I remember the term having a negative connotation when I was a young woman. The word equated to “troublemaker” or “undesirable.” I never wanted to be those things as I struggled to make my way in the world.
Now I understand that oftentimes being branded a troublemaker simply means speaking your mind. Funny how the context of words changes over time depending upon where we are in our life.
Not so funny is how our patriarchal society consistently throws shade on nonconforming females because women in every society have always had to struggle for—well, just about everything. Even though I tried to disavow the label, the truth is, I was born a feminist.
Last month I had the privilege of attending lectures by two of the most accomplished Feminists of our time: Gloria Steinem and Margaret Atwood. While Steinem has always been the face of Feminist culture, the loud in your face kind of activism that threatens and terrifies the male-dominated culture, Atwood’s literary career has been a more subtle Feminist path. Both are accomplished writers and activists, but while Steinem built her brand on activism and came to writing later, Atwood used her literary skills to deliver lasting messages. Together, these two powerhouse cultural and literary icons nourished my soul and spoke to my heart in ways I could not have anticipated.
I was struck by the similarity of messaging from both women. I expected Steinem to rage against misogyny and sexism. When she said, “The first step towards fascism is to legislate the uterus” I wasn’t surprised. Steinem has never been shy about using language to shock the country’s collective consciousness. The original bra-burning femi-Nazi cultivated that brazen image and turned it into a movement that shifted the landscape for women like never before.
Just like the civil rights movement, the backlash on equal rights for women was swift and severe. So severe that unlike the Civil Rights Act, Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has never won approval in enough states for constitutional ratification. (As of today we’re still two states short of the 38 votes needed for ratification.) Steinem remained a fixture in leading the fight for women’s rights, founding Ms. Magazine, which remains the only Feminist magazine still in print today. Steinem proudly told the crowd that Ms. has always focused on women-centric reporting and topics, to tell our stories and educate women in ways no mainstream publication would dare.
Margaret Atwood’s 1983 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is enjoying a resurgent popularity with the release of the Hulu original series based on her novel. She was quick to point out that they began production prior to the last election, however, the rise of sexist language and daily examples of conservative assaults on women’s reproductive and civil rights has made her novel a more prescient work than ever.
Atwood is equally riveting as a speaker. She addressed her status as a feminist leader by saying, “When we use the word Feminism, I always want to know: What do you mean by it? What are we talking about? Women’s rights are human rights, unless we’re saying women aren’t human. If we can be honest about what we’re talking about, then I’ll tell you if I’m a feminist.” I found her comments fascinating because lately, in the media there has been a tendency to construe her words as hedging on identifying as a feminist. I didn’t think that was her meaning at all. I took the point as a pushback against anti-feminists who attempt to dehumanize women.
I’ve had a few weeks now to process both lectures and mull these fabulous women’s messages over in my mind. Women and Words couldn’t be a more appropriate description. Both women spoke briefly and eloquently about their life’s work, but their most powerful message came as they opened the floor for comments and discussion. These fabulous, accomplished women made it clear that the real goal was empowering other women and raising the cause of Feminism as Humanism. Women on equal footing. Period.
Gloria Steinem repeatedly told young adults seeking advice, “You know many things I don’t. You have power within you far beyond mine.” Margaret Atwood challenged writers not to think of themselves as amateur or insignificant. Writing, as all the arts, is essential to our humanity. Storytelling gives meaning to our experiences. After all, she said, at the most emotional times in our lives—weddings, funerals, social gatherings—we don’t recite our bank statements.
We tell stories. Women’s stories. Lesbian stories. Feminist stories.
The power of women’s stories will change the world.