Friday, August 26, 2005

This is What a Feminist Looks Like

All of this talk in the Blogosphere about Cindy Sheehan, mourning mothers and activism has got me thinking a lot about what makes women feminist activists.

Sheehan's protest has been so effective, in part, because she is a mother. A mourning mother, who has lost a son to war, is and has been a common form of protest in this country. Julia Ward Howe (a Unitarian Universalist, I might add) wrote the Mother's Day Proclamation to protest the carnage of war and stand behind the mother's who lost sons. Our current "mother's day" has virtually no relationship to Howe's call for an "international mother's day for peace," for which she wrote this proclamation:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!

Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says "Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

I read Amanda Marcotte's report from Camp Casey and was particularly interested in her description of the women who have gathered as PTA-like mothers: floppy hats, comfortable shoes, and great organizational powers. Marcotte notes how silly the counter-protestors, wearing lots of leather, waving flags and riding motorcycles, look in comparison to these PTA-like mothers.

What makes anyone, not just a mother, an activist?

While the mourning mother is a powerful symbol, I am a bit saddened that this same powerful symbol is not automatically associated with women who have become feminists.

Choosing to be a feminist and then proclaiming yourself a feminist unfortunately says to most others that you are a man-hating, uptight, lesbian bitch. (Or see my post on Robertson below). And yet, anyone remotely familiar with feminism knows how utterly ridiculous that caricature is.

Last night, I was sitting in a room with 6 feminists (2 men, 2 mothers, 2 college professors, and 2 women who work in social services). We were discussing our position on John Roberts and the SCOTUS in general. What really struck me in this conversation, however, was how amazing these people in the room are and what drives them toward activism.

One mother works at a Community College and interacts with many women who are trying to leave abusive relationships and earn a profession that will enable her to support, on their salary alone, her children. The obstacles that single mothers face enrolling in college are unbelieveable. And, my friend does this work, while sharing the work with her husband of raising her three children, one of which is autistic. When I looked at her last night, I just wanted to hug her. She was so tired and drained and felt as if she wasn't doing enough for NOW. And, yet, she is doing amazing work and I don't know how she does it, given what her days are like.

Another young woman was visiting us from another town. She has been working in a women's shelter for 6 months, and has seen 150 women who are trying to flee abusive relationships. She deals with the unbelievable bureacracies to try and get these women transportation, child care and TANF. If a woman is finally ready to leave an abusive husband, but doesn't have housing, childcare or transportation to make it happen, she can't leave, unless she chooses to become homeless. Once she is homeless the "system" will help her. Then, of course, more problems ensue: judges don't like to give sole custody to one parent. So, when she has to hand the children over to her abuser, she is most vulnerable to murder.

These are just two of the women that I know and work with. Why are they feminists? Duh! But, what it really comes down to is a realization that dawns on many women that they are not enough in the circles of power that would change their lives materially. How difficult would it be to obtain affordable day care if your legislators were predominantly women with children (who have left abusive partners, who want to have a profession in addition to raising children, or who have lost a husband to, let's say, a war)? This realization is sparked by the real experiences they live through and see others live through, which catapults them into action. This is what activism is all about.

There are millions of heroes out there like Cindy Sheehan, struggling in your towns for justice. And yet, just as we watch the pundits try to destroy Sheehan's character, feminists are belittled and bullied every day.

For some time there has been a consideration of giving a new look to feminism, working on a PR campaign. Perhaps that is a good idea. But, no matter what we do, those who are in power and want to stay in power will find new threatening and dehumanizing images and language to mischaracterize us: just look at what they are doing to Cindy Sheehan.