A couple of days ago, I discovered something I wrote when I was in my twenties. It was an essay entitled “Why I Am Not A Feminist.” It represents a moment in time when I had mixed feelings about the women’s movement.
I did not think about women’s rights when I was growing up because my family never made assumptions about my potential based on my gender. It was only later that I realized how significant it was that my schooling had been defined by gendered academic subjects: girls took Biology, boys took Chemistry; girls learned to cook and sew, boys learned . . . something else. I don’t actually remember what they learned then, but I’m sure it was traditionally masculine!
It was also much later that I realized the world was not nearly so egalitarian as my family. I didn’t put a date on this particular essay, but it would have been written long after I had been told that I could not have my own bank account or take out a loan unless I had man (a father or a husband) to vouch for me and to co-sign with me. At the time, I didn’t question those things. That was just the way it was.
It would also have been written after I had endured some bad relationships with boyfriends and male partners who didn’t like it when I didn’t do or say what they wanted me to. I did question those things at the time and I did not endure subjugation for long. I was starting to see that the worlds of men and women were not what I had anticipated, but it took a long while for me to understand that what I had experienced in those troubled romances was a form of oppression.
My understanding evolved along with the women’s movement. I left school in 1966 and left England in 1975 and those years were full of social upheaval. Bras were burned, wars were protested, hemlines went up and down, and lots of educated women developed careers. My essay recognizes and values those changes. What it expresses, though, is a respect for the good aspects of matriarchal family and community life which I felt were slipping away. It also identifies the negative side of patriarchal power and my fears that women would be unwilling or unable to participate in what I saw as cruel authoritarianism and corruption. I wrote: “Nobody gives power away. It has to be fought for and won. It defies logic to think that anyone would give you something they had to steal for themselves.”
I made a parallel between this illegitimate masculine power and a comparably cruel power structure in the world of women. “What about your relationships with your peers. . . What underhanded, devious, vicious and spiteful things do women do to each other to establish their hierarchies? . . . Who gets to bully you? . . . Do you really want power? If so, are you prepared to do what you have to do to get it?”
Clearly, I did not see much to admire in the leadership of either men’s or women’s spheres of influence. I thought that it missed the point for women to complain about the evils of the patriarchy when the evils of the matriarchy were no better. That distaste stayed with me for a long time.
The essay did not foresee that, in the decades that followed, women would find ways to engage with male power structures on their own terms. I had underestimated the good qualities that women acquired in leading their families and communities. I did not anticipate that women would find new ways to raise up girls and women and to support one another both professionally and personally. In short, I was wrong. I had allowed my bad experiences with both men and women to limit my perception of what was possible.
While it is a little embarrassing to read this essay now, I am very glad I was wrong. Today I see good, strong, admirable women in positions of authority in all walks of life. They didn’t turn into leaders who resembled the worst of their male counterparts—at least, most of them didn’t! Now I can see that women have brought the best of the values of matriarchal community life into formerly male-dominated professional, political, and academic spheres. Feminism has had a difficult time getting some of those doors opened, but each generation now finds it easier than the last for women to become leaders. Power still has to be fought for, but now I see that the fight can be ethical, bloodless, and respectful. Just like my good egalitarian family.