The word feminist has no place among my early memories. I can’t recall the women or men in my life ever saying it, not as a statement of strength nor as an epithet, at least not while I’m in earshot. Instead, the idea of it plants itself as a vague seed that grows slowly and silently, taking shape and winding its way through me from the inside out.
But I do remember this –
My Great Aunt Mollie tells me she is the first woman in our family to attend college. She works full-time as a clothing buyer at a department store. My grandmother is a bookkeeper for a jeweler. Every time I see them, they press a bit of gelt into my little girl palm and I can practically taste the independence of money in my mouth.
I read The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, a children’s book about a brown mommy bunny in a sea of mostly white man bunnies who all want to become the Easter Bunny, whose acquaintance this Jewish girl first makes on those pages. The mommy insists she’s as wise, kind, and swift as any of the male applicants for the position. I’m overjoyed when she gets the job. It feels right and just and I devour the book over and over again.
Years later, I discover that a male co-worker makes nearly double what I earn for the same position. I insist that I’m as wise, kind, and swift as he is, for which my boss gives me a 5% raise. Soon, I begin to wonder how much less the Country Bunny made than her predecessor. And yet, unable to align the image I have of myself with the various feminist stereotypes (all culled from film and fiction) that have lodged themselves in my brain, I still don’t consider myself a feminist.
When I’m little, I watch Free To Be You and Me and memorize all the lyrics, internalizing the possibility that I can do and be anything I want.
I’m boisterous when I talk to G-d and when I voice my protests against dresses with bows. I dig for worms and race down the hill without my training wheels, which I have removed by myself to prove my independence as well as my dexterity with a wrench. My hair is kinky-curly-unruly-Jewish girl hair and I refuse to let my mother tame it. I am told all of this makes me unladylike.
I let Barbie drive her Corvette. Ken rides shotgun, though all the daddies I know do the driving when the mommy is in the car.
After Nurse Zuckerman teaches us girls about our bodies in the spring of fourth grade, I go to the library to learn more about the mechanics. I start with age-appropriate books. Later, I discover a not-so-age-appropriate copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on a consciousness-raising table in the library lobby. All my reading does me no good, however, when I get my first period and my mother slaps me upon hearing the news. I’m shocked to learn it’s what my grandmother did to her and Bubbe to my grandmother, and so on, all the way back to the shtetl.
Though I’m far too young to worry about it, I’m told to go down a dress size so I’ll be marriageable when the time comes. I don’t cooperate. On the other hand, I let the orthodontist straighten my teeth. I figure a good smile will give me the confidence to do whatever I want.
I’m further confused in the approach to womanhood when I attempt to define myself, but not too rigidly, and to advocate for myself, but not too loudly because, I’m told – there it is again – it’s not ladylike to dig in my heels. Flirt without leading on. Speak your mind, but not always, not really. Let the man think he’s right, that it’s his idea. And yet, be your own person, blaze your own trail. Thankfully, my mother ingrains in me a sense of ownership: my body is mine. Later, though, my father refuses to give her a gett.
When my husband and I decide to marry, he wants me to swap my last name for his. I’ve never been attached to my maiden name, but I’m suddenly afraid to lose it, to lose a part of myself. Then I ask him to wear a wedding band, which isn’t the cultural norm for his community. In the end, we meet in the middle with no regrets. I change my name and he wears a ring, setting the balanced tone for a loving marriage, which is really all I wanted in the first place.
A female colleague cautions me to get back to my desk as soon as possible after giving birth to each of my sons – before doubt can slip in about me, the whispering about whether they can still take me seriously, whether I’ve exited the professional highway onto the mommy service lane. I listen to her once, twice. By the third son, I stay out on maternity leave too long and suddenly, the gig is up. She swallows her I-told-you-so.
People say Boys will be boys and I want to scream.
I watch clips from Free to Be You and Me on YouTube and decide it should be required viewing for every single human.
I read a religious Jewish magazine I’ve picked up at the kosher market and flip through a stack of invitations to yeshiva dinners and am hard pressed to find any pictures of women, though the men are there. I’m assured by some that the omission is intended to protect our modesty, but I know there’s no precedent in Jewish law for our disappearance from those pages. In my exasperation, I write an article about it here on Hevria, for which some folks call me a feminist – as a barb, not a compliment. I’m still not sure the term suits me, yet I stand by every word I wrote.
Not long after, we sit around a crowded Shabbos table discussing healthcare and I find myself defending my right to make decisions about my own body. Someone asks, What?! Are you a feminist?
And suddenly, I begin to wonder.
I’m a wife, mother, and writer. A daughter of Israel, a believer in G-d, a traditional Orthodox keeper of the faith who doesn’t long for more ritual, has never even been curious to try new ways or other places to pray. Is it possible that I’m a feminist? I cannot answer at first. I gaze at myself and wonder if I look the part, whether I fit the bill. I haven’t given the question much thought before, just dismissed it, always presumed the answer was no, did not imagine the moniker could ever apply to me.
Then the unabridged version of this list gushes forth in my head like a waterfall and I recognize the truth that has been with me for a long, long time.
I tuck a curl back under my headscarf and catch the three sturdy syllables in the palm of my hand and hold the word dear, right over my heart and answer, Yes, I am.