23 March 2008

"i became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist."

i must tell you: i don't understand third wave feminism.

i identify with the second wavers -- gloria steinem, betty friedan, even the "second wave" literary theorists simone de beauvoir and luce irigaray -- far more than third wavers. i want to support the third wave, i do -- i just don't totally get it. i was born, perhaps, twenty years too late. and i really don't understand "post-feminism," which seems to me to be (pardon the phrase) a load of crap. (ann coulter? not a feminist. setting feminism back seventy years, perhaps, if we stick to what i believe is the truest definition of feminism: the belief that all people -- including women -- are equal. and my, oh my, if you've seen any of the negative media reactions -- especially the way they've been phrased -- to hillary clinton, then you know: we are not post-feminist. we are only just beginning).

i am often reminded of why i "became" a feminist in the first place; i say "became" in quotation marks (and if you could see me, and if i weren't typing, i'd do those irritating air quotes with two fingers from each hand -- and i'd do them dramatically) because it became clear to me in college, once i'd adopted the word, that that was all i'd done -- i'd found a name for who i had always been. who knows where these sorts of things come from? nature or nurture, it's clear that i had been a wee raging feminist since at least third grade. maybe it was all the nancy drew (and my somewhat sour reactions when she was rescued by ned), maybe it was all the boys in grade school who made me one of their favorite targets, maybe it was the good training i got from my strong-minded mother and father, or maybe it was watching my older sister deal with high school, body image, women's issues in sports and academics, etc., long before i got there. either way: the word "feminist" -- no matter the new idea that we're "post-feminist" (ha!) or the vehement fears and reactions to the word "feminist" (still -- which, of course, proves that we ain't nowhere near post-feminist) -- suits me just fine.

on a terrific website called "antigone magazine" which my friend kris found (and she has postcards posted there this week!), they're selling a t-shirt that reads, "i became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist." yes. yes, i think. yes. (sidenote: i'll be happy to take this t-shirt for my birthday. i'll take ten.) and that, for me, is the most basic way to say it: i had to become a feminist to stop hurting/starving/loathing/damaging myself, and to make sure that i protected myself from other folks who might want to, and to start up (for myself and for others) a brand new way of thinking of ourselves as a community, as in relationship, as equal to one another and protectors of one another.

and feminism, of course, is a fight for freedom. in the novel we're reading in class, (which i think is brilliant, genius, magic), the handmaid's tale, margaret atwood describes the "training school," the "rachel and leah center" for the handmaids, where they "learn" their new place in the world. one of the "aunts" -- the wardens, really -- says to the women, "there's freedom to and freedom from." the women are meant to be grateful that while they've given up their freedom to (hold jobs, earn money, run alone, go to school, in short -- live), they've been "given" freedom from (men's lascivious gazes, whistling, harassment, assault, etc.). and really, while that's a lovely, pithy idea -- it just doesn't hold. atwood knows this, of course, and after reflecting on that dichotomy for a while, i've realized that freedom to and freedom from have to come at once, together, that they're not at all separate. in other words, a substitution of one kind of oppression for another is no progress at all.

which brings me to this poem, which i've come across again. (everything -- classes, websites, memories, conversations, the next round of the michiana monologues -- renamed, but similar -- even happenstance browsing -- is starting to coalesce. i'm having a liberal arts moment!). it's by susan browne, who has a brave sense of humor and sharpness and sarcasm in her writing which does not, somehow, overpower her sincerity, but instead makes it that much stronger -- because, to put this badly, when she's crying, she's really crying, and when she's laughing, she's really laughing.

this one strikes me as hugely important, in thinking about not being a masochist, thinking about freedom to and freedom from -- because at the end of the poem, the speaker has both, and she has neither. she's locked herself in her room -- no freedom to. in the beginning, driving around braless, carefree, even reckless -- she doesn't have freedom from. and her solution is disturbing, and not a solution, and yet, and yet. i understand. i've been lucky enough to have been in bad relationships that never turned violent or threatening like this. but i do understand. and i think: there's got to be some other way to do this -- this relationship between men and women, this liberation that must be guarded, this falsehood of the "post-patriarchy." it's no error, of course, that she brings up in this poem the women she does -- one beaten by her husband, the other who wrote to her mother that she was glad ted hughes published a book before she did because it would make it so much easier on her. freedom to? freedom from? but the speaker, at least, has made her decision, and she's taken back control -- some freedom regained. on the other hand, this is very problematic, yes? because it seems to perpetuate the exact cycle with which she wants to break, and this is one of the most common complaints about feminism -- that it takes a hierarchy and simply flips it. and so: it's got to be more complex than this. and i don't think for a minute that the speaker of this poem doesn't struggle with exactly this for the rest of her life. at least, the reader here does.

however, i'm also reminded of how very human this is, and how the poem is made better by its honesty. as one of my writing professors told me once, "say it as truthfully and accurately as you can, and it will be beautiful."

regardless, here's the poem. let me know what you think.


~ Susan Browne

In September of 1970 we took off our bras
and waved them like flags over our liberated heads,
cruising in Jan's convertible Bug
to the college we would attend.
When we let the bras go, they fluttered up
on various cup-sized wings and flew
into a cornfield.

We were eighteen, we could do whatever we wanted,
and that first Friday night staring awestruck
at Tina Turner singing on the outdoor stage,
I wanted to belt out the lyrics of my life,
a life unlike any woman's I'd known.
I was free in my gauzy blouse,
dancing in the street with a man
with long curly black hair and a paisley bandana.
He quoted Nietzche and Rimbaud,
and he knew all about Plath.

How old are you? I asked.
Let's go to a party, he said.
It was dark under the oaks by the creek,
no other cars but his station wagon.
The party's here, he said, pressing
my hand into his lap.

I told him I was a virgin,
and he held my hair back so hard
I thought my skull would crack.
He bit my neck, whispering
that he was so big,
I couldn't handle it,
but he'd know when I was ready
just by looking at me.

Thank you, I said.

As we drove to the dormitory,
he said he'd come by tomorrow.
I have homework.
You sure are a smart girl. He winked.

I locked the door of my room,
lay down on my narrow bed,
the stack of books on the desk
outlined in the light
from the streetlamp.
I would get smarter.
And if a man ever did anything
like that again,
I would do what I wanted.
I would kill him.

(published in Buddha's Dogs by Susan Browne, New York City: Four Way Books, 2004.)

1 comment:

Jessica said...

A lovely, thoughtful post, Sally. I can't say more at the moment, but I wanted you to know I enjoyed it - an the poem. Very direct.