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