the nearby state college and for other community organizations.

What did they make of us? I can remember the women in the audience—the middle aged ones—responding with surprise, and I think, some delight. For the first time, I knew people—women—who saw what I saw, who understood the world the way I did, who felt that the accepted scheme of things was out of whack. And these women happened to be lively and intelligent and funny. They didn’t seem crazy to me. Maybe I wasn’t crazy either.

The other day I walked by an Ivy League college in another state, as I have many, many times. Although I had known the school didn’t accept women until 1968, for some reason that fact particularly struck me at that moment as bizarre and inexcusable. And this school didn’t begin accepting women because the administration had been affected by the justness of civil rights. This school had accepted women because its applications were declining, because men were applying to the schools that had started to accept women.

I became re-feminized, reminded of how much I still accept without thinking. I was reminded that good causes and work don’t always get results. Women can’t wait to be asked to apply to an Ivy, or to run for Senate, or to be treated with respect. Women have to insist.

What would media images of women in 2009 include? Women of color. All ages. Women in the act of working, and not necessarily in the kitchen. Although they could be. Anything you can think of, and some we can’t. And if in the fifties it was said we wanted to be Marilyn Monroe, who would it be said we want to be now?

That’s easy. We have our own authority. We want to be ourselves.

—Meg from the East

15 December 2009


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. Read our two new stories below!

—Cheryl Suchors

A Gradual Turning to Feminism  I

I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in college and started to realize the emptiness of women's lives, but I think my conversion to feminism has been gradual, reinforced by each brick wall I encounter in the male-dominated world.

First I was relegated to second class status in Oxford, England, identified as "wife of a member of the College" and had to receive special dispensation to play the college pianos. Later, after I had my babies and wanted to go back to job-sharing with my husband, as I had done before, I was told, “Stay home and take care of your children.” Didn’t anyone think they were his children, too?

A real turning point came when my five-year-old daughter announced, "I want to be President when I grow up!" I loved her ambition and naiveté, but I heard myself saying, "That would be great, sweetie. There's never been a woman President before, but it would be great if you became President."

She wondered why no women had been President—and I didn't know what to say. I told her women didn’t get the right to vote until late, that there were very few women in Congress, but the "Why?" really wasn't answered satisfactorily for either of us.

And finally, my good friend Cheryl made me much more aware of the patriarchy infused into our culture at every turning. She introduced me to a women's circle of spirituality that harkened back to the goddess worship of ancient peoples, before religion became so male-centered (God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). I delighted in the ceremonies celebrating the earth and the Sacred Feminine; the circle of supportive women and elemental chanting and sharing really resonated with me.

As a conductor, I work in a very male-dominated profession, and I strive to change people's biases every day. I am trying hard to become the best conductor I can be, so that I can prove that women can be equally effective conductors as men.

Maybe someday we'll have a woman President and more women conductors, too. I definitely hope so!

—Nancy from the West

A Gradual Turning to Feminism  II

I was born in 1950, so my whole teenage experience—which included feminism—took place during the 1960s. I was 13 when the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show. Martin Luther King was shot the day before my 18th birthday. I was a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio when the student protestors were shot at Kent State. Kent State students whose friends had died cried into microphones at the mass meeting on the Oberlin campus as we voted to strike.

I was still a teenager when women’s liberation hit my world. Feminism was engulfing the entire school. Oberlin had a program called the Experimental College where students could teach mini-courses. I signed up to take a course in women’s lib. I remember that the teacher was an articulate, persuasive petite strawberry blonde named Katie.

When I first arrived at Oberlin, female students were ironing their hair to look like Mary Travers.

Hear and watch Mary singing - on stage with Mama Cass & Joni Mitchell - performing in Mama Cass television program -1969.

By the time I left college it was okay that I and others had naturally curly hair. I remain grateful for that and the many other ways it has become okay for women to be—a list that, thankfully, keeps getting longer.

—KathyD from Massachusetts

07 December 2009

What Made Me a Feminist

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!
—Cheryl Suchors

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
copyrighted material

01 December 2009

Misconstrued Once Again

Since my blog post of November 10, 2009, I’ve been pondering feminism. Even today some young women, when they hear the term “feminist” think: hairy, bra-burning, man-hating, fat, radical, and lesbian.

I know this because these words came up in a recent workshop held at Lesley University right here in liberal Cambridge, MA. The young women involved weren’t even born when such terms were first applied to the Second Wave of feminists, yet these misperceptions live on.
Personally, I’d like to be a bra-burner. I enjoyed the freedom of going to school and work without a bra in the 70s, a freedom that doesn’t seem to exist today.

Two Myths

But there actually were no bra-burners back in the day. You may have read the article by Ariel Levy in the November 16, New Yorker and learned to your surprise, as I did, that no bras were ever burned at the famous protest against the Miss America pageant in the summer of 1968. Not a single one.

Corsets and girdles, along with copies of Playboy and high-heeled shoes, says Levy, were tossed into a trash can. A reporter at the time likened the act to burning draft cards and voila, the two actions were conflated to become, in the media and then the public mind, “bra-burning”, a scary attack on . . . well, something.

Gail Collins, in her book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, writes that, despite popular belief, “by 1960 there were as many women working as there had been at the peak of WWII, and the vast majority of them were married.”

Huh? Wait a minute. What happened to the Doris Day mother who dressed herself up impeccably as she stayed home tending to the kiddies and the hubby whilst singing in the kitchen? If feminists didn’t burn bra’s and many married women, not just feminists, worked outside the home for the last 50 years, what else have we been led astray on?

The Definition of Feminism

You guessed it: the meaning of feminism. The media can’t seem to think past myth and menace, but the American Heritage Dictionary, that radical tome, has managed to get it right: Feminism: Belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. A “feminist,” according to the Dictionary, is one who believes in feminism.

How could any fair-minded person not subscribe to feminism? How could any fair-minded person, therefore, not, be a feminist?

If you still don’t believe me, here’s another dictionary for you. Cheris Kramerae, author of A Feminist Dictionary, writes: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”

Enough said. Now, will someone please alert the media?

—Cheryl Suchors

24 November 2009


What was my favorite line of Anne Yeoman’s lecture? In response to our topic, “What Kind of Spiritual Core Do We Need to Remain Centered in This Time of Anxiety,” she blew away the notion that anyone could remain centered.

“Forget remaining centered,” she said. “It’s about centering—finding our core, losing it, and coming back.” She likened it to learning to walk. One takes a step or two, loses balance, perhaps falls down; then gets up and takes another step. With centering, the emphasis is on the process, the continuing effort, rather than on the goal of some static state of centeredness.

That was good to hear.

And as to what kind of spiritual core we needed? The one we’ve got, right now, right here. It’s all there for us to lean on, tap into, reach for, deep inside each and every one of us, she said. We didn’t need to go create a core or improve our core. We just needed to connect with it. That was also good to hear.

Connecting to the Core

Esther Scanlan started us off by explaining her daily practice of reaching for the core. Each morning she reads something that inspires her, counts her blessings and, later in the day, to bring her back to center, meditates.

By show of hands, a number of people in the room meditated. A similar large group wrote out their thoughts or feelings into a journal to bring themselves closer to their inner wisdom. Others did yoga. Quite a few wrote down their dreams to see what they could learn from these messages from the unconscious.

For Yeomans, it’s important to take contemplative time first thing after she wakes up. She called this practice “finding myself before the world finds me.” Many in the audience shared her view that they needed to check inside to gain that initial sense of balance before girding themselves for whatever the day might bring.

Spirituality Has a Body

Yeomans believes that our spirituality, that illusive/fragile connection to the core, is not something “otherworldly” that happens out there in the ether. Nor is it something that happens only through the auspices of a specially anointed cleric or prophet. Because we are human, our spiritual connection happens through our bodies and, therefore, we need to recognize it must include our bodies.

She pioneered in the notion that our spirit is embodied by being one of the founders of The Women’s Well, a center offering courses in women’s spirituality. Because our spirit resides within our body, we can access it through those common pathways of bodily understanding—our senses.

Ever wonder why candle light induces a different mood than electric lights? For the same reason that being out in nature—our feet tramping amongst the leaves and stones, our noses growing cold and smelling the piney freshness of hemlock or the chill damp of snow—brings us to a peaceful place within. For the same reason that so many forms of meditation involve following our breath. For the same reason many people rely on music to lead them inward. Once we connect to our bodies we’ve gone a huge way toward connecting with our inner spiritual core.

As we are human, our spirit is necessarily embodied.

Hundreds of Ways to Kiss the Ground

The great news, both speakers noted, is that there’s no right way to get connected to our inner knowing. Besides those practices already mentioned, reading poetry came up. So did self-awareness, the effort to learn our own hot buttons and crazy places, our own hurts and wounds, our typical tendencies, so that we can at least know what we’re feeling or thinking when we’re feeling or thinking it. Self-awareness helps us own our own stuff, a big piece of the atlas within.

Finding like-minded folks—“kindred souls,” Yeomans called them, who give attention to the inner life in ways that are compatible with our own—helps us connect to spirit. One of the first things Yeomans had us do when she came to the podium was a short group meditation noticing our breath. And here’s something lovely: when as a group we meditate we conspire, from the Latin meaning “to breathe together.”

She mentioned the women’s spirituality movement that grounded spirituality in the miracle of the earth and in our bodies, instead of in some great figure in the sky known as “Lord,” “Master,” or even “Father.” In so many organized religions, concepts and words like these exclude or even disparage women and women’s knowing such that women have come together in various places to celebrate what has been left out, the sacred feminine.

Books Yeomans turns to frequently these days to connect with her inner core include: Missing Mary, by Charlene Spretnak; The Language of The Goddess and The Civilization of The Goddess, by Marija Gimbutas; The Great Turning, From Empire to Earth Community, by David Korten; The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan; Any Thing We Love Can Be Saved, by Alice Walker; and Coming Back to Life, Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown.

Lastly, we learned about a contemporary vision quest Yeomans and another woman in the audience had undertaken which, literally, changed their lives. She said if anyone were interested, she knew the women who could lead us on this amazing journey of several days alone in the woods, and they could be reached by contacting The Women’s Well.

She concluded her comments by reminding us of that wonderful line from the poet Rumi that teaches us there are so many ways to arrive at spiritual connection: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

—Cheryl Suchors

17 November 2009

Gradualism Isn’t Working

Former Governor Madeleine Kunin shared powerful words on the topic of “Reclaiming the Spirit of Citizenship,” especially when it came to getting more women in public office. Last year she published a book on the subject, Pearls, Politics and Power, to encourage more women to run.

Kunin served not only as the first woman governor of Vermont—elected three times—but also as Deputy Secretary of Education under President Clinton and then US Ambassador
to Switzerland (where she was born, moving here as a little girl to escape the Nazis.) Her experience shows. Not once did she refer to a note during her hour-long talk, yet she remained in command of her subject, on point and riveting.
Had she been native born, she’d have made a great President. I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.

Paltry Gains in Public Office

She’s no longer a fan of “gradualism,” the notion that the percentage of women in the public arena would rise naturally once women broke into the field. It hasn’t happened, despite the Second Wave of Feminism in the 1970s. Kunin noted that the day before the elections last November, women held 16% of elected offices. The day after the “great gains for women,” females accounted for a whopping 17%. Even if we gained a percentage point every year, it would take until 2042 for women office holders to equal our share of the population and until 2044 to hit our percentage of voters.
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What About Here in Massachusetts?

So how does the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that bastion of liberal values, stack up? Our US Senators are men and always have been. Of our 10 current US Congresspeople, one is a woman. That’s 10%, folks.

MA must be better at the state level, you’re thinking?

We’ve never had a woman governor. Currently, only one of the statewide elected executive offices is held by a woman, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and she’s the first woman to hold that office in the 221 years of our history.

We do better in the State House, but we have a ways to go to parity. Of our State Senators, 30% are female and women hold 25% of the State Representative offices. Liberal Massachusetts ranks 18th among the country’s state legislatures in terms of women elected.
Tied with Montana.

As Kunin pointed out, the neighboring states of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Connecticut all do better by women than MA. (Check out the Center for American Women and Politics for other facts.)

How Can Each of Us Improve this Picture?

Hillary Clinton’s campaign brought forward many volunteers who told me, “I’ve never done this before.” Campaign work isn’t hard and the camaraderie amongst volunteers is amazing. I’m still friends with people I got to know during the Presidential primary and expect them to be in my life for a long time to come. (Kim Romano, the videographer doing the documentary of TOP, is one of them.)

If you can’t contribute the time or aren’t physically able to volunteer, give money, however much you’re able. In these days of Internet donations, no contribution is too small because they all add up. Join Emily’s List to help out great women candidates all over the country.

Just as important as these kinds of activism is the kind we can all do: talk to friends, relatives, and acquaintances about our candidates. Wear a button that shows your support. I’ve had wonderful conversations with strangers who come up to me as I’m out walking the dog to ask why I’m for the woman whose button I wear.

Face-to-face discussions change minds and influence votes. Trust me on this one. Governor Kunin’s talk persuaded three women I know to get off the fence and vote for Attorney General Martha Coakley in the race for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

Run for Office

If you have the slightest inclination to run for office, read Gov. Kunin’s book, Pearls, Politics and Power. Go to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation website, sign up to be on their email list and get all of the studies they’ve published about how women get the keys to the city, the state and, someday soon I hope, the country. Meet Ms. Lee, an amazing dynamo who raises funds for women candidates. Get in touch with Emily’s List, a national fundraising organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women running for Congress or governor all over the country.

However you choose to do it, feed the flame of citizenship inside you. For your own sake, for other women, and for the country you love.

—Cheryl Suchors

10 November 2009

Who's A Feminist Today?

In her response to the topic “What Is The Evolving Meaning of Feminism?” Jaclyn Friedman told us that she—at 38—bridges the gap between older feminists who say, “Where are the young women? Why aren’t they feminists?” and younger feminists who say, “Why don’t the older women support us?”

There are young feminists out there I’m not supporting? Please tell me where. Many other Second Wavers and I are eager to join forces with them. Friedman said because younger women don’t do feminism the way we of the Second Wave do, we tend not to find them. They’re on the Internet.

So I went to the Internet. I checked out Feministing.com, a place Friedman recommended and that must get a lot of traffic. First thing I looked at was their mission:

Young women are rarely given the opportunity to speak on their own behalf on issues that affect their lives and futures. Feministing provides a platform for us to comment, analyze, influence and connect.

I’m down with that. Sounds a lot like TOP. Except we meet face-to-face on Thursdays rather than connecting mostly on line. Is that the only difference between young feminists and me?

Approach and Images Differ

The first thing I noticed on the website was the logo: black cutouts of women with simplified outlines accentuating breasts, hips and hair that made me think of the trailers for the Charlie’s Angels movie popular with middle-schoolers at the turn of the millennium. The logo also looked like some of the figures cavorting through the title sequence of old James Bond movies. (That’s the second time I’ve referred to Bond in two blogs; is it me or something in the air when the subject of feminism comes up?)

Feministing creators call their logo “the mud-flap girl” and it’s meant to be ironic because she’s raising her middle finger (oops— I interpreted that as an adamant index finger) and they’re taking the image back. I’m more open to this kind of tactic than I once was (see earlier November blog Virgin or What?)

Language Differs

The Feministing site uses contemporary terms—“you guys” and “girls”— referring to women that feel like a poke in the eye to this Second Waver. Along with others, I spent years training colleagues in the business world, friends, relatives and lovers to say and write the radical word “woman” when referring to a female human older than your average high school graduate.

But I also learned a term—cis-gendered—that refers to a group I didn’t know I was in! Cis-gendered people are comfortable in the sexual identity they were born with, unlike trans-gendered folks. (Cis is a Latin prefix used in chemistry for “on the same side” vs. trans which means “on the other side.”)

I applaud this term, despite its initial awkwardness on the tongue. It follows the principle of naming the majority (instead of leaving it as the unspoken norm) as well as the minority, much like “straight” and “gay.”

Evolution Includes Differences and Similarities

Maybe these differences are what my 20 year-old daughter means when, if asked if she's a feminist, she responds, “Yeah, but not like she is,” pointing at her mother. There seem to be looser parameters around language and imagery for younger feminists than the ones we set up for ourselves in the 1960s and 1970s.

It will take more exploring online and more conversations with younger women for me to come to a deeper understanding than this brief reaction to Jaclyn Friedman’s comment about bridging a divide on my behalf. I have some homework to do, and I’m looking forward to it.

I feel great hope for Second Wavers’ ability to work with today’s generation of feminists when I see things like Sarah Jayne’s blog on Feministing. She quotes her friend’s perfect description of feminism:

“…feminism is about waking up and finding yourself in a community, its about having wicked empowered sex, feeling like you can take on any challenge, build real love, and stop feeling like you are the only person who ever thought.... damn, this world needs to change...”

What feminist in her right mind wouldn’t be delighted to subscribe to that world view?

—Cheryl Suchors

03 November 2009

Virgin or What?

When you have a lecture program entitled “Throughout History, Stereotyping Women as Virgin, Witch or Whore” and the TOP Coordinator introduces it by saying today’s version of witch is actually bitch, and whore has become ’ho, you know it’s going to be a no-holds-barred kind of day.

Therese Greenfield, our first speaker, chanted in chilling tones the litany she learned as a child to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, the primary female role model in the Catholic Church: “Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Mother inviolate, Mother undefiled.”

Virginity is made paramount here, a standard that pits women against their own normal, natural sexuality. Yet no one, at least in the parochial schools I attended, ever asked why virginity was so all-fired important. Of all the characteristics that make for a wonderful friend, daughter, mother, sister, partner, leader, colleague, airplane pilot it certainly wouldn’t appear in my top 1000.

And what about men’s virginity? There’s no chant that encourages boys to be chaste and undefiled. In fact, the very term virgin refers to a female unless somebody’s making a joke, as in the recent movie “Forty Year Old Virgin.” Our culture suggests that male virginity actually has negative value; it’s something boys need to lose to be considered manly. Just the opposite of girls. When girls are no longer virgins, do we appreciate them as more womanly?

“Virgin or what?” Young Therese, like many girls raised in traditional religions, wondered what the alternative was. A girl was presented with an all-or-nothing proposition, as if she were a coin with two opposing sides and no choices in between.

Whores and ’Ho’s

The other side of the coin being something very bad, the Bible’s other Mary, the Magdalene instead of the Virgin Mother.

“It’s the oldest profession,” people say with a smile. Personally, I’ve never understood this. Wouldn’t hunting or fishing have come earlier? I mean, really. How about farmer or fruit picker? Maybe when people talk about the oldest profession, they only mean for women.

Okay, I can go with that. I repeat, shepherd, farmer, fruit picker.

Or how about mother? Wouldn’t that have to be the absolutely oldest profession? Or doesn’t child rearing count as a job?

But back to whores. Or ’ho’s, as so many girls and women are called in rap music and high schools and, probably by now, middle schools too. A girl seems to be a ‘ho if she talks too much to your boyfriend, or even a boy who isn’t your boyfriend but you have your eye on. So if she’s a whore with your guy but no money has changed hands, does that mean any girl with a boy is a ’ho —even, perhaps, you?

No, that can’t be right. Let’s try that again.

She’s a ‘ho because she’s stealing something, a boy, that belongs to you. You don’t call her a thief because sex is involved somehow and besides, you really want to disparage her because she’s got or might get your guy. (Apparently, this boy is stupid and powerless enough he can be taken. Otherwise we’d blame him. Wouldn’t we?)

’Ho is, admittedly, much more insulting than thief. A thief, after all, could be a boy, or even a man.

From the male perspective, a female is a ’ho if she rejects his advances, prefers another guy, or whenever she leaves him or does anything else he doesn’t like. Almost as if someone must have paid her not to want him or to obey his wishes. Is that where the prostitute part comes in?


Kate Clifford Larsen, our second speaker and author of Bound For The Promised Land, made it clear that throughout history, women who rebelled or couldn’t be suppressed—or who inspired jealousy for whatever reason—were labeled witches. They were brought to trial and, often, murdered.

When I got home after the lectures, I went straight to one of the most rebellious texts I know, Mary Daly’s Wickedary, a send-up of Webster’s written with Jane Caputi. The book defines words from a female-centered perspective, reclaiming labels meant to dishonor and put down. Witch reverts to it’s original meaning of a strong, knowledgeable woman, to which the authors add: “an Elemental Soothsayer; one who is in harmony with the rhythms of the universe: Wise Woman, Healer,” and more.

In the 1970s and 1980s some feminists even adopted the acronym “W.I.T.C.H” for their organizations. One group called themselves Wild Independent Thinking Crones and Hags. Now there’s a group I’d like to be part of!

Hold up.

I already am part of a group like that.

According to Wickedary, a hag is a woman who sees through the oppressions of patriarchy, exposes fools and calls women into the wild, bountiful land outside patriarchal thinking. Crones are those who have survived the “perpetual witchcraze of patriarchy”, women who’ve discovered their own depths of courage, strength and wisdom, the highest order of hags.

If that isn’t TOP all over.

From Rogue to Bond

When Kate announced we women collude in stereotyping other women, I felt the tension rise in the room. What woman here, she asked, had never called another female a bitch, for example?
Men don’t seem to do this to each other. She took us back to colonial times when men who had sex outside of marriage were labeled rogues, a term of scorn and dishonor. But the label didn’t stick.

My guess is men didn’t use the term on each other enough. As early as 1750, it was no longer such a bad thing for men to enjoy sex outside of marriage, though of course it remained so for women. Today, though a whore is still a whore, a rogue may be kind of an interesting guy, even a sexy-looking, all-powerful James Bond.

How does this happen throughout history, with words and values and stereotypes? I think derisive labels and attitudes stick to women more than men because:

· People in power do the naming
· Naming adds to power
· People who feel powerful refuse to be shamed
· People without power get named, blamed and shamed

Will Women Choose to Name Themselves?

How can women grasp the power to name themselves? Wickedary offers us one way to take back old, venerable terms that have been co-opted. The authors create empowering new meanings for modern-day insults.

Is that the way to go?

My friend Lyn claims the label bitch proudly. “It stands for Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, Creative Human,” she says. Maybe she is right. Maybe that’s how demeaning terms slide off men like so many raindrops; they refuse to be made to feel less-than. Fine, they say, call me a rogue. I’ll go you one better: I’ll be a rogue.

Hmm. Maybe the next time I’m called a bitch, I’ll thank the person and tell him/her why. Dare I pass the compliment on to other women after so many years of refusing to say the b-word? But imagine if we women called ourselves—laughingly, lovingly, proudly—bitches and witches, whores and ’ho’s and whatever other derogatory terms have been invented for us. Wouldn’t we defuse any attempts to demean, shame and control us?

Or, if that approach doesn’t appeal, what if we created positive terms for strong women and sexy women, smart women and courageous women—and never used those names for men, but just flooded the language with wonderful words for everyday women?

Whatever women choose to do to slough off denigrating labels and the attitudes behind them that hurt real women, whether we laugh at insulting terms or invent words that affirm women or use both approaches at once—let’s do it together.

—Cheryl Suchors