There is one moment, above all others in college, that I regret the most. Much more than the men, the blackouts, the Hot Topic t-shirts. It took place on the day of my thesis defense.
My creative writing thesis was a memoir manuscript, or at least tried to be. The story followed my first two years in college, a traffic jam of bad dates and evaporated self-esteem. I wore a bright pink sundress to the thesis presentation, the same dress I wore on my first date with Matt, my then-boyfriend and now-husband.
In practice, the undergraduate thesis defense is about as hard-hitting as a preschool gym day game of parachute. Hurray, everyone wins! Your professors lob a few good-natured questions, your friends pretend they read the thing, and no one leaves without a cookie.
A few unmemorable questions in, and my thesis-advisor professor raised her hand. “How would you say your work contributes to feminist literature?” she asked.
I stared out at my crowd of a dozen-ish well-wishers. My tongue seized; I could feel my hands dewing against my dress’s light cotton fabric. “Well I really don’t think of myself as a feminist,” my 22-year-old self announced to the room. “I mean, I’m happy now. I have a boyfriend.”
As soon as I saw the slack in my professor’s jaws, I knew I’d fucked up. “I’ve got a boyfriend too,” one of them said with an incredulous smile. “And I’m usually pretty happy. How does that make me not a feminist?”
I had no idea, and someone saved me with a question about friendships or something. When I replay that scene in my head I see everything that has gone wrong with phrase that should be so simple, so painless to identify with.
The moment has been looping on repeat since hearing yet another female celebrity eschew the feminist label. The incredible Beyonce Knowles recently told Vogue UK:
That word [feminist] can be very extreme. I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman.
Like Knowles, I was a child of the nineties. At the time feminism seemed dead, or at least obsolete. We had the Spice Girls flashing peace signs in platforms and prescribing “girl power!” Hillary Clinton fired us up and made power suits badass. We could play soccer and rule Great Britain. When I thought feminist, I thought angry and jilted; Alanis Morisette cursing her ex-boyfriend in grainy footage. Being a feminist felt like a side-effect to burning out, lashing out, and failing. I believed that if I was smart and hard-working, success would find me. Falling short of a man, or being wounded by one, was a victim’s play.
Somewhere between Madonna and Lady Gaga the term has absorbed the poisonous connotations of equal-rights detractors like Rush Limbaugh, who coined the term “fem-Nazis” to describe loud-mouthed killjoys. C’mon, girls. Why do you want to keep the good old boys down? With strong, intelligent, successful women like Beyonce shunning the designation, hope dims of ever reclaiming a name for “someone who believes that women should have equal rights.” For reminding the world that feminism is still a cause worth fighting for.
Up until I was 22 and leaving warm, fuzzy undergrad academia, I thought saying you were a feminist was like standing up and proclaiming yourself an abolitionist. Why worry about what we already had? And for those first two decades of my life, I was an equal. I had the support of my parents and school mentors. When I worked hard, I saw my efforts pay off with good grades, honors, and scholarships. I wasn’t just keeping up with my male peers—I was running laps around them.
Then I started working. Through some regrettable missteps and bad luck, my corporate career took a fast tumble. I found myself out of work in 2008, when the Great Recession began batting us all around. I took the first job I could find after being laid off, which took eight months of nonstop applying to secure. It was at a small construction company run by a Mad Men-style crew. The VP made the company receptionist coordinate his haircuts at a salon known for hiring hot chicks. “Can you get me Lisa again?” he would ask at the front desk. “Just make sure it’s not Jenna the lesbian. Although I bet I could turn her!”
He made me wrap his Christmas presents that year, warning me not to use “girly paper.” He fought giving me any sort of raise, even though my performance review was stellar and every man in the company made buckets more than I did. “We generally cap out her kind of work at $16 an hour,” was his response.
A year into my tenure, I had just finished throwing the best customer appreciation event they had ever seen. A special announcement, I was told, awaited me at the office. This was it, I thought. I’d get a promotion, finally be running my department. I was right; my work paid off.
What awaited me was a demotion. They were hiring a man with no marketing experience (the VP’s insurance agent) to lead my department. Fortunately, I was told, this would free up some of my time to help back up the receptionist on phones. That’s where I really shined.
A few minutes later, the head of training came into my office, which I had been instructed to vacate (I was moving into the call center). She was the only woman in the company to hold a management-level position, after a lifetime in the industry. “Every successful man in business has an amazing woman behind him,” she told me. “I was one. When the man I worked for moved up, I moved up right along behind him. I bet that will happen to you. Just support him, and you’ll be all right.”
Why did I have to be behind a man? Why wasn’t I good enough with my experiences and talent? Why couldn’t I break through this barrier? And how is this the year two thousand and ten?!
I felt powerless, humiliated, unmoored, and totally insane–the power of sexism on women for centuries. I had thought I was capable because I was, but the executive bias shut me up. It made me second-guess.
It’s a sick lesson we learn as optimistic go-getters, that the world hasn’t caught up with us. It’s an attitude our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought against, but we have yet to change for our own daughters. And every time we squick around with calling ourselves feminists, we continue to appease the status quo. We sell ourselves short with our fear of being loud, or offensive, or ugly. It’s not a label, it’s a fight. One that is eons away from over.
I hope Beyonce and other non-feminist icons soon cringe at these words as much as I regret mine. Because at least when you write a crappy thesis, or lip-sync the national anthem, no one loses their voice.