First of all, I want to tell you that I am approaching feminism from a very personal point of view. My first feminist was my grandmother. She was born at the turn of the century and she was only 16 years old when her mother committed suicide by hanging herself. My grandmother, Mary Wetzel, had to drop out of school to stay home and manage the household of her father, older brother and younger sister. In those days that meant ironing all the clothes, the sheets and even the underwear after ringing them out by hand and hanging them to dry, meals made from scratch, rolling out the pie dough and pickling the vegetables, and keeping the house clean without electrical appliances. She worked hard and was a great cook, according to my mother. She helped to raise her brother’s son until he was four when they moved into their own home. She was never given any thanks, only did what was expected, and was treated like a servant. When she became pregnant with my mother at age 30, she was considered a spinster with no prospects. Her father commanded her to have the baby in a foundling hospital and leave it there, but my grandmother refused. “If I can’t bring him home, I’m not coming home,” she said, defying her father. And because her work was so necessary and vital to the household, he gave in.
My mother was raised by my unmarried grandmother and her unmarried sister but disappointed them by getting pregnant with me and dropping out of school to marry my father. But my grandmother loved me too much to stay angry. I adored her. She allowed me to spend hours day-dreaming and doing creative projects, writing stories, coloring, pasting and painting. She took me to Atlantic City on summer vacations and took me on my first trip to NYC when I was 13. She was also strict about what was appropriate behavior for women: women should not swear, smoke, shout, be coarse (she worked in a factory), wear pants, or go out without putting on lipstick, but she also told me a woman could do anything a man could do, only better. She had her own money, traveled on bus tours all over the states and Europe, and moved to Florida on her own when she retired.
I am a child of the 60’s, a flower child. I believed with all my heart the messages that folk singers were disseminating about peace, justice and equality. I participated in the moratorium to protest Viet Nam, I thrilled to Martin Luther King’s speech, and lived on the edge in every way possible. I joined a commune where we raised the children collectively (somewhat, it is also where I learned the reality of human nature, possessiveness and unwillingness to have our children be treated as all the others) and I traveled and lived in Mexico, Spain and Israel.
In high school, I was called a commie and asked if I carried a pink card due to my well-known viewpoints about the tragedy of Viet Nam. I refused to pledge to the flag since I believed that liberty and justice were not for all and it was hypocritical until liberty and justice were available for all. I didn’t believe in nations or borders or divisions. I knew then that we were all one, human beings who want the same things: respect, love, attention, safety, enough to eat and creative self-expression.
My mother was a housewife the first 15 years of my life, except for the Christmas season when she worked in temporary retail. But I sensed her frustration and the loss of her dreams of further education, interacting with a wider world. She didn't have her own money and was dependent on my father to provide. I felt her frustration so much that I vowed that I would never be just a housewife. In fact, marriage was not on my plate at all. I understood it to be a legal, financial arrangement where men got to have women in exchange for their labor. (This did not stop me from marrying several times, but only because we needed the papers.)
Part of my high school experience in the late 60’s, early 70's, was that I felt it was not ok to be a female and to be smart. Not only did my opinions not matter, I was not to express those opinions too vocally, especially since I was skinny, blond and pretty. Blond skinny girls were meant to be attractive and silent. I felt ostracized and picked on by boys my age and disdained and envied by the girls. I can remember all too clearly being called a bitch because I refused to answer catcalls in the hallways. I was aware of what society’s expectations of me were. No longer was it simply that I should not swear, smoke or wear low slung hip huggers and yet still be smarter than most boys (my grandmother’s point of view), to be a nice girl, one did not venture into bad neighborhoods to volunteer or participate in protest marches. Or God forbid, talk about sex!
I remember clearly the inspiration of John Kennedy’s establishment of the Peace Corp. One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in my back yard swing when a neighbor boy that I thought was cute, a member of my church youth group who took me on my first date, strolled by. I was still dressed from church, a pink gingham dress with lace on the sleeves. I mentioned that I thought the Peace Corps was a great idea. Perhaps I would join when I graduated. “Why would you ever want to do such a stupid thing?” he sneered. Instantly the infatuation fell away and I realized how different I was. I felt more stupid for wearing pink gingham than for my passion to make the world a better place.
Later, the fact that being blond meant leers and whistles enraged me. I was followed and harassed, I was threatened, and one day when I was in my 20’s, I was taken against my will, held hostage and raped. My perception changed from the inconvenience of being harassed to the real danger of violence. The rose colored glasses that made me feel strong and free, after all, a child of the 60’s, I still did not believe I had to walk the streets actually afraid of what someone might do to me, shattered.
When I first read poems such as Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich and My Kind by Anne Sexton and the diaries of May Sarton, I was relieved, astonished, uplifted. Someone out there did know who I was. When I encountered books like The Yoni that celebrate the female body. Or Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly about the painfulness of the patriarchal legacy. Or the art of the dinner party by Judy Chicago, honoring our foremothers. Books such as When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone and The Great Cosmic Mother by Mor Sjoo, tracing back the Divine Feminine in ancient cultures, transformed my spirituality.
It was not enough to liberate myself from fear, a long process of healing that I have written about in other forms, but I needed to find my place in the circle of women who took the threads of our lives and wove them into art: the boredom of being stuck in the home, limited opportunities, domestic violence; that in many places we do not legally own our own bodies, unable to choose for ourselves birth control or abortion; that we do not receive the same remuneration for the same work but work harder to receive the same recognition; that women live in extreme poverty in most of the planet; that women are circumcised so they do not experience pleasure or even die from incurred infections; that mothers are asked to sacrifice their sons in wars they didn’t start and women are raped as a weapon of war; that brides are burned or acid is thrown at them as blackmail….the list goes on and on. It enrages me. But I don’t hate men; I have loved men, some deeply and with all my strength. I have sons and grandsons whom I adore. But I want that justice and liberty for all promised by the pledge of allegiance. I want women to be honored and valued and celebrated for our nurturing and courage and strength and beauty and faith. I want to know that someday my grandchildren will look at a beautiful blond woman and appreciate her mind, her spirit, her feistiness, her grace, her attitude, her joyful proud determination to make a difference in this tattered world, to be respected and cherished. To walk down the street unafraid. These things I have always wanted and fought for in my words, in my exploration, in my gathering together with other women to talk and laugh and feast on the delight of being female.