I grew up in a home in which feminism was a dirty word. This was my father’s ruling, as my mother didn’t have a say in household opinions. She was, and still is, not allowed to have a different opinion from my father, work, or leave the house unaccompanied. I grew up accepting this as my normal, while dodging questions or making excuses about why my mother is never seen in public without my father. Fortunately for me at least, oppression to this extreme was limited to my mother, as I was not prevented from living a relatively normal life and was able to participate in age appropriate activities. I was not, however, permitted to take dance class, as that is what “whores” do (my mother was in her own high school drill team. All photographic evidence in her possession has been destroyed and we were not to speak of it, although as I got older my grandmother and aunt smuggled me some pictures of my mom in her drill team uniform). I was also not permitted to take electives such as wood and metal shop, which I wanted to take because my female best friend had enrolled in the class. According to my dad, those classes were for boys.
There is something that my parents did encourage from an early age, and this would become my father’s undoing in raising an obedient, anti-feminist daughter: books. My earliest memories take place at three years old, sitting on the couch with my mother as she read me the entire Little House on the Prairie series. Laura Ingalls Wilder, therefore, became my first feminist role model before I knew what that meant. She also read me Little Women several times–I wonder if my father knew what a horrible role model Jo was on my impressionable three year old mind, what with her short hair and rejection of traditional feminine roles.
My love of books began with these stories, and as a result, being a bookworm became the most central part of my identity, which of course is the reason I eventually “grew up” (though I use that term loosely), to major in the liberal arts. As a preteen and teenager I read the Harry Potter series and learned from Hermione Granger that strong girls are frighteningly intelligent and use books as their weapon of choice. Books saved my mind from any sort of oppressive indoctrination I was subject, because through the hundreds of lives that I lived and the thousands of strong females that I met through the books, I learned how to think critically and to question everything.
But I didn’t call myself a feminist, because feminism is a dirty word. Feminists hate men and want to shame women for choosing motherhood, I told myself as I soared through my basics in college and eventually chose English as my major. I armed myself with this notion as I went into my first Women’s Literature course, prepared to counter any examples of oppressed women with an example of a feminist scorning stay-at-home mothers.
Then, I read my old childhood favorite, Little Women, for the first time as an adult, and saw these old characters through a new lens. Then, I met Sylvia Plath, and her struggles with mental illness, postpartum depression, and struggle to survive in a man’s world. Finally, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, and as I lay there with Offred as she endured her monthly raping during her ovulation period–a result of her reproductive organs being product to the Republic of Gilead–something within me changed. Of course, this wasn’t the result of one single book; rather, the story of Offred finally brought to fruition a storm that began to brew the moment a stepped onto the banks of Plum Creek with Laura Ingalls so many years ago.
Over the years since I learned that feminism isn’t a dirty word, my understanding of feminism has matured. I know now some darker parts of white feminism that failed to advocate on behalf of women of color and queer women, and that is where I find myself now: a feminist with a passion for intersectionality, and a mother and teacher who hopes that books will have the same effect on those under my influence as they once had on me.