It has recently been brought to my attention that to some people abstract discussions about feminism are irrelevant, and moreover, unfun. To this I say: you have not known true joy until you have felt the adrenaline generated by a good collection of feminist essays read in a fit of cathartic anger. (I’m only half-kidding.) And at any rate, I don’t know how you do good practice without good theory, and vice versa.
But I am, at heart, a bit of a sucker for crowd-pleasing. So I’m trying to keep my overly-cerebral self in the background for the next little while. And in that vein, I’m going to tell you about how I woke up to feminism. If the personal is political, if I’m telling y’all to dig down into your circumstances and ask hard questions, I have to do the same with myself.
Because I am reasonably radical these days people tend to imagine that my first word was “patriarchy.” (It was actually “shit” so I’ll grant that the anger was probably always there.) They imagine that I have always been First And Foremost A Feminist. But I actually encountered my first formal feminist readings in a law school class – and I think I wouldn’t have been half as receptive had it not been for the life that preceded it.
I may seem all internet-ballsy now, but about six or seven years ago I wasn’t very much of anything at all. I hadn’t the faintest clue who my “self” even was. My life was admittedly Just Fine (good grades, good friends, good apartment). But I didn’t have a dude in my life, and the malaise of this condition was all-consuming. I was never that great at boys, but all I thought about was how much I wanted A Boyfriend.
I no longer remember if these thoughts were about wanting sex or wanting the company of a man or wanting romance. Were I to venture a guess now, I would say I would have had equal trouble explaining this then. What I knew was that to be a person, to fit in, I should Be In A Relationship. And I was determined to find one.
What I found was a friend who had fallen in love with me without my noticing. Let’s call him M. He had to work at it, but M got me to go out with him. Long story short, I moved in with M and his Transfuckingformers that he loved beyond all measure of reason and wanted to display in places of honour in our living room. We lived together for about two years, but as you know, that can be about two decades when you are twenty-two.
And one day I think he woke up and realized he did not know what the hell was going on. He dumped me, unceremoniously presenting me with rent cheques when he came home from teaching one afternoon, and moved out. (I may or may not have thrown something at him when he presented me with those stupid fucking cheques.)
In the meantime, as I suppose I should have expected, my entire existence had come to depend on M. I had been desperately ill and had only recently begun treatment that was allowing me to function, my relationship with my parents was on the rocks, my friends had moved away. I had gone to law school locally without the vaguest interest in being a lawyer because I was worried that if I moved away our relationship would be at an end and it had come to seem like the only thing I had going for me.
And here I was, halfway into a law degree and without the faintest bit of self-ownership to show for my twenty-four years on earth. And I was seriously done. Finished, had it, washed up, no good to anyone. When he was gone, it took me two days to get up off the floor and a week to leave the apartment.
And you know what is hilarious about this sad sack story, looking back? I was not in love with M! Never had been! My feelings about him were nothing compared to, say, the boy I had spent the previous three years pining for, or the first guy I ever kissed.* But when he came around I just figured… well, I don’t know what I figured. I was not much devoted to self-reflection in those days.
You know what I think now? I think I was eager to check “Boyfriend” off on the list of Things You Do To Be A Person. I think I settled because I was the kind of person who thought that life was a passive process, and that if I didn’t accept what came to me I would not get something else. I wanted to be, to put it bluntly, like everybody else, wanted to have what they have, wanted their contentment and their complete aura of okay-ness with the way things are. I had convinced myself that my lack of desire to be like everyone else was the problem.
You know how these stories actually go, though, readers. They never seem to follow the right road map for some of us. We have the mixed blessing of seeing these expectations for what they are: hollow, empty rules imposed by no one anyone remembers or cares about anymore.
Because the fact is, even though most of my boxes remained unchecked, life went on. Life got better! I took that fem theory class and thought I had found God when I started reading radical feminist texts. I was shocked when I overheard a fellow classmate, one of the smartest people in the whole school, call me a “powerhouse of thought.” I got a cat. I got to New York, which I love with a ferocity that surprises me, considering its crass approach to money and power. I started directing plays in my spare time, making up for lack of a theatre by stringing up a black curtain ’round the judge’s bench in our mock courtroom.
And you know what gave that to me? Feminism. I often rail about people reducing feminism to a self-help concept, but I would be remiss if I didn’t admit I wouldn’t be here without it. I know some people find feminism a downer, a critic, an articulation of the boundaries of women. I never know how to explain this to people, but in its description of women’s limits it always seems to me that feminism is just telling us we are more than them. We don’t have to adhere to the list of Things You Do To Be a Person. There are ways to think outside it.
If that’s small comfort to some people, well, okay. At the end of the day I have this: even though I now seem destined for spinster catladyhood with a penchant for arguing endlessly on the internet, even if people think I am crazy and harsh and condescending and boring, I am convinced that I am a person. I exist, and even though my own terms are negotiated ones, though I didn’t get to cut myself from whole cloth, that’s just fine with me. I don’t need the kind of freedom that patriarchy-deniers claim they already have. It’s not easy being unfree, but it sure as hell beats being unaware.
* The former of whom played all sort of mind games, writing songs for me and then telling me the next day about the “pretty girls” he was dating, and the latter turned out to be gay. I told you I was not good with the boys!