I grew up in the Deep South: a small town in Mississippi, home to one of the state’s two universities (the best one, obviously), a Wal-Mart and a Piggly Wiggly, a small hospital, a bunch of bars, and a bunch of churches.
Years later, I returned, following my parents “back home” to attend that university.
But at that point, it no longer felt like home to me.
Now, there are many things about the South that do feel like home to me, and always will. I don’t have an accent, but I can put one on any time. My kids can always tell when I’ve been talking to family members ‘back home.’ My voice slows. The consonants soften and the vowels drop into a relaxed, cunningly casual drawl. Y’all think we’re slow when we talk this way, and thinking that is one of the big mistakes that led to our current political situation.
Returning to the South when I was 18 didn’t feel like going ‘back home’ to me the way it did for my parents. Something had shifted during those years we lived in Missouri. I had expanded. My identity, my sense of self, my idea of who I could be: it had grown into something else. That something else was not yet clear, not fully formed. But even in the vagueness, I knew one thing: the something else I felt — knew — myself to be was nowhere to be found in my small town, small church, small Southern life.
I had a very happy childhood. My parents were kind, intelligent, loving, and attentive. My Dad worked hard at a job he didn’t like. My Mom stayed home with me and my sister. I had space to roam. I had a bike and country roads. I had friends and freedom.
But there were limits, hard limits, ingrained into our larger environment.
I knew about exactly two types of women growing up.
One type was good: my Mom. Her friends. All the women in all the churches, which mean that 99% of the ladies in our small town fit the profile.
One type was definitely not good, but I had no real-life examples of it. I could see versions of this woman on the news, sometimes, or hear about her on the radio. But I didn’t know her, or any of her friends, in real life. And I didn’t want to.
She was terrifying.
She was adamant and loud. She was probably lonely. She was, without question, unhappy. (You could tell she was unhappy by how angry she was about everything. Who could be happy when they were that angry all the time?)
All of that existed beyond the realm of my inner life, my childhood. Those types were there, they existed, they framed the world; they waited for me. I would have to deal with them — choose between them — at some point. But that point seemed far away.
In the meantime, I played.
I rode bikes with my sister and our friends. I climbed trees. I built forts. I read books. I played Legos. I explored. I watched insects. I built tiny houses between the helpful roots of spreading oak trees. I did a lot of things and nobody cared as long as I was close enough to hear Mom call me in for dinner.
I noticed the divergence slowly. At first I thought it was just age: my sister was older. Of course she’d be interested in make-up, and crushes, and sappy romance novels first. Whatever.
But it wasn’t age.
I’d never gotten the point of playing with dolls, and she always had. I had crushes on boys, too, but I was neither interested nor adept in flirting. Notes with hearts? Whispered messages sent via a mutual friend? Not for me. I had other things to do. Relationships like those, whether real or imagined, were not a high priority. I valued my own company. I sought out solitary time and space. My own interests and projects were infinitely better than attention from a boy or whispered gossip from a girl.
I submitted to the requirements of Southern, conservative femininity when they were enforced, but I didn’t like them. I wore the pretty dress to church, and stripped it off for comfortable, ‘real’ clothes the instant we got home. It wasn’t the scratchy lace; it was the expectations woven into the lace, the skirt, the floral pattern. Those moments, those dress-up days, were practice for a future role.
My future role.
Everything in me screamed against it. I rebelled in the ways I could. Quietly.
One year, for my science fair project, I picked the least girly, least feminine thing I could think of: the dung beetle.
I presented my choice to my parents for their approval. I was certain and stubborn. My mom smiled and didn’t bat an eye. My dad helped me make the poster. I didn’t get an award, but that was okay: I didn’t deserve or want one. I just wanted to make room for a self that I defined. I wanted to stand there, in that place, with my peers, and be acknowledged for a contribution that didn’t fit anyone’s definition of pretty. I wanted to force their hand: how much would be allowed? How far could I push these lines and not get in trouble?
I hated getting in trouble.
But I had a question, and I had to ask it in the only way I knew how: Could I be accepted as myself, as a girl, if my ambition went beyond the understood boundaries for the good type of woman?
I didn’t understand then the debilitating power of refusing to see someone.
It’s a courteous kind of shunning. It’s a pat on the head. It’s maddening. You can’t fight it, because it is politeness as a weapon. What weapon do you use in defense? Nothing fits. Every reaction makes you look extreme. Raging against politeness makes you look like a barbarian, and proves their unspoken point: you don’t deserve to be acknowledged. Look at you. You can’t even control yourself.
This strategy of putting people in their place is real, powerful, and used with great skill.
You don’t have to know what’s happening; they know. That’s enough. If you, a non-Southern person, get an angelically sweet “Bless your heart,” from a Southern woman, you’ve just been told in no uncertain terms to go fuck yourself.
My little science fair resistance taught me something: my parents would, and did, support me; but the larger community still had the power to define me. My exhibitions would be allowed, but not acknowledged. My childish ventures beyond the norm would be tolerated, but never given validity.
I could accept those terms, or not. I could do what I wanted, to a degree, and stay within the community, be part of the tribe. I just had to be okay with the most important parts of me being casually overlooked, ignored, or dismissed.
When they patted me on the head, I had to nod and smile.
I had to learn to discredit myself.
And I did.
“Oh, that’s nothing, just a little project…”
“I am a classically trained vocalist, but what I really love is singing in church.”
“Oh, thank you, I do love writing, but what I really want is to be a wife and mother.”
“Yes, I am going to college on a full academic scholarship, but I don’t have real career plans. I’ll probably get married and stay home. Maybe work part-time.”
We all do what we have to do to survive.
My resistance wasn’t about my gender or my sexuality.
It was about the role my gender forced me into.
I was happy being a girl but I wanted to be my type of girl and grow into something that, as far as I knew, didn’t actually exist: my type of woman.
The problem was that, no matter where I looked, I couldn’t see her: not as a girl, not as a woman.
Not as a real possibility.
Not as anything except a blurred mirror image.
At that point, my idea of my own identity was composed more of what I didn’t want than what I did want. Defining yourself as a collection of reactive negatives is demoralizing. It makes you feel unworthy, unnatural, un-everything. It makes you question your right to exist and to define your self.
If you are no more than an inverse, a shadow, a wavering reflection never clearly defined, how can you trust yourself?
How can your voice be anything more than an echo, getting fainter and fainter with every repetition?
I was given two extremes. I wanted neither, and I was desperate for another option. A middle path. It existed in theory, vaguely, in my head. I felt it. I heard it. I didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t have the language, only the yearning. The language I’d been taught didn’t include words to describe that yearning.
The environment of my childhood (which is to say, everything I knew as reality) told me that a middle path, another option, didn’t exist. That to say No to one extreme was to say Yes to the other. That the real world was a clearly defined dichotomy, and you’d better be absolutely certain to choose the Right Side.
Whenever the middle path is taken away, you can be sure someone is trying to control your choices.
A move from Mississippi to Missouri may not seem like much a change. But sometimes a small change is all you need.
Not everything has to be dramatic.
I had asked my question in one place, as part of one community, and received an answer. I kept asking my question — and in this new, wider world — received a broader answer.
There’s a quote I read once that has stayed with me. I can’t remember where it’s from, though I’ve tried to hunt down the original source. It goes something like this:
All real communication is about revealing more options.
In a slightly wider world, an enlarged environment, I saw more options. And those options gave me hope: somewhere out there, between the two extremes I’d been given, maybe there was a place for me. Maybe there was an identity I would want to wear. Maybe there was a path that felt right.
Somewhere in there, I could find myself.
The options, of course, were there before I knew about them. There are infinite options, for each of us. Endless choices, leading to new paths, new places, curves in the road, unforeseen experiences.
For a long time, the systems of our world have prescribed a narrower set of options for women than for men. On the basis of religion, morality, biology, economy, social norms, and political necessity, the options for women are reduced, sanitized, simplified, controlled.
It’s an insidious control that pretends to be about protection and support.
It offers a pseudo-freedom: I’m not telling you what you have to choose, it says. You’re free to pick what you want, from this array of choices.
If you’re controlling the selection of choices, there’s no need to control anything else. You can let the caged animal go wherever it wants: outside, to the protected “natural” environment, or inside, to the climate-controlled, cement-walled den.
We all know that the animal is not free.
We all know that choices within a cage are not real choices.
Feminism is about taking down the cage. Removing the controls. Opening up the door. Restoring the full array of possibility to every human.
What it requires of men is only this: step back. Quit guarding the doors.
What it gives to women is all of this: the whole world.
The freedom to choose, and experience the consequences of each choice, good and bad. The ability to define ourselves, moving beyond a predetermined, limited vocabulary, choosing from all the words in the universe. Feminism is the freedom to expand to the limits of our own minds, not anyone else’s.
This is our right: to encounter, every moment, the infinite spectrum of possibility, and find ourselves in it.
This has always been our right.
Feminism is simply the declaration of it.