Happy Thanksgiving! I was meditating on what I’m most thankful for this year, and while the usual suspects of family, career and friends came to mind, I realized there was something else, something deeper. I realized there is a sea of invisible women who helped buoy me up to the position I’m in today, not professionally, but ideologically. I realized what I’m most thankful for are the women who taught me to be a feminist.
This wasn’t my default state, and for a lot of women I don’t think it is! You see this again and again, with pop stars, actresses and other public figures politely shying away from the label. It’s changing, but the pressure to avoid addressing feminism all together is still very present. It’s not that surprising, really. The enormous pressure of socialization within a patriarchy all but guarantee that we’ll face vitriol for aligning ourselves with feminism. Personally, I was raised in a very conservative, very religious household. Feminists were the wrong, angry women who wanted sinful things like abortion, better sex ed and women to land jobs that traditionally belonged to men (How shameful!). Even as I dutifully fulfilled my role as a woman — dressing nicely for church, cleaning up the kitchen even though my brothers didn’t have to, guarding my virginity like a priceless pearl — I felt a tiny twinge of rebellion. I wanted to run a company, not a bake sale. I saw myself as a star, not a supporting actress cooking dinner at home. What did that mean?
Into this small opening stepped a number of women who I have never publicly thanked, so today I’m going to thank two of them. The first is my high school English teacher Mrs. Tillinghast-Voit. Even her hyphenated name seemed defiant in our small, rural community. That’s how far in I was, the thought of keeping my maiden name, even in a hyphenated state, thrilled me. Mrs. T-V founded the LGBTQ alliance club in my high school, and honestly, probably saved the lives of some kids there by doing so. She faced a lot of shit for starting that group, too. She taught me to write confidently, logically, and skillfully. She called me out when I wasn’t trying very hard and pushed me to do better, and she quietly and calmly began to introduce new ideas into my life. Maybe I could go to college out of state? Maybe I could decide that for myself. Maybe marriage should be a nice happenstance, and a career could be my real goal. She never pushed me on politics or my deeply held conservative values, instead, she led by example. She simply existed. Who knows where I’d be today without her subtle wisdom.
The other woman who fought for my feminism even when I wouldn’t fight for it myself was a professor I had in graduate school named Sarah Stone-Watt. She insisted we call her Sarah instead of Professor Stone-Watt, fed up — I think — with the haughty formalism of academia’s ivory tower. Yet, if anyone who taught me deserved to be called professor, it was her. She has a Ph.D in Communications and Women’s Studies from Penn State, coached the debate team, and holds numerous other degrees and distinctions to her name. And, she is the main reason I’m a feminist today.
Unlike Mrs. T-V, Sarah argued loudly and intelligently against my deeply-held beliefs about binary gender roles, an all-powerful Old Testament God, heteronormative marriage, and women as a second, less important sex. I never would’ve said that last part out loud, it was something I’d never articulated, but looking back I know I believed that. I don’t think Sarah knew she was making any leeway at the time, but when I left grad school and moved to New York City I was ready for a change. I wanted to figure out what I thought for myself and not just what my parents had taught me. I wanted to learn a new way of being in the world, and a new framework for understanding it. I wanted to center my gender as part of my career, and not something that held me back from a vocation because of an eventual desire for marriage and motherhood.
As I read, learned, and dismantled the mini-patriarchy erected in my own head, I began to see the work these women who came before had done, selflessly, for me. I began to understand what they had invested in me, what they had hoped and wished for me; how they had cared for me, even when I shut them out, even when I threw it back in their face. This is the tireless, invisible work of women all over the world who are fighting to win back the minds of young women. Feminism is a battle, just take a look at the noxious cloud of feedback surrounding any prominent, powerful feminist figure — Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti, Amanda Hess, and Jill Filipovic all come to mind. These are the women I read now, who are important to my thinking and provide contemporary examples of the work I want to continue doing. But I wouldn’t have sought them out at all if it wasn’t for the ones who came before them.
So, this Thanksgiving I am thankful for every single teacher who wades into the political swamp of a backwoods high school. For every brilliant feminist who willing goes to teach at a notoriously conservative college (Hi, Pepperdine). For the women who won’t shut up and let you be wrong, who don’t take “we just disagree” as an acceptable answer, who push you to examine your argument, and really examine your conclusion. For the ones who refused to give up on the girl stubbornly cling to what feels safest and familiar, instead of what actually feels true. Almost five years later, I count feminism as a central part of my identity, as important to me as my name or my voice. I am thankful not just to these two women who impacted my life personally, but to every single one around the globe who is putting the education of women first. You are the future, too. You are changing the world one woman at a time. You are the ones who came before, watch what we will do with what you gave us.