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.
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.