When I was asked to contribute my perspective to the WISA blog because I was identified as a “feminist”, I was flattered, but also a little surprised. I don’t think I have ever actually referred to myself as a feminist. It’s not that I don’t hold feminist views; it’s more that I’ve had a commitment to social justice for as long as I could remember and, in my mind, a commitment to feminism was always a part of that schema. So I started to do some reflecting on how I came to become a feminist, and my mind immediately jumped to my mother who, ironically enough, would also likely not refer to herself as a feminist.
My mother was a product of the “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet” view of the world, and from that aspired to be the happy homemaker so routinely portrayed in 1950’s television. I remember once asking my mom what she had wanted to be when she “grew up” and she said “a mom”. Feminism, to her, was embodied by the Gloria Steinem’s of the 60’s who, in her eyes, viewed the choice to be a stay at home mom as settling. My mother was perfectly happy with wanting the “Mrs” degree, and that would be her life for a brief period of time. My mother attended college for a semester until she met my father and soon left a degree program she never really wanted to pursue her dream of keeping a happy home for her husband and children. This dream abruptly burst once my father left, and my mother found herself as the sole breadwinner, cobbling together part-time jobs to help our family survive. At one point, she’d wake up before the sun, deliver newspapers and return in time to rouse us out of bed, get us fed ,dressed, and out the door so she could head to job #2, finish in time to meet us back at home, cook dinner and check homework, and then head back out the door for job #3. As I grew older, she was the one who taught me to shave (probably why I use an electric razor), played catch with me in the backyard, and valiantly worked through the awkward moments of answering the questions teenage boys have to ask someone. My mother fixed broken bikes, built bookshelves, and changed flat tires.
One of my fondest memories was the annual Boy Scout father/son bonding tradition of the “Pinewood Derby” where scouts would take tiny slabs of wood and transform them into race cars. I will always remember my mother coming home with the tool box she borrowed from our apartment super, and the both of us trying to use tools neither of has had ever seen. We were no match for the aerodynamic machines made in the workshops of some of my fellow scouts, but that really didn’t matter.
So, if I had to explain what feminism means to me, it’s the idea that there are no such things as gender roles. Women are equally (or more) capable of doing anything a man can do…I know, because I’ve witnessed it firsthand. This has directly impacted my work both with students and with staff, as I not only try to avoid assigning tasks or responsibilities based on gender. It isn’t odd for me to ask the female students before the male students to carry tables or to ask the male students to decorate a room. It also moves me to challenge staff and students alike when I witness them fall into habits that reinforce gender roles. Just recently, I sat with one of my staff members to review work study placements, a task my office recently inherited from another. I noticed that only male students had been placed in plant operations, and I asked why. My staff member responded that she was told by her predecessor that “girls don’t work in physical plant”. I laughed recalling mental pictures of my mother climbing the roof of her new house to clear debris and pouring concrete to build a new patio in the backyard, and I suggested that we let the women decide what they can and cannot do…because, after all, women can do anything.