By Casey Carroll
As a little girl I was reprimanded for my excessive use of my favorite four-letter “f-word.” I learned it from my older siblings, and it often slipped out in public. In fact, many local mothers knew me as the curly haired baby with a mouth like a sailor.
But in adolescence, as a girl with only guys as friends, I acquired a new offensive f-word—feminist. I forbade anyone to label me as such. I had never been interested in labels, particularly if it meant subscribing to one that cast me in a negative light. Didn’t feminists burn bras and have hairy armpits? Weren’t feminists lesbians, bitches, radicals, whiners?
So out of ignorance (or because of a historically engrained political and social agenda), I neglected to see women as second-class citizens. At least not nearly to the extent of other marginalized groups. What did we have to complain about?
On the other hand, even the slightest mention of a derogatory joke aimed at “second-class citizens” and I would start to cry. I yelled at other kids if they described one of our peers as “retarded.” I reminded them it was more politically correct to say, “mentally handicapped.” The “N word” made my stomach hurt. “Dike” only held literal meaning in my vocabulary. And as far as I was concerned, fags were the things my dad’s boss from England smoked and nothing else.
I read the books, heard the stories, studied the civil rights movements and proclaimed to believe in equality. “How could anyone not?” I thought. But for some reason, when thinking of equal rights I never really thought of women. I had taken for granted that in my family and the environment of my upbringing, women were no less than their male counterparts.
My privilege left me sheltered, and I unintentionally ignored the women’s rights movement. I laughed blindly at the dumb blonde jokes or any other “harmless” joke about women. And I never spoke up when I overheard a woman being described in insulting ways. I held my tongue and hung my head. To this day, I’m still not sure why. What was I ashamed of?
In any case, I came clean about a year ago. I began to understand, in more detail and with more compassion, the role of women in the world and the issues surrounding their rights. College exposed me to a variety of different stories and situations drastically different from my own.
I learned the burka wasn’t simply a traditional garment worn by Muslim women. I learned it was a cage worn in public to deny women their identity and independence— only one of many oppressive restrictions imposed on women by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In the United States, stories of small town girls with big time dreams, fighting against the classic gender roles they were taught to obey, stuck with me when the stories came from classmates and not just textbooks or CNN specials.
But nothing strikes harder or leaves such a lasting effect as personal experience. As a waitress for five years now, I have seen the ugly reality of the objectification and belittlement of women. In the restaurant industry, abusive relationships and sexual harassment are often expected and, although inappropriate, deemed acceptable. Willingly, no matter how twisted, I allowed my boss to take the role of slave driver and I slave. He tells me my hours, he gives me my uniform, he comments on my “cute ass.” He even makes me bring him his dinner. He diminishes my power and demeans my intellect, and no matter how bad the situation, he makes me want to stay. A patriarchy at its worst—its most corrupted.
Higher education also taught me to think more critically. It taught me to question our leaders, traditions and society. It taught me to have an opinion and to value it. My worldview grew, and my passions became more directed I embraced feminist values as an outward expression of my internal growth.
I won’t lie: The first time I admitted it out loud I felt vulnerable. A young woman in one of my classes was debating with the teacher as to whether or not she was a feminist. Like so many other women, she had jumped on the train of the 1980s phenomenon, “I’m not a feminist, but…”
In the ’80s, women began to tack disclaimers onto any statement that might sound overly feminist.
Sally McConnell-Ginet, a professor of linguistics at Cornell University and the president of the American Society of Linguistics, explains that several studies in the U.S. have suggested that many college students who hold liberal feminist beliefs are uncomfortable calling themselves feminists.
“The risks have to do with being put in a social category that is widely disparaged and characterized in very restrictive and often quite negative ways,” says McConnell-Ginet.
Feminism comes fully packaged with a gaggle of labels – labels that lead to easy, often untrue, assumptions about a person. So in retrospect, it’s no wonder my classmate refused to call herself a feminist.
The teacher tried to wear her down, show her the loopholes in her argument, show her that the only reason she rejected the term was because of the stigma attached and not because of what feminism actually stood for. But my classmate wouldn’t cave.
I was baffled at how this young woman could say she wasn’t a feminist. She was progressive and modern. She liked to rub elbows with the guys. She was captain of a sports team, vocal about the environment and issues of equality. She held positions of power in the academic world, as well as the downtown community. She was the quintessential woman in a man’s world. The perfect example of a feminist.
Never before had such a debate made my blood boil, but within ten minutes I was fuming. “Admit it!” I wanted to scream. “It’s not what you think it is!” Instead, I sat tapping my pen and squirming in my seat.
Eventually I raised my hand and spoke. I identified myself as a feminist and dared my classmate to do the same. She still didn’t concede, but I’d crossed over and knew I could never go back. From the depths of my stomach sounded a queasy, anxious growl. I had put myself out there to be compared with the stereotypes. But I knew that no pigeonholing statement could define me—there was nothing to hide.
When feminism is stripped of social constructions, what is left is its most basic definition: Feminism is the desire to attain equality for both genders. Despite my prior belief, this f-word isn’t like the f-bombs I used to drop as a precocious child. It’s not a dirty word. Feminists are not bra-burning radicals who want to conquer all men. Feminists can be male or female, young or old, Jewish or Buddhist. There are no limitations or absolutes.
So it took 20 years but I’ve finally confessed, proudly wearing my feminism like the finest silk dress. It isn’t confining or scratchy. The fit is perfect. It doesn’t turn heads or cause accidents on the street. And it doesn’t get me in any trouble. In fact, come to think of it, the dress has made me dance, kick up some dust with my shoes and feel the air floating through the seams. It’s made me come alive.