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September 14, 2014: “Trusting Feminists”

Reading From Bad Feminist: Essays, by Roxane Gay

This morning’s reading is by Roxane Gay, a professor of English at Purdue University. It’s from her book of essays entitled Bad Feminist.

I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain . . . interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying— trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

I am a bad feminist because I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal.

Personal Reflection by Nancy Theofrastous

I got married when I was 35, after solid careers in publishing and educational measurement. Within a year, my husband, Ted, and I had quit our jobs, moved from Central Massachusetts to Cleveland, and started graduate school at Case. We weren’t sure about having children. We chose to put the decision in the hands of nature.

Nature made a pretty quick decision. Much to the disappointment of my female professors, I was well into my second trimester by the fall semester of year two of my master’s program. They said they wished I had waited. Their faces told me they were damn sure I would quit school and veer straight onto a traditional wife-and-mother path. I thought, “What? I’m a product of the second wave of feminism. Watch me prove you wrong. No identify crisis going on here. I am woman [slightly indignant expression and tone of voice].”

What I didn’t know was there was a huge identify crisis to come, one that lasted for more than a decade. I found myself on one of those wild amusement park rides. You know, the ones that have eight octopus arms that flail about.

Before giving birth to my son, my work was more important than just about everything. At an all-women’s college in the late-70s and early-80s, I had been groomed for the working world. My classmates and I were going to be career women. Plenty of women who came before us were doing it really well. We could too. By the 1990s, it was even better because there were plenty of men, my husband included, who not only didn’t feel threatened by women in the workplace (and in graduate school) but also found them incredibly attractive and interesting. I am woman. (with side glance and smile; come hither tone)

In 1997, I gave birth to my son, a little life, so small and soft and sweet. I moved away from the career woman image and became a “working mother,” a title strongly characterized by a tug of war. For me, it is not a romantic role. No magazine article, book, movie, or talk show will ever change my mind about that.

There is a huge part of me that wishes I had set aside my career entirely and hyper-focused on mothering my son. I am not designed to lead a split life. What I didn’t realize, or take the time to notice, when I gave birth to my son is that I truly had a choice. That’s what the feminist movement gave my generation, and I was a bad feminist for not embracing that freedom, for jumping on that octopus-armed amusement park ride when the truth is I am my best self when I ride the pretty horses on the slow-moving carousel.

So, how do I become a good feminist, a better human? Well, as I work my way across the park to that slow-moving carousel, I think my job is to make sure my son, and all the young women and men with whom I spend time, have a clear view of the breadth of choices that are out there in this very privileged life we lead, and to instill in them an intense and joyful obligation to do the same for the generation that follows. More and more, I believe the job of the human is to serve and that we have a shot at that “better world” we all want when the humans feel free and happy.

Sermon “Trusting Feminists,” by Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

If you are man in my age group, you’ve probably had this experience: You’re with a group of people, probably at church, a group that is mostly women, when the conversation suddenly turns to the ways men always dominate everything. Meetings. Committees. The workplace. Music. Films. Journalism. And Ironically, conversation.

It makes sense to me, because for generations…for millennia…men dominated everything in the cultures that came to dominate life in the United States. While plenty of matriarchal cultures exist, and have existed in the world, they are not the cultures that define who we are now. We are a people who tend to see a strict binary of gender, gender roles and gender expressions, and that binary has historically had men in the dominant role.

That history has been, for the most part, horrible and shameful with regard to the way women have been treated. And, it continues to be in so many ways.

Pay just a bit of attention to the Twitterverse and the Blogosphere and you can see it in the rape culture of young men, where the words “bitch” and “ho” are interchangeable with “girl” or “woman,” where men brazenly post that a feminist is woman who…to put it much more delicately…needs more intimacy with men like themselves.

Recently I was in one of those conversations about men. I was the only man amidst five women colleagues, talking about how no males understand the female experience.

“I can’t profess to know what you’ve gone through,” I said. “I’m not a woman. But I do understand that the world is very different for different kinds of people, depending on their plumbing, or on how they present their gender. Ultimately though, I am a feminist. I’m on your side.”

One of them, who is only two months older than I am, said “You don’t know what our mothers went through.”

But I do. This colleague and I have often joked that we have the same mother…the same age, the same personality type, the same interests and foibles.

I am a feminist, raised by a feminist.

Oh, my mother would never have called herself a feminist when I was growing up. To her, as with so many other women, feminists were man-hating, sex-hating and humorless bra-burners. They were cold and self-serving, exactly like the men they professed to hate. But she changed as she raised my sister to be the kind of wife she is.

Tina is the breadwinner in her family. They fish and hunt together. And my 14-year old niece Morgan is an amazing combination of toughness and girliness. She’s a gymnast and a cheerleader, pretty and powerful. If you cross her, or pick on someone smaller than yourself, she’ll kick your butt without messing up her cute outfit while she does it.

Morgan is an example of how women’s feelings about themselves and their role in the have changed across generations.

Here in the United States, the goals of early feminists were simple: gaining for women not only the right to vote, but access to the halls of power and eventually equal representation in government. After the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked tirelessly up to and through 1920 when women gained the right to vote.

During that period, the Unitarian Association of America and it’s affiliate, the Western Unitarian conference, did something that was shocking at the time. In Her Book Prophetic Sisterhood, Cynthia Grant Tucker outlines how female ministers, among the first in the nation, were tasked with starting churches on the American frontier. Mary Augusta Safford, Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon and Caroline Julia Bartlett Crane to name a few made a place for liberal religion in the wild west, churches founded on the principal that “religion should be oriented toward the present, not the past, and that religious beliefs should be in tune with modern knowledge and experience.” The experiences of men and women.

Sadly though, as the nineteenth century came to a close, those women, who toiled so much not only with the ministry, but also with the landscape and the socio-political climate, lost their ministries to a patriarchy worried the ministry was becoming feminized, and less effective. By the time women had the right to vote in the United States, there were no women active as ministers among Unitarians.
The first wave of feminism had great successes, and quiet but profound losses. The term “first-wave feminism” was coined in March 1968, by Marsha Lear in an article in The New York Times Magazine. At the same time also used the term “second-wave feminism,” which she described as a movement in which women were able to place themselves within the arc of the first wave of feminism, while remaining themselves at the forefront of something new.

With writers like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem leading the way, they challenged the status quo. They got a lot of pushback from more traditional women as they challenged old sexual mores and supported the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. But they gained more solidarity as they lobbied hard for economic equality in the form of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, title IX, and the Equal Rights Amendment.

All through the 70’s, women across the globe were singing the anthem “I Am Woman,” which acknowledges strength and potential, but also the fact that the biggest job ahead was to make men get it, to buy into the simple idea that women are people, too.

The metaphor of the wave, as the feminists of the late 1960’s began to use it, was important because it “legitimized feminism as a serious and ongoing political struggle with a history, while simultaneously granting the [previous] wave a means by which to posit themselves as the vanguard,” According to Astrid Henry, author of Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism.

Each generation rode the crest of its own wave, bringing in more water to lift everyone’s boats.

So, the third wave took things a little further, by encouraging women to celebrate the multifaceted nature of their complex identities. Women were choosing to wear makeup and buy sexy bras instead of burning them, or to make life choices that a decade would have been considered constricting, like being a stay-at-home mom. Most importantly, they were celebrating their pluralities, embracing their personal and political contradictions. The third wave made space for thinkers like Chimananda Ngozi Adichie to universalize the issue. Adichie saw feminism as Un-African, so she decided to describe herself as “A Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not For Men.” She has challenged feminists in the US to lift everyone’s boats as they lifted their own.

Women here started to see the ways in which the first and second waves were movements of middle-class white women, and that the issues were entirely different for poor women, women of color, and even transgender people. They began to stand united with all marginalized people.

The conception of the third wave made my niece, Morgan, part of an international movement before she was even born, a movement of girls who want to fight oppression like Ninjas and wear lip gloss.

Just as importantly, the third wave allowed regular everyday women to make room in their lives for decisions that didn’t follow a party line. It allowed women like Nancy to be mothers and professionals at the same time, even if it meant they weren’t perfect in either role. It allowed women and girls everywhere to start to see their struggle reflected in the struggles of oppressed people everywhere, and to start to live in the intersection of those struggles, knowing that nobody is perfect, but we’re all fighting together to make things better for everyone.

Finding the intersections of systems of oppression is what the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign is all about. Standing on the Side of Love is an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression. Oppression of all kinds. It started as a national Marriage Equality campaign, but changed radically as queer folk all over the country began to realize that they would get nowhere without the support of women and racial minorities and people of other traditionally marginalized identities. As the mission of the campaign has broadened, so has the coalition.

Two of our youth, Florida and Anna, requested that the youth program this year be built around the actions of Standing on the Side of Love, and given the option, Robin, Peter, Andres, Maxon and Che all got on board.

That’s why yesterday I put on my golden rod shirt and went to Akron to meet with UUA President Peter Morales and United Church of Christ General Minister Geoffrey Black.

They were there to lead conversation about “how we can support immigration reform and respond to the humanitarian crisis of the new refugee immigrant children here among us.” We heard testimonies from people who fled oppression and unspeakable violence in their homelands and worked on devising ways to be better allies as we raise everyone’s boats.

All day going through my mind was the anthem of the third wave of feminism. Maybe not the anthem, but an anthem. It’s not as clear and loud as the anthem of the second wave. It’s quieter, more reflective, inhabiting the haziness of everyday life, and the struggle to find love and connection in a world that seems to prefer bright and clear dualities. My third wave anthem embraces the kind of doubt and regret that we all feel, men and women alike.

So as we continue to live into our future, loving, discovering, revering and connecting, what does any of this mean to us? What can we learn from the feminist waves crashing on the shore of modern history, drawing us out to an expansive sea that has plenty of everything we need?

We can begin by listening to one another’s stories, the stories of our mothers who changed their lives; the stories of girls just becoming young women with an understanding of gender and sexual expression that we couldn’t have conceived of thirty years ago.

We can begin by listening to the stories of Graystone and the founding of East Shore in the 1950’s, the sacrifices of time and money our founders made, the disappointment and losses as people have come and gone, the hurts and betrayals; but also the stories of the youth bringing life to the far wing of this building, and forging our future out there. These are the stories that allow us to learn about ourselves and to pass knowledge and understanding from one generation to the next.

As we listen, we’ll find those places where our lives meet.

We’ll find not only the specifics of the shared values of our covenantal life together, but also the ways in which we celebrated and suffered, and begin to plumb the depths of our shared humanity, regardless of gender or race or class or even belief. We’ll see where our privileges combine to give us strength, and we’ll harness that strength to do good in the world, not as individuals working separately on issues we each find important, but as a solitary force. In the process, we can figure out who our allies are, which I think are more plentiful than we imagine.

Marge Piercy said to “live as if you like yourself and it may happen: Reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.” We can do that.

We can trust the lessons of all three waves of feminists, close our eyes, screw up our courage and trust. Just trust the spirit, and our mission, and the stories of our past and present. Trust each other.

We have to look fear, and hurt, and disappointment and shame in that face and say “I just don’t care,” and move joyfully into the future.

Then, we can throw a fistful of glitter in the air and honor all that we have, as imperfect as it is, as laden with regret as it may be, and reach out toward what it is we want to become.

May we be so bold. May we trust so much.

Gay, Roxane (2014-08-05). Bad Feminist: Essays (Kindle Locations 68-77). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Henry, Astrid (2004) Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indiana University Press, p. 57

Rasor, Paul (2012-06-15). Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square (Kindle Locations 249-251). Skinner House Books. Kindle Edition

Tucker, Cynthia Grant. (1994) Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. University of Indiana Press, p. 201

Henry, Astrid (2004) Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indiana University Press, p. 58

Henry, Astrid (2004) Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indiana University Press, p. 57

Jacob, Krista. (2003) Engendering Change: What’s Up with Third Wave Feminism?

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2014-07-29). We Should All Be Feminists (Kindle Single) (A Vintage Short) (Kindle Locations 62-65). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Standing on the Side of Love.

Ohio Meadville District of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.