** Her Bad Mother, Mom-101, and a few other women blog stars have apparently been chatting up noneother than Ms. Gloria Steinem. And this got me thinking. I have always considered myself to be a strong, confident, capable female, but a feminist? Well, not in the storm the streets/fight for your rights sense of the word. The following post details my thoughts about feminism, based solely upon my own unique experiences. It’s the first time I’ve ever spoken these words out loud.
Back in the summer of 1984, when I was a plebe at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a member of, if memory serves, the fifth class of women ever at the academy, I thought a lot about feminism. Equal rights. What it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. I had never really given the topic much thought.
I didn’t have to.
Feminism was my mother’s movement - the wind beneath her apron of sails that propelled her out of the kitchen and into the aerobics class, during the dinner hour (!), after teaching all day and coaching until dusk. While she butted heads with my father about her rights and responsibilities as wife, mother, and equal human person, I never had to fight. I always felt equal - that is, until I went to West Point and learned that I was not.
During my first and only year at West Point, all of us plebes, or first year cadets, endured the same ritual humiliations and physical challenges. We marched side by side for miles wearing the same boots and bearing the same heavily weighted packs on our backs. We ran in formation at the same pace up and down the same mountainous hills. We walked the same walk, a walk known as “pinging” in which we moved as fast as possible in the position of attention, with elbows locked and eyes and heads facing squarely to the front.
We even talked the same talk: Yes, Sir. No, Sir. Yes, Ma’am. No, Ma’am. No excuse, Sir. No excuse, Ma’am. During bayonet training, while we practiced how to smash and slash our invisible enemies with bayonets attached to the ends of our M-16 rifles, we would utter the same chants, at the prompts of hardened, enlisted army combat veterans: Kill a commie for your mommy. Blood makes the grass grow.
Despite our seemingly equal treatment at every turn - in the classroom, on the parade grounds, inside the barracks - there was nothing equal about being a female cadet at West Point, especially in 1984.
Consider, if you will, the prospect of a girl being invited to participate on a boys’ football team. She can wear the uniform, learn the plays, and practice the tackles, but come game day, when it counts, chances are she will be warming the bench. This is football, after all! And she’s, well, a girl! Does anyone really believe she or any other female (rare exceptions notwithstanding) can compete as an equal on the football field? To do so, she not only has to be as good as her male counterparts, she has to be better. But even then, who wants to see a girl get tackled on the football field? And what girl in her right mind would want to be there?
At West Point, I realized early on that if I was to survive, let alone excel as one of the handful of female cadets dotting the ranks, then I had to be better. Smarter. Tougher. And I really had to want it.
Still, I would never be truly equal.
Behind the camouflage I wore - the crisp, tailored uniforms, the game face, the warrior cries I grunted with ferocious intensity (Hoo yah!) - I was still…a girl.
I was someone’s daughter, sister, and niece. Someday, perhaps, I’d be a wife and mother.
And like it or not, I was a sex object. A woman. A member of the weaker sex - from a strictly physiological standpoint.
I was a woman surrounded by men on a male playing field. A woman who would be relegated to the sidelines - not the front lines - when it really counted. (Did I have to be protected, like all the other women and children armies have protected for centuries? Wait, but wasn’t I being groomed to be the protector? Wasn’t I equal?)
No. I could not be equal. My body made me different. Better, in fact, in a lot of ways. Not less than or inferior. Just different.
But definitely not equal.
I left West Point honorably, and without regret, about one year from the day I entered its ranks about twenty years ago. And though my uniforms have changed through the years - nowadays it’s mostly what I term “slob chic” - the playing field onto which I stepped is still, in too many ways, predominantly male. It’s also old - with old rules, age-old stereotypes, and good old boys.
Can women compete on this global field, side by side and on equal terms with men?
Yes and no.
In my view, women are not equal to men and never will be, in the same way an apple will never be an orange, though both are fruits, delicious and nutritious in their own ways.
But we can compete, and indeed we do compete - on our own terms.
And that’s what feminism means to me.
Feminism is not about women trying to be more like men, trying to be “equal” to men in an unnatural, desperate sort of way. Feminism is not about criticizing men or blaming them for unequal treatment.
To me, feminism is about celebrating the very essence of our womanhood, embracing the qualities that make us unique, and asserting our right to be whatever it is we want to be.
We should not be relegated to the sidelines; we simply need to re-define the game.
But to do so, oftentimes, we need to be better. Smarter. Tougher.
And we really have to want it.
I am raising a daughter now, a strong-willed, bright and beautiful girl with the world at the tips of her painted toenails.
I tell her she can do and be anything she wants to be, just as my mother told me.
But unlike my mother, I find myself telling my daughter that she has to choose.
“Choose one or two things, and do them well” I say, my words falling on the deaf ears of my daughter, who at seven years-old has no idea what I’m talking about.
“Hey Mom, do we have any popcorn?”
“Because you can’t do everything. You’ll be a jack of all trades, master of none. Like me.”
“Where’s my American Girl doll?”
“Life is about choices, and for every choice we make, there is a sacrifice.”
Silence. Blank stare.
“You can be anything you want to be.” Pause. Scratch. Shrug. ”Do you want butter on the popcorn?”
Written by Ruth Dynamite. This article originally appeared in Ruth's blog Ruthless in the Suburbs.