One night during a lecture by Gloria Steinem at Syracuse University, a female student in her twenties stood up at the podium during the question and answer period. She said that she had been raised in a family with four brothers and a father who was abusive to their mother as well as the children. She was concerned because she was noticing that her brothers were becoming abusive to their girlfriends and that all she knew to do was to talk to them about their behavior and to encourage the girlfriends to demand more respect. “I want to be a feminist,” she said, “but I missed out on the women’s movement and I don’t know where to go to find out what to do.”
Steinem smiled at her reassuringly, saying there was no mystique about feminism, that it was simply a way of looking at the world as if everyone mattered. She told the young woman that she was already acting as a feminist by doing what she could to address the issue, affirming her courage in confronting the brothers and speaking to their girlfriends about their right to respect.
In the course of the evening, several other young women stood up to say how isolated they felt, how it seemed that they had missed the boat to feminism, having been born as the Second Wave was crashing to shore. They longed for some sense of community, some structure of support they could lean into as they struggled to merge the personal and political in their own lives.
Each of them spoke of the women’s movement in the past tense, like one might refer to the Suffragettes or the Abolitionists. Whatever they had heard and read about this movement appealed to them and they wanted to be part of it, but for them there was nothing to latch onto—just this hunger for something more, this craving for community.
Driving home that night, with their plaintive voices still in my mind, I remembered my early twenties, how hungry I was for the same thing, how lost I felt, and how everything changed when that wave of feminism washed over my life.
Before I found the women’s movement, I never had a way of finding myself. At the age of twenty, when I was dismissed from the convent, I was hurled into a world I had never prepared for. It was 1969 and in the two years I had been away, drugs, sex, and rock and roll had captured the attention of my generation. The times were a-changin and I had no idea how to fit into this culture that no longer felt like my own.
I moved to California, and with few marketable skills, it took a month to find a job. What little esteem I started with dwindled fast as the weeks went by. By the time the Bank of America hired me as a clerk typist for $80 a week, I was scraping the bottom for signs of self-worth.
I worked in an office with six other women, all of whom managed far better than I the demanding protocols of the working world. They were all comfortable in their mini-skirts, enlightened about hair and beauty products, and efficient at keeping their balance in those tall high heels we had to wear. I commuted by motorcycle thirty miles each way, arriving an hour before everyone else so I could curl my helmet-flattened hair, trade in sneakers for nylons and pumps, and change from my denims into prissy outfits I never felt right in.
Hungry for family and a sense of community, I tried desperately to squeeze my roundness into their perfect square. I never cared about the lunchroom chat, never could contribute to the boyfriend conversations, the diet talk, the beauty makeover discussions, but I sat there attentively while my heart ached for talk that mattered. None of us was content with who we were and we colluded in the myth that our worth was measured by the standards of others.
A few years went by before I heard of the women’s movement and attended my first consciousness-raising group. The group had been meeting for a few weeks and I was surprised at their honesty, their careful listening and support of each other. I didn’t speak much that first time, just introduced myself and said I had come looking for women with whom I had something in common. By the end of the evening, I felt at home with them.
I loved that they talked about their lives—not how to change them, but how to more fully express them—and that they were not concerned with weight or beauty or fashion, but with loving themselves exactly as they were. We met week after week for two years, discussing whatever issues were surfacing in our lives. It always started with one woman sharing her experience and the rest of us adding our thoughts and feelings to the mix.
It was in this environment that I began to see the common patterns underlying our experience and learned the meaning of the term, “the personal is political.” I had never understood politics as power before, never looked at my society from outside of it, scrutinizing it as one might scrutinize a foreign culture.
My training had always been that society was right and that if I didn’t fit it, I was the one at fault. I had a civic duty to abide by the rules that everyone seemed to agree on. And beyond this, even more deeply embedded than society’s law, was the law of the Church, the teaching that women were to serve, forego their own desires and needs, and defer to authority with humble docility.
Our group did not set out to challenge these teachings, but simply to share our experiences. The goal was to speak about our lives and to address the barriers that separated us from our dreams. As we spoke of the things we had been taught in our families, our churches, our schools, it became more and more apparent that it was these teachings that led to our lack of freedom, our lack of courage and confidence in our abilities.
As we explored our relationships with the church, with men, with other women, as we talked about sexuality, spirituality, money, jobs—in every area we had common experiences. In a room of eight women, each woman had a story to tell about being sexually harassed. Six women had been raped and blamed themselves on some level. Each lesbian had been disowned or discredited by her family when she came out. Each of us was making less money than our male co-workers. Each had felt some form of discrimination in our churches. And each of us tended to blame ourselves when we experienced rejection or loss.
None of us knew how to express anger, to assert ourselves confidently, to ask for what we wanted in our personal relationships without feeling selfish. We each had a desire to be creative, but none of us believed we had any skill in this area, though we wrote poetry, composed music and painted and drew and sang.
When I began to realize that it wasn’t just me, that all the women in my group had grown up believing the same messages—that there were these prescribed roles we were supposed to perform and if we didn’t do our part, there was something wrong with us—then it became possible to take a different look at those messages and see whether I wanted to accept or reject them.
Not only did that group offer a sense of community and support, it gave me a means to see my world from a new perspective, and to see myself as a person with new choices and new opportunities for self-expression. I no longer felt a victim or a casualty of my culture, but more a creator of my life, more willing to reach out and try new things.
As I look back on it now, I see that who I am as a woman, as an artist, was definitively shaped by that whole experience. The women’s movement provided a place for my unfolding, a safe place where I could express myself and feel kindly received. In that context, I had the freedom to name myself, to say who I was under all the social trappings, and to emerge from those trappings like a butterfly from a chrysalis. The women I sat with in all those circles were midwives to my rebirth, as I was to theirs.
That night at the university, it broke my heart to hear those young women speak of their isolation, asking what happened to that wave and where should they go now to find community and sisterhood. And all I know to say to them is that sisterhood is not ready-made, not a treasure we go in search of, but something we create as we circle together and share our lives. It is an offshoot of intimacy, a state of being that does not precede but rises up from our listening and support of each other.
As we share our stories, we are like the writers who write to learn what they think, the poets who write to learn what they feel. We cannot know what is in our depths until we have some way to unearth it, to express it in words or sounds or images. We cannot understand the mystery of our own lives until we have unconcealed them, like archeologists on a dig excavating our own histories.
As we say to each other who we are, what we have felt and feared, what we have dared, where we have been and where we are going, we learn to define ourselves from the inside out. In this process of revealing ourselves, we learn the art of creating ourselves. In listening to our own and each others’ stories, we begin to see where we’ve been inhibited, how our choices have been compromised, our creativity stifled. We begin to see the ways we are bound by culture and tradition, nudged into our “appropriate roles” by church, state, and a marketing industry that provokes our insecurities in order to get us shopping for antidotes.
What has helped me stay true to my path is the stories of other women’s journeys. I am encouraged over and over by their words which have managed to make their way through small presses, chapbooks, poetry readings and writers’ conferences and spiritual gatherings and music fests and story-telling circles. Their words have blasted through thick walls of silence, years of yearning, and I draw my confidence from their truth and power.
In her introduction to A Gift of Joy, Helen Hayes writes,
“We rely upon the poets, the philosophers, and the playwrights to articulate what most of us can only feel, in joy and sorrow. They illuminate the thoughts for which we only grope; they give us the strength and balm we cannot find in ourselves. Whenever I feel my courage waning, I rush to them. They give me the wisdom of acceptance; the will and resilience to push on.”
And while this is true, it is also true that we do this for each other in the sharing of our stories, for our stories contain the answers to each other’s questions. What I cannot find in searching through the riches and rubble of my own life may become apparent to me in the witnessing of yours.
In the passing on of our stories, we gift each other with the power of possibility. When I watch you claim your life and go after your dream, I begin to believe I can do it, too. When I see what you risk to achieve what you want, I think that I, too, could take that chance. When I hear what you have suffered while I see you trudging forward, I believe I can make it to the other side of my own darkness. What can save us if it is not our stories, not the careful sharing of who we are and what we dream for a world whose future rests in our hands?