A couple of years ago, I started writing both of you letters. Slowly at first, as my health took a gentle downward dive; and then more fervently, at NPO midnights and early surgical mornings.
I don’t remember learning about feminism; I never had some undergraduate feminist “click” moment. The gender wars were part of my life from my first breath.
A suburban working mother with twins in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, my mother was outspoken about feminism in any given situation. I had T-shirts with feminist slogans on them and when I was little, my parents thought it was hilarious to point out some instance of sexism in our environment and then look at me for the punch-line. With my hands on my hips I’d stomp my foot and say “Male chauvinist pig!”
I was an outspoken kid. I stood up for myself against bullies. I never hesitated to raise my hand in school. From an early age I understood that I was expected to make it on my own in the world. I could be whatever I wanted to be, career-wise, and men were not required.
When I was 10, I told my mom I was going to grow up to be a journalist, live in a loft in Paris, and have “a succession of live-in lovers.”
When I was 11, my mom came out as a lesbian and my parents got divorced. She had met a woman -- who she is still with to this day -- and they wanted to be together. My dad moved across the country and everything changed.
There was the usual step-parent stuff. My mom’s wife had much stricter rules than had previously been in place regarding our behavior in the house. And my mom’s new health-food kick put us on a restrictive diet of tofu, brown rice, and steamed zucchini. She forbade ice cream and other “bad” foods and, for a time, harshly enforced transgressions of the food rules.
My mother’s brand of feminism went from wanting equal rights to wanting to smash the patriarchy, which she defined for my brother and me as “men’s historical oppression of women, which they continue to do today.” No man could escape complicity, not even little boys, she said. Suddenly, men were the root of all of women’s problems and since they had all the power, we had to fight them.
Men were always wrong. Men were aggressors; men were rapists; men were stupid; men were obsessed with their penises; men were responsible for forcing my mother into a heterosexual marriage and motherhood. Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin had become her prophets. She never once said that “patriarchy” wasn’t synonymous with “men.” She used the terms interchangeably. She told us we’d been forced on her by the patriarchy and, given the choice, she would not have had us.
My mom and her wife began frequenting a “womyn-only” coffee house in Chicago. (No boys over the age of 10 were allowed.) They went back to school to earn master’s degrees in women’s studies, and their class and study-schedule took precedence over the rest of the calendar.
One year, Thanksgiving fell right before midterms, so they tried to cancel the holiday. My brother stepped in. He cooked the hell out of that turkey and baked a splendid turtle pie.
It would be fair to stipulate that my mother had dark emotional issues unrelated to feminism. However, I was a kid. I didn’t understand that her grasp of the academic feminist theory she was so proudly touting might not have been firm. There was no Internet on which to fact-check. I took her at face value.
Very many things I did made me a sell-out to the patriarchy in her eyes. I wore makeup. I shaved my legs and armpits. I liked boys. Flip this nightly lecture to be about what men do to hurt women, and imagine being my brother
We moved from the suburbs to Chicago when we began high school. My mom and her wife were deep in their grad program and entrenched with the women from the coffeehouse. Many of them wouldn’t read books written by men or see movies with male protagonists. Most of the women were nice to me and my brother but it was made clear to us that some of their friends wouldn’t come over because there was a teenage boy in the apartment. They were separatists and wanted to live completely apart from men.
I was stunned. “But he’s your son!”
“He’s still male,” my mom said. “And if I didn’t have a son, I’d probably be a sep, too.”
I wish I could unlearn this. I understood very well that there were all kinds of shitty dudes out there. I experienced this reality every day by virtue of taking public transportation to and attending my public high school. But my brother wasn’t a threat to my mom’s friends.
In eleventh grade, I was hanging out with people I didn’t much like. The guys especially bugged me because they were really into my mom being a lesbian. I had stopped shaving by then, which gave them all sorts of weird ideas about me. They would surround me and demand to know if I hated men.
I will fully admit that I was pretty messed up in the head and it’s possible that I parroted far more of my mom’s rhetoric than I am comfortable remembering. I definitely fought with those boys a lot. A few years ago, one of them messaged me on Facebook accusing me of decades-old misandry, which was the first time I heard that term. And until recently, I’d only ever heard the term from MRA types; I had no idea some Feminists embrace the label with something like irony.
This guy was still so angry at me, and I barely remembered him. It took me weeks to remember how they would surround me and try to get me to rant. I remember how my actual “friends” told me they were just trying to get a rise out of me -- and how that would just piss me off more.
I was angry. Not as a feminist, but as a kid with a crappy home life and female friends who scattered whenever I got surrounded. Sometimes I found myself shouting “You’re right, I hate men!” just to get those guys to leave me alone.
My mom started encouraging me to “find a nice girl to fool around with.” She told me any woman who had sex with men wasn’t a feminist. She told me all heterosexual sex was rape “by definition.” When I asked her if she meant I was a product of rape, she told me I was “letting myself get raped” every time I had sex with my boyfriend.
In college, I was so averse to labels and power that I refused to run for student government when asked. Once, a boyfriend and I were hungry at my house and I had a panic attack over what it would mean if I fried an egg for him, which seems so silly now. It wasn’t the egg that should have given me pause; it was the particular guy. But I no longer had any judgment because, at the time, I still struggled with the idea that all men were the same -- and out to control me. It took me a long time to get past this and honestly I don’t know when it happened, but it did. I think 10 years of therapy had something to do with it.
So, what’s the opposite of being a feminist? Not being one? That’s not an option for me if I’m going to live in the world, because we still need feminism, badly. I have no real conclusion to this essay other than to say I will forever be confused and hurt by the kind of feminism I was raised to believe was The One True Feminism. I didn’t even write this as an indictment of my mom, who has mellowed somewhat with age and apologized for a few things.
Misandry as an ironic or non-ironic Feminist pose might be cathartic for a while, but it has nothing to do with achieving equality. And espousing outright hatred and contempt for all men to your children is not a feminist act. It’s tantamount to child abuse.