I’m a feminist, and not ashamed to label myself as such. I remember the earlier days of the feminist movement – the days when we thought the Equal Rights Amendment was a no-brainer, and headed for passage. But my grounding in feminism I can trace back to my childhood.
First, I had a remarkable role model in my mother, coupled with a father who respected her on all levels. She returned to work full time when I was in Grade 4 as a nurse. Oh there was sexism, for sure, in our family. My father probably never did pack the dishwasher, and my mother did all the housework, baked bread, and even found time to sew. Dad had virtually no household duties. And my mother was often in a bad mood, in hindsight likely because she was trying to do too much. But in terms of treatment, of roles, of respect, there was no question: Mom & Dad were equals. They were equals in decision making, both their opinions counted the same, they would talk about things. Neither was the boss, in charge of the other. We didn’t have the kind of household where we could play one parent off the other. And they were deeply in love.
Second, we had strong female role models in our teachers, primarily nuns. There was no shame in our grade school (co-educational) or high school (all-girls classes) for us to be smart. I don’t ever recall any of us girls being reluctant to raise our hands because we didn’t want to appear knowledgeable. I don’t think the boys expected us to act dumb, either — the nuns had their own effect on the boys, I guess. We had some rather psychotic sisters who probably should have pursued another vocation, but in my experience the vast majority were strong, assertive women who only wanted the best for their charges, and gave willingly of their time and talents.
I remember my first thought that something was wrong with prohibiting women from certain roles. In our Catholic school, we’d have a priest come to visit perhaps on a weekly basis. One week in Grade 7, after we dispensed with the preliminaries* the session was opened to questions. I asked – quite innocently – why girls couldn’t be priests. He responded, without a hint of humor in his expression or voice, that “girls couldn’t be trusted to keep the seal of the confessional.” I don’t recall my immediate reaction, but I do know that I (1) didn’t see any humor in the comment; and (2) thought it was one of the most stupid statements ever spoken. My feminism was budding along with my adolescence.
Occupational distinctions based on gender never did make sense to me, unless strength played a role. (I’ll admit that most women would not be successful in the NFL.) The requirements that one have a certain appendage that only males have seem to me a most unfortunate and silly job qualification for positions such as a priest.
It’s remarkable that today — 40 years after the enlightened 60s — we still have significant segments of our society that believe that differences in plumbing justify differences in pay, in power, in mental ability, in opportunity. I’m glad my folks knew differently.
*Father walked in; entire class stood and said in unison, “Good morning, Father ______,” Father would say “Good Morning Class,” and Sister would say “Please be seated;” it wasn’t until the end of the visit that one of us would be prompted to ask Father for his blessing, requiring us to kneel next to our desks. Woe to us if we forgot to ask for his blessing!