My parents were well-meaning white feminist types in the 1970s, so I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted… but neither I nor my parents had any kind of language or framework to think about anything other than male or female. Unlike some trans folk, I didn’t feel like I was a boy. I just knew I wasn’t very good at being a girl. And because I wasn’t good at being a girl, I leaned toward patriarchal values — logic, reason, athletics, academic achievement, strength as power. There is a way that I think this was self-protection.
An important part of my journey was a lesbian-feminist awakening that helped me to revalue things like emotions, spirit, bodies, vulnerability. There was a phase when I was “woman-identified” and that was an important step towards honoring all of the parts of me. Being a baby dyke with a butch presentation was also an important opening in my efforts to navigate the world. But in the end, that still wasn’t all of me. I now identify as OtherWise, not male or female.
I don’t particularly identify with what I see as sort of static celebrations of women’s history. I feel like Women’s History Month, as I experience it these days, doesn’t always create space for all of what I understand about the necessity of the feminine. To me, honoring the feminine is less about female ancestors and more about honoring all of that which is categorized and labeled as feminine.
Women’s history can be reductive in celebrating women who are/were “successful” according to patriarchal values (logic, reason, career, athletics, academic, business, etc). In ways similar to how Jesus and MLK have been sanitized by their “holidaze”, the mainstreaming of women’s history almost necessarily strips it of some of its revolutionary power. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of knowing about our foremothers. That’s certainly an important start.
However, I mostly identify with the freaks — with people who don’t fit neatly into all these political categories. And there are so many folk who might ask of our feminist politics, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Things resonate more with me when we lift up the more radical edges of “feminism,” honoring folk like Audre Lorde or Miss Major. Womanists, Mujerista, Two Spirit folk. Trans Women and people like me whose history includes trying to navigate the world being perceived in some way as female, but maybe not entirely.
For me, Women’s History Month ought not be about women being “as good as” men. It’s not about “equality.” Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the 70s, but that’s just basic. I only get the goose bumps when we are talking about changing the world so all people can be real and authentic and whole. Lifting up “women” is a part of that revolution. In many cases, it’s even a crucial entry point. But it’s not the whole story for me.
So practically speaking, a soundbite about Sally Ride being a female astronaut? Meh. But, maybe if you could tell me a deeper story about how exactly Sally Ride navigated the male-dominated culture of NASA to do what she did. Goosebumps.
Or let’s tell the story of the women of SNCC and how they navigated patriarchal assumptions in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Goosebumps. I’m thankful those stories exist.
Let’s ask what the actual cost was for Audre Lorde to be as openly black and lesbian and feminist and mother and poet and warrior as she was? What sustained her in that personal revolution? How did she keep breathing in the face of all of that pressure? Goosebumps. I’m thankful she left a body of work to tell that story.
Let’s ask how Miss Major survived Stonewall and Attica and saved the lives of so many trans women returning citizens? And what sustained her in that revolutionary work against a machine that is designed to literally dispose of people like her? Goosebumps. I’m thankful that I have had the chance to be in her presence and know some of how she makes her way.
What about some less well-known single/divorced mom, raising sons on a shoestring, piecing together multiple jobs, while also reaching for a better life for herself and the folk in the neighborhood? Why is she not also lifted up for us as a powerful sacred text, during Women’s History Month? Is it just because she doesn’t have a Wikipedia article? How does she get up and face the pressures of each morning? What are the compromises she is asked to make? Where does the grief go? And how does she find her voice in the midst? I am grateful when I have the opportunity to be a witness, but it bothers me that there is so little space in Women’s History Month for her.
These are the kinds of Women’s History stories where we find that deeper insight that might help us all take the next step forward in our own lives, whatever our gender experience. That is super powerful to me. Not “just” because they are female pioneers. Not “just” because they were celebrities or made history. But because we can learn something from how they were / are changing the world by the way they lived / are living their lives — and doing so in the face of forces that work against their health and wholeness. They were reaching for something more than that which was offered to them — and that is how history actually gets made.
© 2016 Chris Paige. All rights reserved.
With thanks to Jenn Peterson for asking such interesting questions and to Church Within A Church for whom this piece was written.