Equality was an idea so ingrained in the way I was raised that I didn’t question it until college. I was leading a large volunteer student group. Feedback deemed me “bitchy” and “unapproachable,” after a few weeks of reinforcing the minimum requirements. The comments did not reflect my leadership, but how some of my peers expected me, as a woman, to lead. We’re socialized to behave and expect certain behaviors from others. Firm women are considered “bossy,” while firm men are “strong.” We have to acknowledge that socialization, and reshape it, so that we instead give each other space to share and learn from each other in order to create equal communities and equitable opportunities.
I wasn’t taught that I am equal to those around me. I was constantly reminded by my family that I must work harder than my peers in order to become successful. High school was a difficult time for me, as I didn’t even speak English. Yet I still had to navigate all the essential steps to apply for college as well as take care of family needs. I didn’t know what an ACT is, nor did I have the money to sign up. When I got accepted into the University of Minnesota through the Trio program, my classmates thought I wasn’t smart enough to be a regular admitted student to the school. I believe that in order to create a community of equality, first we must understand the diversity of our community and the people’s needs. Everyone is at a different stage in life.
When the Women’s Press asked people to respond to a survey via an Internet site, and potentially win a gift certificate to a restaurant, it sparked my own story of inequality. I don’t have easy access to Internet, and, more than 20 years ago, I lost the ability to sit upright. Just my luck to have a collapsed lower spine, accumulated over 40 years from work situations, which keeps me out of most public settings.
The Americans with Disabilities Act provided a way for people with disabilities to finally get into places with wheelchairs. In the 1990s, people demonstrated the need for accessibility. It still doesn’t mean that every place is accessible.
I love my body. I am one of the lucky ones who has managed to keep my body’s damage “at bay” enough that I can still walk, but I can’t sit upright on chairs, and it is too painful to sit on anything hard. Most restaurants have hard wooden chairs. Ouch! Yet people like me want to be in public places like any other human being, whether it’s the library, an art gallery, a coffee house, or a co-op.The disability movement has helped us recognize that this is Institutional Oppression. Whether it’s from birth, illness, injury, or accident, we should not be prevented from going into a public place.
Many people have been taught that it is their individual problem, and not to complain. Yet we all have the right to be gentle with ourselves and our mortal bodies. Softness should be accessible to everyone.
I’ve found that equality is less relevant than perception. Whether I’m equal to those around me has less impact on me than whether or not they perceive me to be their equal. My parents taught me that, as a Black woman, I’d have to work twice as hard for half of the respect. When I was younger, my peers struggled to see me as intellectual, capable, or serious. It’s hard not to internalize anti-Black messages about intelligence and competence being linked to whiteness. I have had to do a lot of unlearning about respectability politics [generally defined as telling marginalized groups how to behave in order to receive better treatment from those in power]. In pursuing a PhD in Feminist Studies, I’ve devoted myself to interrogating assumptions and perceptions we make about people based on identity. The first step for me in bringing about equitable communities is in teaching my students how to critically examine their own long-held beliefs about culture and social systems. Often, as in my case, learning is really more about unlearning the things we think we know about the people around us.
As a 14-year-old, the word feminism simply means equality to me. My mom always told me ‘yes, we’re feminists, but more than that we’re equalists.’ This taught me that being a feminist doesn’t mean I’m “man-hating” or some stupid stereotype — just that I believe in equality for all. I find this philosophy is something I’m having to defend as I’ve gotten older.
Even with so much public attention to gender equality and discrimination — for example the #MeToo and #Times Up movements — the phrase “I’m a feminist” still feels like I’m dropping a bomb around some classmates and even friends. Strange looks and eyebrow raising are super common, especially among some of my female friends. I do have a few awesome guy friends who are self- proclaimed feminists, which I need to remember at harder times.
Recently I tried to have a sensible conversation with a friend who was opposed to “The Future Is Female” t-shirt. He ranted that he didn’t like feminists, and the t-shirts should say “Everyone Is the Future.” A few months prior, my little cousin politely asked why I had a book about women in science, and where was the men in science one? I realize both of these boys would be considered feminists in my definition — they are searching for equality, which I respect. However, their knowledge of who gets credit for science discoveries, and statistics on wage gaps, could be refreshed.
I think the problem with the word “feminism” is what people think the word represents, and the stereotypes associated with it. Yet, it is merely a label. I hope in the future we can all realize that being a feminist is about believing in equality for every gender, just like my mom has taught me. I appreciate learning this at such a young age, and hope that others, at any point in their lives, will be able to understand the same thing.
I grew up with two younger brothers. For the most part, our parents treated us as equals. I did feel the effects of societal gender norms through perceived differences in physical ability. For example, growing up, my dad delegated snow-blowing duties to my brothers, which seemed odd to me, because we were all physically capable. This is a societal view, not unique to my family. Women continue to diverge from a traditional feminine mold. We need to shed outdated viewpoints and celebrate people for all they have to offer and are capable of doing, regardless of gender.