I love that a precocious, thirteen year old girl who’s not afraid to speak her mind (that would be Angel) has made it possible for me to have all of these wonderful experiences over the past year. The latest was being asked to speak at the final “Pinnacle Luncheon” for the Women’s Center at Sewanee, the University of the South.
The poster advertising the event read; “JUST BECAUSE SHE’S A SOUTHERN, STAY -AT -HOME -MOM, DOESN’T MEAN SHE CAN’T WRITE A NOVEL, OR BE A FEMINIST.” I loved this because it helped me know what I wanted to say to these wonderful young women. I’ve posted my comments below, adapted from a talk for my blog. Hope you enjoy!
Sewanee Women’s Center, April 15, 2013
Thank you for the opportunity to come speak to you today. For a few weeks now I’ve been trying to get my head around what I should do with this unique opportunity to speak to a group of young women and men at the threshold of their launch. Whether or not you’re a senior, you are now enjoying a most unique and precious time of your life where you’ve reached a point of maturity, and readiness, to try out who and how you want to be in the world. Enjoy where you are.
I was delighted to see myself designated as a feminist.
“Wow!” I thought. “They see me as a femininst! So what do they mean by that?”
In my day it meant that we were determined to do everything a man could do. We could graduate at the head of our class, be doctors, lawyers, CEO’s, etc. We could do everything they’d been doing for generations, in fact….I do believe that many women had convinced themselves that they could BE men. But that’s another talk. I am not, and never was, any of those things. My sense is that things have evolved, which is why I was really interested in finding out what feminism means to those of you born in the early nineties. So, I asked some of you.
What does that mean, to be a feminist? Here are some of the answers I got.
–Being a feminist means you can’t choose to be a stay at home mom. Choosing to have babies and be the primary caregiver over going out and developing a “career” is simply, not cool.
–A feminist rejects Christianity. The patriarchal values of the traditional church is just too repressive, and a woman caring about gender issues should never acquiesce to that.
–The “southern” woman is the antithesis of a feminist, the “southern” woman, I suppose, being thought of as traditional, self sacrificing, obliging, non assertive, unwilling to put herself forward, to challenge herself or pursue intellectual goals.
These stereotypes were surprising to me, given that I am southern, a stay at home mom, and I literally wrote a book on feminist Christianity…Prayers and Seven Contemplations of the Sacred Mother, available on Amazon! It’s a study of Mary, the Mother of Christ as a symbol of the Sacred Feminine in Western Christianity, presented in essays and meditations.
But that’s actually another talk as well… and I’m going to try to the best of my ability to go against my tendencies to skip around and stick to this one. Since you have honored me as being a feminist, the best way for me to talk to you about that, is to explain what that means to me, and how it relates to my journey since the time I stood in your shoes–and what it might mean for you and your choices as you move forward from this place.
For this purpose I’d like to put forward that “feminism” means—having the courage to seek out the most authentic you, and doing to work to build your life around that. That means claiming your gifts, your skills and your power to make choices. But most importantly, to do all of that, you have to know yourself. By the way, I believe this definition of feminism is every bit as appropriate to men as well as women. Whether male or female, a truly balanced human being is one who honors the whole of themselves and others, regardless of externally imposed gender associations, such as the “Mr Moms” of the world, who are willing to let their partners be the wage earners of the family, or the artist or musician or volunteer worker, who chooses an inner calling over income potential or societal norms. These are all feminists, those who believe that a whole world is made of individuals seeking wholeness within themselves, one person at a time.
So what does that mean? “Who am I?” Is there anything more basic to being human than the quest for the answer to that question? That’s a course that lasts a lifetime, but to help us in our exploration here, I’d like to refer to a book written in 1994 by Mary Pipher, PhD, entitled Reviving Ophelia/Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. You are, of course, beyond adolescence, but you’ll see why this fits our discussion. Dr. Pipher’s thesis demonstrates the dangers our culture imposes on the lives of adolescent girls, with consequences reaching well beyond those formative years and often, for a lifetime. She describes how the typical pre-adolescent girl’s sense of self and wholeness gives ways to these cultural pressures, taking away the confidence and self awareness so necessary to achieving our heart’s desires.
As an exercise, I’d like to invite all of you to think back to your pre- adolescent self, under the assumption that it was a time when you knew yourself very well, a time before the culture told you that you needed to worry about your looks, the opposite sex, your weight, pleasing others, fitting in, being liked. What did that “you” want to be when she grew up?
When I was this age, I wanted to write stories. I wanted to be an “arthur” my mother tells me. And I did write stories, and I observed and watched the world around me with an avid curiosity. I read lots of books, spent a lot of time playing , either alone in my room or outside, running around the neighborhood, the woods and the valley with the neighborhood gang.
Here I am at fifteen. You can see the difference. My aunt had told me always to stand sideways when having your picture taken because it made you look slimmer. I look suspicious and uncomfortable. The light in that seven year old’s eyes has dimmed. I have to be very careful of my hair so it hangs just so. Hair was a big deal in the seventies. I wrote poetry that was dark and tortured, never dreaming of showing it to anyone.
Here I am around the time of my college graduation, dreamy eyed with hope and possibility.
By this time, I’d backed way down from my desire to be a writer. I didn’t see how anyone could ever write a whole book, a whole novel, especially me. Why?
I don’t know, it just seemed somehow beyond me, something someone else could do, but not me. Something in between that bright eyed and bushy headed seven year old and the furtive, tentative teenager had gotten it’s hold on me and not let go in time for me to claim my authentic desire to create stories. But I liked books so much, I decided the next best thing to being a writer was to be a librarian! And so I was off to grad school to get my Master’s in Library Science. Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Library Science is a great degree, and could be a great choice for many of you. It served me well during the years when my husband was in law school and I was the one working. But it didn’t take me very long to realize that it wasn’t going to work as a default career, just because I didn’t believe in myself as a writer at that point. Thus the journey continued.
The things that spoke to us as preadolescence, while perhaps not being a literal reflection of what we are meant to do, such as being a writer, are golden nuggets of information about our authentic selves.
Here is Emma at ten years old. She wanted to be on Broadway at that age, and still loves to perform. Mallory wanted to be a professional athlete, Hanna a marine biologist, Lillie Belle an explorer and Emmy an inventor. Elizabeth wanted to be in the military because she saw a television commercial that showed someone on an obstacle course.
Hopefully, reflecting on your androgonous ten year old self will give you valuable insight into finding your true place in the world, whether or not it’s a literal realization. The inventor becomes an artist, the marine biologist leads outdoor adventures, the professional athlete is an integral team player on a business team, the explorer travels to foreign countries setting up non -profits, and the one who wanted an obstacle course? She’s headed for teaching.
All right, suppose you feel you have a very solid sense of who is the real you, but the culture tells you it isn’t practical, it doesn’t make enough money, or the job market for that particular field doesn’t look good. That’s where the courage comes in. I was not yet at the point in my journey to claim my desire or abilities as a writer, but being a firm believer in the adage that the journey is the destination, and that all things have their purpose, I don’t regret the years spent working up to it. I learned a lot in graduate school, and not just about library science, either. For one thing, I had a good lesson in choosing a life partner, which beginning at your stage in life, is increasingly a hot topic, if and when, and more importantly…who.
There’s a book you all need to know about, written by Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook and released just last month. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you will soon. Lean In; Women, Work and the Will to Lead
Read it and join the buzz. Here’s what she says …
“I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career. No exceptions. “
I’m wondering how that sits with some of you. Does this sort of advice from one of Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women surprise you? Are many of you conditioned to believe that whatever you achieve, it will be your own grit and determination that gets you there? Or say you realize your calling is to do something that generates little or no income—such as many careers in the arts, nonprofit work, starting your own business, or raising your own children. Consider this one carefully before you assume that your partner, whoever he or she might be, will automatically be on board with the authentic you.
If love is the glue that holds you together, consider that you need more than glue to build something. Whether it be the other sex, or same sex, there are the considerations of income potential of either or both partners, the desire to create a family, etc. that have huge impact on how you will spend the days, weeks and months of the years to come.
So back to my personal journey….I have to admit I just got plain lucky. Don’t think I knew any of this when I was your age, but I ultimately chose a life partner that was fully behind my choice not to have a job outside the home, which is something I didn’t really plan. But once the first child came along, I realized that job spoke to my authentic self more than any other at that time in my life, and it’s something that takes a great deal of support, both economically and emotionally.
Along the way I discovered another passion that gave me much needed mental and emotional support and that was teaching yoga. So over the last several years, as my children went through their teens and beyond, I finally was ready to move in with myself, so to speak. Still a wife, mother and daughter, now well into middle age with almost no income whatsoever, I was truly beginning to live a life that was mine. And I think, for me, that’s what being a feminist is about. Lucky? Yes indeed, I was lucky to have made the right choices, for me.
It took me about seven years to write ANGEL, and then began another phase of the journey, launching the book and taking it out into the world. I’ve learned so much about putting myself out there and being vulnerable to how the world sees me, and my work. The process has taught me that not everyone has to like my book for me to know, in my heart, that it’s from me, it’s the real thing, it’s what I have to give. That makes me feel okay about it, no matter how many I sell, or what the reviews say.
As you move into your life, hopefully willing to ask the questions and do the work of connecting, or reconnecting to the YOU that might have been sidetracked over the last few years, I encourage you go deep, to seek what is real, and to live and be that which brings you joy.
I’ll end with a quote from Joseph Campbell;
“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”