When my first husband and I were married, an insurance salesman advised us only to insure ourselves against serious losses: his life and my contact lenses.
It’s actually a little puzzling that it took me so long to figure out what was wrong with that statement, as my mother was an ardent third-generation feminist. Equal rights for women have been a family theme for as many generations back as anyone can remember. My grandmother, who had a Ph.D. in zoology in 1910, and great-grandmother, who graduated from college in 1880, were passionate suffragists.
Unlike my childhood friends, my early years were filled with youth-level biographies of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and even Margaret Sanger. (It couldn’t have been easy to write kids books about legalizing birth control. I think they were a little vague on some of the details.)
One of my grade school reports was written, somewhat to the astonishment of my teacher, about the 19th amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote. As I said in my impassioned oral report version, it took 72 years of relentless effort from the time of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 by only one vote. Of course, my classmates and I were years from being able to vote, and Seneca Falls might as well have been on Mars. A lot of blank stares. But my mother was so proud.
As fate would have it, I had only sons and nephews, no daughters or nieces, not that I didn’t do my best to inculcate my sons with the value of feminism for both sexes. The nuances, never mind applications, of the term can be tricky. My younger son, Henry, came home from fifth grade one day in a huff announcing that the P.E. teacher was “sexist.” Turns out she gave the girls an extra serve in volleyball if they needed it, but not the boys. Henry wished me to take action. (I told my not-yet-husband Olof about it on the phone that night and he said, “What? You don’t already have an appointment with the school board?”)
I explained to Henry that it was important to clarify the issue. Was he distressed that one group, solely on the basis of sex, was being given an advantage over the other?
“Yeah!” he said. “And we lost!”
“And if you had won?”
“Then who cares how many serves they get. Call her, will you, mom?”
It’s really sad to me that the word
has gotten such a bad rap when it just means political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. The term has unfortunately been bad-mouthed, co-opted, distorted, and otherwise maligned, with feminists too often caricatured as testicle-targeting harpies with shrill voices and bad haircuts. I don’t think any woman I know could really envision the life that women have historically lived when they couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, and had no rights other than what a husband allowed. Never mind the 12 children we would each likely have. Believe me, that would definitely cut down on the lunch dates.