Being A Young Feminist Can Turn A Girl Old

A therapist told me to try a women’s studies class, so I did that first semester of my freshman year. I still remember exactly what I was wearing that September morning in 1998, not because it was a cute outfit but because I was obsessed with my legs. The therapist had been treating me for an eating disorder that nearly killed me a few months before.

In this context, going to college was a luxury; hell, living was a luxury. I enrolled in Women’s Studies 101 to check a box. Instead a new world opened. I don’t say this hyperbolically — feminism helped save my life. I was able through relapses and hospitalizations and treatment to stabilize and beat down the anorexia. But what truly saved my life was making the connection that eating disorders are just one manifestation of a deeply sexist world that denigrates and trivializes women, weaponizes our bodies against us, and then tells us it’s all our fucking fault anyway.

With its radical messages of dignity, equality, and honesty, my feminism made it impossible for me to go back to the dark side. How the light went on! I dove headfirst into all the women writers. Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath, Alexandra Kollontai, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanis. Judith Butler. I told myself I wanted to be a women’s studies professor someday. Until I realized that a lot of this postmodern stuff was hard to read, and I could have an obscure argument in an obscure language with about three other people who maybe understood me, or I could try to work for justice out in the real world.

So this is the ironic thing. I had a series of proto-feminist moments (making GOTV calls for the woman who could have been Minnesota’s first woman senator when I was 11, writing about gender discrimination in the SAT for the school newspaper, the obsession with the Indigo Girls) well before I started taking women’s studies courses in college. But it wasn’t until I left the classroom and went into the feminist non-profit world that I became a “young feminist.” Even if by that time I was 21. Not 18. Or 11.

I’m 35 and I still get called “young feminist” in those contexts on occasion today, although that says far more about those contexts than my age. If 35 is young, it’s only to reflect our societal fears of identifying as old, and our societal inability to give our young people career opportunities with growth potential rather than a pile of student debt that’s damn near impossible for so many to repay. The weird thing is that the term young feminist exists at all.

This label, like anything that impacts a person’s identity, is complicated for me. Sometimes I love the term — you know, it is true that people will have different views of what equality will look like as they grow up in different generations. If all goes well, after all, what a previous generation of feminists fought for should be appallingly conservative to the next generation.

And yet sometimes I think the concept of a young feminist is total horse shit.  I identified as a feminist a few years before feminist non-profits taught me to identify as a young feminist. Just what was the point of segregating us?

I bristle every single time I hear someone say that young women need to be educated so they don’t take the freedoms they’ve gained for granted. First because not every woman has gained the freedoms we’re told feminism has won. But also and especially because it’s so insulting. Talking down to young women is anti-feminist. Presuming young women are not capable of identifying and articulating and fighting for what they need to live as full human beings is anti-feminist. Treating young women as sidekicks in a women’s movement is anti-feminist, particularly in a legislative context where older white men are obsessed with controlling and restricting younger women’s bodies, and demonizing those who dare to have sex and live their lives anyway.

And yet it happens all the time. Today was the latest entry with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) expressing regret over the “complacency” of young women born after Roe v. Wade (1973, how young!). Blaming apathetic young women for the declining state of abortion access has been something of a cottage industry hovering over the pro-choice movement ever since I’ve been around, but in the last few years the situation has gotten markedly better, in large part due to those with less power having the ability to present alternative views on social media. To my knowledge there wasn’t a similar mechanism to democratize voices between activists and the leaders making the big bucks before then.

You know, we should push back every single time someone ‘on our side’ tells us young women are apathetic about feminism or abortion or any number of concerns that impact our lives. We should push back that young men are somehow not included in the group who should take equal responsibility to work toward progress. But frankly I’m getting old (a privilege for which I feel blessed, not shamed) and sometimes I wonder if we will ever find that moment where we won’t have to fight for the full recognition of young people in a women’s movement that has a tendency to treat them as helpmeets or hire them as unpaid interns.

There are approximately two gray hairs on my head now, and I swear, at least half of them came from a vocal minority of older feminists who have been patronizing or worse about my work.

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That Would Be Me With A Toddler At The Pro-Choice Happy Hour

My daughter is two. She is a lovely, wonderful, vivacious girl. Her new thing is that she comes with me to pro-choice happy hours.

Before she was born, I was going to action/networking/professional-type stuff nearly every night of the week. Happy hours. Panel discussions. Volunteer phone-banks. Impromptu vigil for social justice? My candles were by the door. This is an easy habit to fall into as a young do-gooder, especially when you love what you do.

After she was born, I stopped doing most of these things. It was just too hard, especially when I was still nursing and rocking her to sleep. That’s changed, but babysitters are still costly and hard to find. And yes, after working all day, I like to spend time with her.

Does this make me less driven? Nope.

But yes, I had been missing some of the things I used to do.

I started questioning that. Yes, my responsibilities have changed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a new way to re-engage with my old interests. So I started bringing my daughter to the pro-choice happy hour. It’s happened twice in the past few weeks.

I think of it as occupying my own life. I can be a parent, and still do things I love with my kid in tow. Even if kids aren’t explicitly invited. I can use my judgement and pick and choose what might work based on the situation and her needs at the moment. Occupying my life even though I’m a mom with a kid to watch isn’t just good for me and the kid, it’s good for everyone. Kids are part of life and we must include them.

I want my daughter to know that she’s welcome to be a part of the interests I hold outside our family. I want her to know it’s okay for women and moms to be part of public life. I want the people at the pro-choice happy hour to see that we can make some of our activist spaces kid-friendly with hardly any work, and I’m happy to share the joy of my daughter with the many, many activists who support abortion rights as a matter of human dignity and also happen to love babies (believe it!).

Yes, we’re only there for 20-30 minutes on the way home from daycare, and we sit to the side with her yogurt or hummus and pretzels, but I get to see my friends and be a part of the social side of a movement I work in.

Occupying my life takes other forms, too. Turns out that having a kid means you get a lot less sleep, and don’t always get a chance to shower and/or get ready. Well, this happens to me regularly now. Just today I did a meeting on Skype video with bed-head from several hours before. I’ve stopped feeling shame about this, and invested in pomade instead. I’d rather do the things I care about than waste time or energy berating myself, or take myself out of the running because I have a kid who doesn’t serve me breakfast in bed and warm my bathrobe.

By watching me, I hope she will see that mothers can be whoever the hell they want to be. I have been enjoying showing myself that, as well.

 

Video: Why I’m Voting Pro-Choice

NARAL has a nifty new video out about why you should vote pro-choice, and I’m proud to be a part of it:

Be awesome or don’t bother, friends.