One of the most fundamental criticisms of feminism is that it’s anti-man, that it installs in women a lens through which they see all men as perpetrators and all women as victims.
My grandma D. is not a feminist. She’s spent a great deal of my life trying to teach me how to walk in high heels. She also stayed at home and cooked and cleaned and raised my mom and my aunts. My grandma’s house is full of delicate porcelain things that mean that no kid feels welcome there. There’s nothing you can touch, nothing you can play with. You may sit and look around. And that’s what women do, they sit and look pretty.
My grandma went down to Normal to ISU because she wanted to be a history teacher. When she got there, they told her that there was no room in the history department, that they had all the girls they needed and had to leave space open for the men.
“What men?” my grandma asked me, when she told me about it, as she sat in my parents’ dining room, still clenching her fists, still blinking back tears. “What men? All the men were at war. I wouldn’t have taken anyone’s spot.”
We white Midwesterners really do segregate by gender–women in the kitchen, men on the couch in front of the TV. In the kitchen, crowded around sinks or hunched over luke-warm coffee, you learn more about the ways that men do women wrong than you can bear. As we’re talking around things, in our typical way, you learn which silences mean rape, which mean abuse, which mean infidelity, and which mean the marriage is over. You learn the quiet ways women warn each other about which coaches must be watched and which Sunday School teachers need “help” with their classes. You learn a lot about sucking it up and taking it. You learn a lot about being trapped. You learn to feel lucky with your limited options.
Critics of feminism act like women were content with their lives until the women’s libbers ruined it. But I’m here to tell you that in places where feminists are casually dismissed as angry dykes, women are quietly seething.
In contrast, I loved to listen to the men talk. If I was quiet, I could sit on the couch next to my dad and listen as they went over baseball stats and crop prices and construction projects. I wanted so much to share their ease and their hearty laughter. Many of them had been in the military, so they’d traveled more and to places most of us had never even heard of. Some of them had been farmers their whole lives and lost fingers and hands to augers. My childhood was full of men with hands sacrificed to their jobs. Men who were always gentle and respectful of me, but awkward around other girls and women.
In part, I think, this is because we, my family and I, never were from there. We’d always just moved to that place and would, in a couple of years, pack up and move again. I had a great deal of freedom because I didn’t belong (but, sweet Jesus, how I wanted to).
So, yes, men do shitty, shitty things to women,even now. And before now, when you kept us out of classrooms and in kitchens and out of the workforce, that was crappy. And when you owned us and could beat us and keep us pregnant until our bodies gave out and could kill us and keep us from reading and writing and owning property, that sucked. And when you went into the temples and smashed the statues of the gods that we resembled and took their stories and twisted them so that any god who enjoyed her body became a demon and all our holy women witches, that hurt and still does.
But, my nephews, Women’s History Month is not yet for you. As long as we’re still commiserating in the kitchen and you’re laughing in the living room, Women’s History Month is not yet for you. If you want to come into the kitchen and sit quietly and openly and listen, that’s okay. If you want to fix things between men and women, straighten up.
But what really needs to happen during Women’s History Month, and throughout the year, is that we need to stop with the endless talk about you. We know all we need to know about you and more, what music you like, what turns you on, what things make you mad, what you like to eat, how good you are to your dog. Enough.
All this talk about you, this constant worry about you and what you might do to us is making us pissy and bitter and fragile and off-kilter. We’re like those yippy little dogs Paris Hilton keeps in her purse (fittingly enough) bred down to decorative size, helpless, and useless. We’ve cultivated small, frail bonzai souls, perfectly shaped to anticipate the form you want us to take.
But, nieces, here we are, chance culminations of the history of the universe until now. Put down some real roots, in good, fertile soil. Let yourself grow to your rightful shape. Take up the space that’s due you. Read and write and dance and play, because you can. Laugh because it unsettles the powerful. Do you want a lover who is good to you? Stop rewarding jackasses with the gift of your holy heart. Do you get what I’m saying to you? This is all we have, this is all the time we have, and you, who are as blessed and sacred as anyone, are wasting time hesitating.
Here’s what I know: no one will give you the life you deserve. You have to just start living it. You have no obligations to any person or institution who wastes your time with nonsense that kills your soul.
Sure, I’d love it if every woman decided on March 31st that she was going to embrace feminism; I think feminists are smart, funny, and engaged with the world in interesting ways. But if even a few of us decided to be too something–too loud, too fat, too silly–too anything that makes us happy, that would be something.