Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Word of the Year? Feminist? Why not?

The Oxford Dictionary declared youthquake their word for 2017. I don’t recall hearing it during the past year, but apparently it was popular in England, where the young folks turned out in large numbers to vote against Theresa May when she called a snap election last spring. To me, the word harkens back to an earlier era, the Swingin’ Sixties, when the term was coined and when they were talkin’ ‘bout my generation. (Don’t trust anyone over thirty. Hmm, as I just went to type that sentence in there, I first wrote: Don’t trust anyone under thirty. My, how time does manage to fly. One day you’re quaking the world, and the next you’re starting to pay attention to what Joan Lunden has to say in her ads for A Place for Mom. And you’re not looking for mom…)

For Merriam-Webster, the word of the year was another throwback: feminism, which was the “top lookup” for 2017, boosted by the Women’s March in January and, again, when #MeToo got moving in the wake of the accusations lodged against Harvey Weinstein and sundry others.

Today’s definitions of feminism read: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” (Source: merriam-webster.com)

As with youthquake, I go back a way with feminism.

There was an awful lot going on politically when I was in college (1967-1971) – anti-war activity, the burgeoning women’s movement.(For a small Catholic women’s school, Emmanuel College was quite the hotbed of social and political activism. We even had a chapter of SDS and, yes, I was a member.) And sometimes those two threads – anti-war and women’s movement - especially when we started looking around and saw how the women involved in anti-war efforts were often relegated to fetching coffee for the great male thinkers of the era. Oh.

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1969. I remember nothing about it, other than that my friends and I avidly tore through it. We then looked back in time and slogged through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). I remember nothing about it, other than the slog.

Somewhere in there, a friend gave me a very nice stefeministg bookmarkrling silver bookmark from Tiffany’s for Christmas. This isn’t it – I’m not home at the moment to snap a shot – but I still have it.

In 1969, Emmanuel hosted a conference on women’s liberation, a term that was used more commonly than feminism. It was pretty exhilarating, as I recall. And, nothing to do with me, some women our-bodies-ourselves-1971-coverwho met at that conference went on to write Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book on women’s health. I don’t think I had a copy of the original newsprint edition, but I did grab my copy of the first book-book version (1971).

And I was an original subscriber to Ms. Magazine when that came out later in 1971. Thank you, Gloria Steinem, et al.

Meanwhile, back in the summer of 1970, I was working as a waitress at Ye Olde Union Oyster House in downtown Boston, just opposite the back of City Hall. That August, there were women’s marches throughout the country, held to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. During our break between the lunch and dinner (the dinner shift was especially fun, because that’s when we had to ward off rats by throwing heavy spoons at the rat holes), I strolled over to City Hall Plaza and wandered around the end-of-march demonstration.

A mantra of that march was “Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot,” which is a) still clever, but b) pretty dated. I don’t think that ironing is quite the “thing” (symbolic or actual) it was back then. I suspect that a millennial reading Tillie Olsen’s classic [feminist] short story “I Stand Here Ironing” would not quite get it in the way that us boomers did. Does anyone’s mother stand there ironing anymore? Or train their daughters up to stand there ironing, too? (In our house, you – where “you” = daughters, not sons -  learned to iron handkerchiefs and pillow cases before graduating to dad’s PJs.)

I don’t think of myself as a capital-F feminist, but I certainly have been a small-f one through the years. “Women’s lib” certainly made it possible for me to have the career I had. (When I was in business school, I think that fewer than 20% of my classmates were women. I suspect that proportion has evened up. The record in high tech is less clear.) And, having been there – if not exactly on the front lines, then not all that many lines to the rear – I understand fully that many of the gains that younger women take for granted were hard won.

The summer before my husband died, we were in NYC and ran into Gloria Steinem. We stood on the sidewalk and chatted with her for a few minutes. She was completely gracious and seemed genuinely happy to spend a bit of times with a couple of “fans.” I thanked her for the work that she and other pioneering, second wave feminists did to make the world a better place for women. Things aren’t perfect, and there’ve been some unfortunate unintended consequences of women’s liberation. But on the whole, the world is a better place for women. And, let’s hope, one that gets even better.

We’ve had our setbacks, of course. (C.f., 2016 election.) But those setbacks have a way of getting things moving. And so I took part in the January 2017 Women’s March in Boston, and will be there again in a few weeks. The sisterhood is still powerful.

Would I have picked feminist as the word of the year?

Probably not. (Narcissist, maybe.)

But it’s as good a choice as any.

And it sure beats youthquake.

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