I vaguely recall the first time someone asked me what it means to be a feminist. I was still a kid, freshly baptized in the blaze of radical feminism. Or so it seemed, as our consciousness-raising group met in Anita’s living room. She was into her middle years, a professional woman returned to college, and the group was a school project. Its existence in our small town was a damn miracle for us and a disturbing mystery for the men, who didn’t understand why a gaggle of gals would get together for no better purpose than to talk — just talk — to each other! — what the hell? — and we weren’t too sure ourselves, at first, although their reactions were reason enough, and enlightenment shortly followed.
Ensconced in pastoral adornment — brocade throw pillows, hand-tatted antimacassars, ceramic tchotchkes — we spoke of goddesses and orgasms, of Shulamith Firestone and her Dialectic of Sex. We gasped and caressed the images of female genitalia in Our Bodies, Ourselves. We dreamt of Feminist Revolution amid fiery Redstockings. And we strode boldly forth to spread the good word of equality of the sexes.
That’s when one of the boys on the farm asked me about feminism (yes, there literally was a dairy farm, with a lot of eager boys on it). But the acrid sarcasm in his inflection neutralized the need for a serious response, along with his chances. Were it not for my oh-so proper upbringing — the gendered training that turns Southern females into well-coiffed boot scrapers and males, into manure-crusted boots — I’d have asked him what it means to be a teeny sexist turd.
Of course, I didn’t. As one of the elite white males who has claimed the exclusive U.S. leadership mantle said years later, “Wouldn’t be prudent” — no matter that belittling my passions annoyed me. But, alas, back then I still clasped the remnants of ladylikeness as a virgin bride clutches the coverlet to her chin on her wedding night.
Hmmm, that image might be a tad sexist. Blame it on the South, the South and the more generic sublimation of female anger. We were not allowed to be angry; it would interfere with our being gracious, accommodating, acquiescent — boot scrapers.
But I changed — with the seasons, with the years, with the geography — and by the 1990s I took to slinging the Oxford English Dictionary definition of feminism at California’s political candidates, who proudly proclaimed their befuddled disaffection for the moniker by answering “No” to the question “Are you a feminist?” and “Yes” to the question “Do you support granting women the same rights as men?”
“Ahem, sir,” I’d say, “that is feminism.” And the hapless hucksters would stumble over their reassurances that they both advocated for women’s equality and abjured feminism.
Now, thirty-five years removed from my feminist birthing, I am asked yet again what it means to be a feminist, a feminist in an anti-feminist culture, a culture as far removed from the feminism of the 1960s and 70s as we were then from the suffragists of the previous century’s turning. But there is a difference. This time, the query is posed without sarcasm. It comes from a women’s studies professor, a smart woman with wild hair and more books than her institution deems seemly. She’s been plunked into a new office with shelves enough for half her books. When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine the architect wondering how many words women really need to pack into their pretty little heads. Idiot.
Do I seem angry? I’m not supposed to be. But after thirty-five years of surveilling our patriarchal system, I am.
Or no, I’m not angry. I’m thinking, thinking of that classic Southern aphorism — that horses sweat, gentlemen perspire and ladies glow. I recall telling Mother, once, that I was sweating like a stuck pig. I don’t recall that she laughed, but I hope she would laugh at my suggestion now — that ladies clench their sphincters and remain silent, women become understandably yet politely angry, and feminists get mad. Because I am mad. I am a mad feminist. And I get mad better than most. Because mad is a tool for change. Silent acquiescence and clenched sphincters, polite anger, they are not tools for change — not at the turn of the century, not in the 60s and 70s, and not today.
What does it mean to be a feminist today, a mad feminist? I think it means a lot of things, some I’m still learning.
But I do know it means seeing people roll their eyes at the mention of consciousness-raising groups, those silly little things that turned on our voices, that aroused our sexuality, that confirmed our personhood.
It means a persistent gendered wage gap that in 2009 paid women a median wage equating to about 80¢ to each $1.00 men earned.
It means fuming as women’s bodies serve as capitalism’s primary tools, our breasts selling beer, our genitalia pitching the latest fashions, our undeveloped hands assembling the endless stream of consumer goods from Third World countries that keep the elite in power around the globe.
It means mourning the loss of Congresswoman Bella Abzug’s trailblazing path to the United State’s lackluster ranking of 70th of 186 nations in the percentage of females in national legislatures — behind such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
It means gasping as young women succumb to the fallacy that fellatio is not sex and their bodies, themselves are not worthy of respect — their own or their partner’s.
It means flinching as nearly one in every four women in the United States reports experiencing violence at the hands of a current or former intimate partner.
It means wailing as each of more than 500 women per day reports being raped or sexually assaulted.
And still — still! — we blame them for their abuse. Perhaps this is why experts suggest the actual numbers for domestic violence, rape and sexual assault are double or triple what is reported — or more.
It means that the U.S. government has barely begun to collect comparable data for lesbians and bisexual and transgender women.
It means — all of this means — that we need to do something about it, something to declare that this is how it is and that how it is, is not right, is not sane, cannot continue.
And that means we need to be activists for equality all the time, everywhere we go, always insisting on having difficult conversations we might rather avoid, the kind we would have shied from before our do-it-yourself-home-inspection-speculum days, because it was easier to fake an orgasm than to talk about it, to explore what it would take to achieve it, to tell a partner to try this instead of that. It’s not that different from equality. Seriously. Female orgasms and equality require the recognition that they are absent when they shouldn’t be, the desire for them, and the commitment to talk about them for the purpose of obtaining them. Orgasms are just a lot easier.
Equality, equality is a toughy. Which brings me back to the question of what it means to be a feminist today, and I am certain that the first part of the complex answer is to be mad. I’ll let you know when I figure out the rest. And then I’ll call Anita, to thank her.
 Fickle feminist denier George H.W. Bush, who dropped his membership in Planned Parenthood to woo conservative voters and become the 41st U.S. President.
 Adverse Health Conditions and Health Risk Behaviors Associated with Intimate Partner Violence, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. February 2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available HERE.