Saturday, 1 March 2014

A Feminine Feminist

 
My female role models as I grew up were mainly my mother and grandmother and they were undoubtedly feminine though not necessarily delicate. My grandmother gardened, fished for salmon, plucked chickens and french sliced beans all in a skirt and blouse.  I'd say my mother was instinctively a feminist without giving it much thought.  She didn't have time to give it any thought; she was simply busy getting on with life but she quite frequently got on with things in a skirt or a dress.  If the essential definition of a feminist is someone who believes in equal rights for men and women, then she could be defined as one and so could I. 

Whether or not I call myself a feminist has never been much of an issue for me.  In fact, I call myself a humanist as I believe that term to be more expansive and yet embracing of the same principles.  Feminist or humanist, such matters were never anything I found difficult to sort out.  What was much more difficult was where I fell on the spectrum of expressed femininity and how to reconcile where I fell naturally with where I wanted to be.  "Good grief" my mother would say.  "Just stop thinking so much and get on with things."

As a little girl I wore dresses the majority of the time.  My mother sewed and she sewed dresses for me for at least the first eight years of my life.  Even as the sewing slowed down and more of my clothes were purchased from Eatons or Sears, much of my childhood wardrobe consisted of dresses.  I was happy to wear hair ribbons and enjoyed  making sure my knee socks matched my dress however once I got outside to play, I seemed to have one heck of a time staying clean and tidy.  I played with two sisters in the neighbourhood, Kathy and Janey Wilson.  They were slightly older than I and I worshipped them for what I viewed as their absolute epitome of girlish beauty.  Where I had long, heavy, straight hair, they wore two high set pony tails that curled in ringlets.  They always seemed to remain so clean which impressed me much though with the clarity of hindsight I am quite certain that is largely because they made me do all the dirty work in our games.

I was blissfully unaware of the labels that might be put on a girl, whether she might be considered girlish or a tomboy.  I was simply myself, happily wearing a pretty dress and doing anything I felt like doing, which often included climbing up an old tree stump in a neighbour's front yard and jumping off, landing in the grass on my hands and knees.  Sometimes a friend and I pretended to be Wonder Woman type super heroes and we thought it quite appropriate to climb up on top of the oil tank and jump off it.  We ran around in our bare feet attempting to toughen them up and we pretended our bicycles were motorcycles, putting a playing card held by a clothespin onto the spokes of the wheels to get the desired sound effect.  With another friend, I remember playing that we were witches and we gathered sticks and leaves and berries to make magic potions.  The female role models I admired had courage and a no-nonsense attitude, and it never once occurred to me that this attitude couldn't be paired with a flowery dress.

I lost touch with that self knowledge, in the way many girls seem to with adolescence.  As time passed I came to unconsciously associate being "girly" with something I didn't want; I associated softness with weakness and anything overtly feminine was either not serious enough or not grown up enough.  It fascinates me to see  younger women today embracing dresses in a way my generation didn't at that age, at least not in my corner of the world.  The accepted teenaged uniform was jeans, tee shirts and sneakers for the most part.  Girls  may have worn a slightly more feminine shirt.  When I was in my twenties it was the time of shoulder pads and over-sized clothing, as though women were trying to be as big and imposing as men.  Androgyny in the form of Annie Lennox or Grace Jones was inspiring.  Cyndi Lauper's form of femininity was very in your face and there was nothing soft about it.  In the eighties it was not good to be soft and this message stuck with me.

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I have read that older women are concerned that the younger women today don't take feminism seriously enough, or don't want to have anything to do with it at all.  Older generations are always in a panic about the younger ones, or at the very least awfully cynical about them.  I actually feel very encouraged.  The whole point of feminism is not that there is one way to be a woman but that there are many ways and women are free to embrace what feels natural for them.  If young women are taking it for granted that they can be feminine in appearance but still strong as women, that they can wear a dress but that doesn't mean they should not be taken seriously, then isn't that a sign of feminism working? 

Women rebelled against  a patriarchal culture telling them who to be and what to do but it's important to avoid women telling each other how to be a woman or how to be a feminist.  Equality doesn't mean sameness and just as that means women are not trying to be men but to be considered equal to men, it also means women  don't need to all be the same as each other, they only need to be considered equal however they chose to express their personhood.  They should be free to make choices that suit them, to make mistakes, to grow and change as they chose.

In the course of my life I have learned at least two things about myself.  One is that I am very resilient.  I may bend but I do not break and I have the strength to support myself and others through adversity.  The other is that I am very soft.  I have a soft heart, a soft voice and a feminine style.  I was raised to be ladylike and I usually am.  I am quite a bit like my mother.   I have finally come full circle and returned to the adult version of my true and natural self.  I have courage and I am strong, I expect to have and demand equal rights with men and other women in my culture, and I see no reason why that can't be paired with a flowery dress.

8 comments:

  1. Of course; what we wear should have no bearing on our rights. I think I am possibly less strident in my feminism than I used to be in my twenties, although it worries me when some younger women see feminism as irrelevant, as though all the battles were won. I think they've been sold a lie.
    I think I dress in quite a feminine way, but there isn't much else that's ladylike about me! I am loud and raucous and opinionated, I swear and guffaw with equal gusto. It's all about making our choices with freedom from definition and censure from others.
    I like the sound of the generations of women in your family, Shawna; quietly, powerfully, effectively getting on with life! xxx

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  2. I certainly agree that what we wear should not affect our rights. It does affect other people's perceptions of us and that can be a challenge. I think I always feared I would have to fight harder the more feminine I seemed. I recently read about a female CEO who does not wear power suits. She deliberately dresses femininely because she wants to make a point and I thought that was so cool! I am happy to do a similar thing in being my natural self, though I am not a CEO and would hate to be.

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  3. amen!
    yes, yes and yes. can only agree with your thoughts about feminism.
    funnily my childhood memories about being dressed and wild behavior are the same :-) but i stayed to the dresses and frills in my teen years. it was not easy, surrounded by bluejeans and worker shirts. but wearing dull clothes is simply impossible for me. but that meant i had to make more efforts to be accepted by the "outdoor clique" i wanted to be a member. in the end the boys were impressed how cool i handled hiking tours and biwaks, they expected a "zimperliese" (sissy) because i was wearing dresses and kitten heels in everyday life.
    and i still love being like this - dressed to the nines at town, wearing skirt even at home/for trekking, but able to lit a fire in a rainy forest and sleep under the stars. or to chop wood or machine sand the pine floors of our house (and that machine is huge!)

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    1. I have a lovely imagine of you wearing a frilly dress and operating a floor sander! When I was a teenager in high school I wore skirts and blouses and dresses too and was considered weird. Like you, I did not lack male admirers. For me and for many women dressing is an artistic expression and an expression of self and to be wearing something that is not true to who you are is almost oppressive. You sound like you are my ex husband's dream girl. LOL I have the desire and interest to be as outdoorsy as you are but my illness won't let me. Painting has given me an outlet to be passionate about which I used to have in gardening.

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  4. i couldn't agree with you more. i loved this post!!

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! I love hearing from you.

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  5. This was a great post! I went on a rant a little while back on the subject of people associating femininity with being weak, and that is not the case! I agree with so much of this post. I do think that a lot of people my age, and younger, cringe at the word "feminist" because they associate it with something entirely negative, instead of positive.

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    1. Hi Sara, thanks for stopping to read and comment. I tended to cringe at the word feminist too. When I went to university the visible and vocal feminists were hairy legged lesbians. There is nothing wrong with being that but I didn't fit. I sat in a Women's Studies class and listened to the rants about awful men and women don't need men and just go and get a vibrator and I thought wait a minute. I have a lovely dad, a wonderful brother and I'm dating a decent guy. I can't participate in all this male bashing. Also, damn it, I prefer to shave my legs.

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