A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday, October 21, I delivered an address at the Fall Conference of the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Wheaton-Glen Ellen, IL Branch. Or as Bob characterized it while watching a video replay of the speech, “Beckytime at the Apollo.” The clip betrays awareness of speaking to an audience comprised of my supportive, social justice-minded mother-in-law, a gaggle of former students and an army of elderly, pissed off academic women. If ever there existed a friendly crowd for the subject I was invited to engage…
Comfortable showmanship aside, my passion for the material was as real as it gets. Because October 21 was an important day in recent feminist history. Exactly nine months after the international Women’s Marches of late January 2017, local AAUW leader Danielle Byron asked me to speak about the impact from a female journalist’s perspective. The group had two questions about the largest protests in U.S. history: “What has happened in the last nine months? And what is being ‘birthed’ for the future?”
So many ways to respond to these questions as an objective observer of a cultural moment, and I did use research and statistics to point to positive trends such as the 17,000 women and counting since Election Day who are looking to run for office. I discussed the ignominious downfalls of a growing list of bipartisan pigs who have built powerful careers on the abuse of women and children. The encouraging, growing social awareness that predators do not deserve our celebration and silence.
Yet I’m not an impartial observer of my gender, of the battles it has fought and must continue to fight, am I? By virtue of my anatomy, experiences and growing activism, I am both participant and recorder of this moment in history. Thus my AAUW address was sprinkled with quotes from my writing and started where any larger narrative offered with individual interpretation must – with my own story.
As longtime readers of this blog are well aware, I had a distressed childhood, raised by two mentally ill parents. Our home was one of addiction – substance abuse, compulsive gambling and my father’s obsessive compulsive disorder which manifested itself in hoarding rituals. These were the physical challenges, which were rivaled only by complicated psychological ones – pervasive, often counterproductive dishonesty, simmering rage and tribal divisions where the sides were always subject to change.
These formative experiences taught me a few important lessons that were perversely empowering as I grew into an adult:
- Resilience: fall constantly, get right back up, regroup and charge forward again
- An admiration for honesty and order versus cynicism and lies
- A curious lack of awareness regarding traditional gender roles
I’ve reflected on the third lesson more and more often from the position of a 39 year-old woman growing in enlightenment (or trying her damnedest).
My father was the more ill parent and my mother, a registered nurse, was the family breadwinner. Neither parent taught me to sit pretty and wait for the proverbial knight to come along. I was encouraged to apply myself to, and excel at everything – studies, sports, music, fist fighting. My father in particular, was just as proud if I came home with an “A’ grade, a trophy, or a swollen lip from scrapping with a neighborhood bully of any gender identification. I knew intuitively and from my parent’s example that I was going to have to fend for myself in every sense of word. Everything would be a fight.
Frequently the fights occurred between myself and my mother, who established a competitive and adversarial relationship with her eldest daughter. Ritual shame came early and often as I worked to avail myself of opportunities Gloria never perceived herself as having. My rapport, such as it was with mom, was marked by a curious and painful Catch-22. I was driven to excel at everything I took on, yet if I shone too brightly at any effort, it was somehow an affront, evidence of arrogance. I was a source of bragging rights, or a cypher for my mother’s own bitter sense of wasted potential.
Well into my 20s, if you’d asked me which gender suited me better, I would have proudly and unselfconsciously replied that I was a “guy’s girl,” a tomboy who enjoyed sports and verbal sparring more than the color pink and making myself pleasant to everyone else. I never had more than two close girlfriends at a time. Like the young fool lacking in self-awareness that I was, I convinced myself I was more comfortable with men than women. It would be years before hard knocks, therapy, and an adulthood free of the bizarre, warping influence of my mother exposed a programmed traitor to my gender and its systemic inequality. I did nothing because I felt nothing. Because I was convinced all doors were open to us if we were ready to walk through them alone.
How awesomely, pitifully naïve. How sadly ignorant.
We will kick the unopened doors alright, but we won’t do so it solo. With each passing year, I embrace the “feminist” label attributed to my work in terms both derisive and admiring. I continue working to synthesize the shame and gender isolation I once felt, with gratitude for the opportunity to discover pride in my womanhood. The chance to continuously learn and grow, the privilege of being able to use my words and physical presence to agitate for change.
Toward the end of my AAUW remarks, I said this regarding the immediate future of our gender. But I was also painfully aware of personal challenges that lie ahead:
“We have so much work to do. So much in fact that it can be demoralizing. It can cause anger, paralysis, fear and plain old fatigue. It’s normal and it’s ok to give into it now and then. We need our rest, our quiet time, our emotional releases. It’s ok to ask why in the hell we still have to fight these fights.”