This is the last of a series of three installments of posts describing some of my own development as a feminist. You can find the first two posts here and here. This piece was originally written as a submission for Shira Tarrant's upcoming book, Men Speak Out: ProFeminist Views on Gender, Sex and Power (which will be published by Routledge in November, 2007). Last time I talked about some of the ways in which my larger economic situation affected my upbringing, my mother, and my feminism. This time I'll talk a bit about a big part of what feminism means to me: Not letting people be bullies.
Fighting the Bullies
A big part of feminism in my life also centers around issues that are deeply entrenched in gender, but aren't only applicable to gender. My mother taught me to have little tolerance toward bullies, and she often did this by standing up to sexist men, who are at least one type of bully, in my mind. In 6th grade, I had a teacher who also happened to be a golf player. My mom played golf, and after a parent-student meeting where they discovered they both did this, they made plans to golf together. Turns out this guy (one of the few teachers in my childhood that I really didn't have much respect for, even before the following incident) was something of a rampant sexist, and it came out pretty conclusively as my mother proceeded to whip his ass in a golf game. He talked about women's beginner's luck (she wasn't a beginner), about how she got to hit from the women's tees (until he said that and she started hitting from the men's tees, still whupping him), and how it was wrong for a woman to be raising a son alone. This aside from the fact that her son, his student, was a straight-A student. One day on the golf course, when he said something particularly antagonistically sexist, she walked up, slapped him, and walked off the course.
It took a lot for me to get out of my mother that she had slapped him. But I could tell something happened immediately upon the next day of class. I didn't get called on, for instance. He was colder to me than he had been. Being my mother's son, I confronted him about it, after class one day. He denied that anything had gone wrong, and his enthusiasm of denial caused me anxiously await my mother's return home from work that evening, where I finally got it out of her what had happened. The next day, my teacher continued to treat me not-so-well, though, being a model student (and, at the time, I thought, smarter than him), there wasn't a whole lot he could do. One day, he left the classroom to make a phone call (this in the days before cell phones; he also had to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs), something he wasn't really allowed to do. The class responded slowly to his absence, but decisively. People began to throw a big red foursquare ball around. I didn't participate--I was enough of a schoolboy (mama's boy?) that I though such things were wrong. But at some point, the ball came to me, and I held onto it. A good friend of mine tried to take it from me, we wrestled with it, and I ended up tripping and pushing him through a window. All play stopped at that point--though he was just fine, miraculously not harmed at all. The teacher returned, and began yelling at me, as if I was some sort of ringleader, dragged me outside and began threatening to take me to the principal's office.
I wasn't used to being yelled at by teachers, and I responded with a zeal that I now attribute to my mother's example of fighting bullies: I told him that he should go to the office right then, right at that moment, and I'd explain to the principal how he had left the class alone for 15 minutes, and that somebody had almost gotten very, very hurt. I could feel that he was trying to bully me, and I responded in the way that my mother had implicitly taught me: I wasn't going to stand there and take it. He backed down, of course, just as he had backed down to my mother when she stood up for herself. And my mother's example of standing up to a sexist bully still helps me to stand up against bullies today, sexist and otherwise--though I tend to find the sexist ones most often, it seems.
The irony, as I've mentioned, is that my mother doesn't consider herself a feminist. I think she thinks about feminism in the ways that a lot of people do--the "feminist backlash" has been a relatively successful oversimplification of the various strands of feminism, to some degree. Those who haven't heard of or read any feminist thinking that has been done post-second wave are really missing out, and my mother is among those people. She doesn't know about the intersectionality of oppressions, doesn't get that the fluidity of identity can free us from some of the rigid gender roles that we have created; she dislikes the term 'feminist' because she thinks it means something that it no longer means, something that it really never meant at all. And that's fine with me. I'll take up the mantle. I'll learn more about feminist theory, but I'll also do my best to live my life as a feminist, like my mother taught me--whether she wanted to teach me that or not. And I'll always remember that the little lego broom is for everybody.