The process of divorce has taught me some rather significant lessons about myself – some of them, I’m still not too sure how to process and fully integrate into my life while others felt like putting on an old comfortable shoe – it just fits. Learning about myself as a "feminist" is one of those things that I don’t yet understand…
All my life I grew up with the dichotomy of strong, independent women who were never-the-less still incredibly feminine and who treated the men in their lives like gods. I was encouraged to be both brainy and beautiful.
As I got older and began to understand a bit more of the world, I took "equality" for granted. I didn’t see the strides women had made, because to me there was no inequality anymore. I didn’t see the struggle women had, because in my world, those who caused the struggles were thought of as backward, ignorant and old-fashioned. I was outraged at any continued evidence of the "old school" but still assumed it was, in fact, old and on its way out.
I took auto, print, metal and wood shop instead of "home ec." I reasoned that I already knew how to sew and cook, so I should learn something new and different, and besides, I had grown up helping my grandfather out – I knew my way around a tool box, and around a car. I saw a host of different reactions when I ventured into that male-dominated world.
The wood shop teacher delighted in treating me as stupid, loudly pointing out any minor mistake I made before sending me unaided to fix my own error, while worse mistakes made by boys were calmly addressed and repaired with teacher assistance. My classmates took the cue, and treated me accordingly. I was an interloper, a second-class student. I deserved neither help nor recognition. I deserved only derision.
The print shop teacher thought it was more fun to haul out every border-line dirty joke he could recall and make anything and everything into sexual innuendo. All the while, however, he still treated me as if I could do the same job as the guys, it’s just that I had to be subjected to his sexualized humor. Once again, classmates took note and I had soon heard every sophomoric penis joke that existed.
Metal and auto shop were significantly different, however. Aside from an initial, and brief, period where it was assumed by all that I was taking the class in order to meet guys and some mild teasing, it quickly settled down to me being treated just as everyone else. The teachers of both classes quickly squashed any and all inappropriate behaviors. My fellow students soon did the same, allowing no one to cross that line ever again.
Such was my life experience when I trekked off to college, electing to enter the field of "technical" theater – meaning, I wanted to design the stages, run the shows and be "in charge". I had minimal interest in makeup, though I loved the FX and gore makeups (unlike the other girls in those classes, who endured them with an attitude of "if I must… but this is gross"). I endured costuming because I had to, especially since most of the time, we were relegated to hand washing smelly old vintage pieces, sewing trim onto oft-reused articles and designing imaginary wardrobes for shows we were not doing. I can’t draw – so I sucked at that part. But I digress.
My Stage Craft instructor actually told the girls in his 101 class (mandatory for all theater majors) that he did not expect them to learn to use power tools, but the guys had to. Ask me if I qualified on the power tools… Of course I did. And I continued on in Stage Craft, eventually changing the way the instructor dealt with 101 students.
I also learned that most girls weren’t too interested in the "management" positions, and that when a female was in a leadership role, it was very hard to get others to listen. Other women resent a woman in charge and men feel threatened by her. This was more of an education to me than the actual class work, since in my life, women were no different than men when it came to being "in charge".
I spent a year trying to make a go of "professional theater" at a time when women in my chosen field were a rarity. I earned less money than my male counterparts, but often worked harder and longer, and frequently turned out better results. Still, when it came time to staff a show, I was "second string" called only if the guys weren’t available. Men with less experience, less ability and less knowledge than I would be hired first.
Thus came a career change, but I did not step blithely into the world of the office. Nope. I elected to attend classes to become an EMT, and firefighter. The classes themselves were of interest, as I immediately noticed the male instructors sought to thin the class ranks by the telling of gross stories. At first, it seemed specifically geared to get rid of the women, but soon I realized it was just aimed at the well intentioned but squeamish.
At no point during my classes did the instructors treat any of the women differently than the guys. We were held to the same standards, we passed the same tests – no modified or reduced physical requirements for us. In fact, I strongly disagree with reduced physical requirements. Bottom line – if you can’t do what the job requires, find another job. Period. Fellow students could be a pain and the females in class had a lot more to "prove" than the guys.
Classes over, tests passed, I went to work and again discovered myself as a woman in a man’s world. The jokes flew: "That little ‘R’ on the steering column? It stands for ‘REALLY FAST’ you can use it when you have to go code." How many times my boots were stolen and hung from rearview mirrors I cannot count.
The guys in crew quarters seemed to assume I would do the cleaning. They were wrong.
They also made it their solemn duty to attempt to gross me out. Then I realized that I could simply utter two words that sent nearly any male running for cover: "Bloody tampon." It soon became a game – them trying to give me the willies, and me proving that I could out gross them all.
Once again I learned that women had to work harder than the men in order to get the same results. And it was all just considered "part of the job." It was the price you paid. You could also just forget about getting any supervisory position other than perhaps the shift supervisor on graveyard. It just didn’t happen. The guys got the choice assignments and didn’t like being partnered with a girl, not because she couldn’t do the work, but because it meant they were less likely to get the "good" stuff.
In the years there, putting up with all the garbage, dealing with the male-based favoritism and all of that, I only filed one charge of harassment. A male coworker made it his habit to barge into the bathroom (which couldn’t be locked) when he knew it was occupied. He would deliberately try to catch peeks while the girls were showering or changing in the crew quarters. He thought sexualized jokes were the best conversation starters.
All of that we all took with a grain of salt and blew him off as an asshole. But the day he took a gander down my uniform shirt while I was bent over cleaning my rig and commented on my choice of underwear, I’d had enough. I reported him.
His defense? He said, "She shouldn’t be wearing sexy underwear on the job. It’s distracting. I’m not harassing her, she’s harassing me by wearing that stuff." No joke. Yep. That was his claim. It’s not as if I paraded around in my personals. Nope – to get a glimpse, he had to either barge in while I was changing, or take a good long look while I was busy working.
Somehow, I came through all of that still unconvinced of the "need" for "feminism" and certain that modern feminism was actually hurting women more than helping them. Don’t ask. I don’t know. I still thought the battle was over, already won, and we were just in the rebuilding stages, trying to learn and define roles in the modern view of things.
OK, I was naive. What can I say?
Now, years later, I feel I am poised on an edge of some discovery, or perhaps rediscovery, of myself as a woman.
I’ve spent a lot of time surfing around, reading blogs and books, and I’ve discovered that to define the words "feminism" or "feminist" is nearly impossible. What one person considers "feminist" another thinks is mere pap. I’ve stumbled across those who make me truly wonder if they even understand the point, and equally, I’ve come across those "radical" ones who cause me to cringe at their man-hating ways.
You see, in my eyes, "feminism" doesn’t mean visiting every misogynistic practice back upon the patriarchal perpetrators. Sorry, today’s man is not responsible for yesterday’s stupidity and error.
I don’t hate men, and I don’t truly understand those who do – though I may understand the reasons behind the hatred in some cases. Nor am I out to "get back" at men, or feel the need to remove all use of the word "man" from the lexicon. All of that seems not only silly, but ultimately detrimental. I don’t think reversing the order and creating a matriarchal society where men are the subjugated ones is the answer to the woes of the world, or women.
I recognize there is a glass ceiling over my head – it is very real, and it exists for one simple reason: that I was born a woman. Is it fair, is it right? No, but it is reality. And changing that reality – without hatred – is closer to my "ideal" than anything else.
I think feminism is about choice – whether a woman decides to be a CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation or a Domestic Goddess, caring for home, hearth and heart; whether she decides to have children, or not, to marry or not – all are equally valid choices, all should be honored, respected and admired.
In short, I don’t believe feminism is a one-size-fits-all shoe. There is no such thing.
And so this journey continues, my journey of heart, mind and soul. There is already a long list of bright and wonderful people who have helped me along the way – men who have proven that not all men think like Neanderthals; women who have been little shining lights along the path.
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