Reading some personal accounts of how people became feminists, including “The Fire Inside Me” by a grade 6 girl on the F-Bomb blog, which I linked to earlier this week, made me realize I’ve never written here about how I became a feminist.
I never would’ve called myself a feminist before Grade 12, but I know I was conscious of women’s inequality long before that. My parents were both progressive but non-partisan and at election time they used to get my advice on how to vote. At age eight in the 1993 federal election in North Vancouver I looked over the pamphlets at the kitchen table and demanded that my parents vote for the Liberal, Mobina Jaffer, because she was the only woman on the ballot (sorry NDP, but I was only 8).
When I was 10 we moved to Denman Island. My classmates’ families in North Vancouver seemed to come out of cookie-cutters. Now, on the island, there were parents in open marriages, gay and lesbian parents, single parents, and the occasional nudist wiccan parents, but nobody seemed to care. In Grade 6 we had a sex-ed presentation from the public health nurse, which included discussion of same-sex sex and oral sex. I knew dental dams weren’t just for dentists before I hit Junior High.
But leaving the island for Junior High made something change in me. I had already had my period from the time I was 9 and now I was one of the tallest kids in the class, although I dressed like a little kid in leggings, a sweater with snowflakes on it, and a headband with a bow. That, plus the part of me that made me an overachiever at school also made me a target. The bus ride from the ferry was the worst. Every day for two years some boys from another island would pelt me with food and pennies, calling me a penny whore who’d sleep with any guy for a cent. This wasn’t the first time I’d been singled out, but it was the first times it’d been done in a sexualized way.
Not having even come close to holding hands with a guy, I was not only hurt, but also kind of confused. But I followed the advice of parents and teachers not to stand up for myself, because a reaction would just “give the bullies what they wanted”. I thought the only thing to do was to try and make myself cooler. I didn’t want to be smart or political or unique or vegetarian; I wanted to be liked.
Even though I never did manage to turn off the school overachiever thing, I spent a good portion of Junior and Senior High feeling like a fat loser who was destined to be alone for life. In a school full of rednecks I”m sure I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. A kid in my French class got beaten up for being Greek. One group of guys spent lunch hours in the cafeteria joking about starting a “Gay K.K.” to lynch LGBT students. For ages we couldn’t find a teacher willing to step out and sponsor a Gay-Straight Alliance Club, but we had an active Pro-Life Club.
Eventually I figured out that I was never going to be able to just be quiet and suck it up. I started speaking out in class. Then, in Grade 11 the BC Liberals swept to power and after they cut funding to women’s centres and made teachers an essential service, I decided to join the NDP.
Which brings us to Grade 12, when two things happened that really led to me calling myself a feminist. The first was that our school’s drama teacher decided to put on a community theatre production of The Laramie Project. I went to see it twice, both times crying through most of it but leaving with a renewed sense of purpose. Seeing The Laramie Project made me realize how screwed up things were in the world at large, not just in my little world.
It also made me realize that it these conflicts weren’t just about actions – like closing women’s centres – they were also about ideology. I needed tools to fight back. That’s where an assignment by my amazing Grade 12 English teacher came in. Picking a philosopher to research I drew bell hooks out of a hat, so I went to the library and picked up a copy of Feminism is for Everybody.
bell hooks’ definition of feminism is: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” By “oppression” she’s talking about multiple types, including homophobia and racism. hooks was clear: feminism isn’t about hating men or playing the victim; it’s a foundation from which to fight for equality. I had decided it was going to be my foundation.
Now it’s seven years later and my feminism has gone through shifts. More and more I’ve thought it’s important to include men in the feminist movement. I’ve also grappled with my own privilege as a straight, white able-bodied cis woman and tried to make sure I’m speaking with, not speaking for others. I hope my feminism now is more nuanced, and there will continue to be changes, but I still believe in bell hooks’ fundamental definition.
Basically, if it weren’t for my parents, Denman Island, the Laramie Project, and my Grade 12 English teacher I wouldn’t be writing this blog today.