Madonna recently accepted an award as Woman of the Year at the Billboard Awards . I don’t express myself in the same blatantly sexualized way as Madonna, but I do understand her quest to represent all aspects of what it is to be female. Madonna was part of my empowerment as a young woman. In elementary school, I loved Henry, Beezus and Ramona the Pest books, but the very specific gender roles irritated me, even as a little girl. They just weren’t true in my life. Trixie Belden Mysteries were the closest I could find to me. Trixie did things, had adventures, got into trouble and was smart. Madonna has consistently challenged things that she has identified as just not true in her experience. She has expressed her perspective and been idolized or vilified for it.
My mother was my first feminist role model. She invested her hopes and dreams for the future in a marriage to a man she was hopelessly in love with as an 18 year old. Five years later, she packed up her infant daughter and her preschooler and left my father, disillusioned with love but with the intact belief that she deserved to be treated with respect. She struggled, worked hard, made lots of Mac N’Cheese and survived. My sister and I grew up understanding the importance of being able to support ourselves, rely on our own intelligence and pull ourselves up when we fell. Interestingly enough, my mother vehemently denied that she was a feminist. She believed in bras, would not consider burning hers, religiously wore lipstick, had coiffed hair and had a well-developed sense of propriety. Apparently these were irreconcilable with feminism in her mind.
I couldn’t wait until I was strong enough to push the mower. My preference was to do chores outside rather than inside. My self esteem grew with the things I could conquer like changing fuses, doing a 10 km run and eating alone in a restaurant. Escaping the long blonde ringlets and emphasis on being what others wanted me to be, has been a lifelong endeavor. I braved expressing my many opinions, although they often got me into trouble. Apparently strong opinions are still distasteful in a woman. Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes was an awe-inspiring revelation for me. My red lipstick and an adherence to fashion were incomprehensible to my die-hard feminist friends but I had many circles of friends so I was free to be. Scathing judgement and vindictiveness has come from women, but there are many other women who are kindred spirits and I have the good fortune to call friends. Like my mother, I fell hopelessly in love when I was young but I defined a relationship very different from my parents. I refused to promise to obey when I walked down the aisle and my husband knew that respect in the relationship was a non-negotiable.
My daughter grew up in the suburbs with a feminist mother. In high school, I took her to a feminist art show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Her biggest revelation was there were other women who actually had the same ideas as me. Apparently there were not many people in the suburbs defining themselves as feminists. By her second year of university, she was beginning to become more reflective of her own experience of being a woman. Her writing, her art and her adventures are focused very much on her personal journey of being a competitive, athletic, intelligent female with long blonde hair and big blue eyes. Yet, there is a defiance of expectation and judgment and compliance to the status quo. She avoids those who she feels judge her with annoyance but not hurt. She invests her energy into reciprocal relationships. She is learning through new experiences and reaches out to others with kindness.
There continues to be expectations of what women should or should not be or do or believe. Madonna has challenged expectations for compliance and made it blatantly apparent that women are multi-dimensional human being with diverse opinions and ways of being. She has articulated her opinions loudly in the face of disagreement. Her call for women to support women is a worthy one, even those with opinions that run contrary to the rest of the group. For our female students and daughters, I hope we can welcome them to live out loud, risk failure, explore new ideas and ways of being, and to look for something they like in the girl who walks in the door. For our male students and sons, I hope we continue to teach empathy, to value strength in women, and the importance of treating the women in their lives with respect. For all people who teach, I very much hope we are teaching that “feminist” is not a bad word but a logical step towards equality.