It was 1969, I was just 12 years old, and Stonewall had not yet happened. My best friend Linda and I hung out at the local schoolyard wearing army jackets with male names emblazoned on the pocket. She was not just my friend, though I had no name for what we were.
When I smacked a boy upside the head who tried to grab my breasts, the home economics teacher said if I couldn’t stop acting like that no boy would ever marry me. I had no vision of what life could be without marrying a boy and gay marriage was still an oxymoron; I decided that marriage was a trap that I would never willingly step into. I mostly still think that.
I discovered feminism with an insatiable hunger. I read every book, bought every woman’s music album and joined consciousness raising groups, and coming out groups.
Today my female students often insist they are not feminists. My feminism is quaint to them, not the radical edge of human transformation, but nostalgia from a bygone generation. In their eyes I am a woman who still thinks that gender matters. Of course they believe in equal rights and equal pay for equal work. Of course they think that “girls” should go to college and become doctors. Their definition of feminism is: a woman who hates men. I try to explain that it was actually men who hated women, and we rebelled, us feminists. I tell them that all they have in their lives today is the fruits of a movement that women planted with our own hands, the soil was our very bodies. Gender, I insist, still matters.
The lesbian-feminist community that reared me does not exist anymore. The small coffee houses, the sense of commonality are relics of another day. Partially the movement that was, has been absorbed into the larger LGBTQQI-alphabet soup movement for queer civil rights. Partially it became transformed into academic women’s studies programs. Partially it has been co-opted, sold out to the dazzle of consumer capitalism and the lure of romantic security, represented by gay business and gay marriage. A friend smiles and says, “We really thought we could change the world,” and I remind her: we did. We changed the world.
I work for transgender rights and argue queer theory, and insist that it is feminism which was the mother of these freedoms. I give credit to women’s liberation for not only changing my world, but for changing the whole world, for starting a dialogue about rethinking gender that continues on today. Like all important tasks, dismembering patriarchy is the work of my many lifetimes.
I am nearly a crone now — more than half a century on this blessed planet, and I’m still doing my work. I still devour feminist books, but I do not allow feminism to devour me. I am critical of some of what has been done in the name of feminism, but I will not let other women define feminism for me, or dictate which acts of mine are feminist and which are colonized. I keep insisting that feminism is not a dirty word, but is a movement that has made possible all that has come since.
I embrace the queer youth of today, and I know they can do what they are doing precisely because we did the work of feminism. I plan to get old, grow my facial hair, get another tattoo, and wear bright red lipstick. Feminism has given me the freedom to be fully myself.
By Arlene Istar Lev LCSW, CASAC
Arlene Istar Lev is a social worker, family therapist, activist, and mother. She is the Founder of Choices Counseling and Consulting (www.choicesconsulting.com), and The Institute for Gender, Relationships, Identity and Sexuality (TIGRIS – www.tigrisinstitute.com). She can be reached at 518-438-2222 or Arlene@choicesconsulting.com.
We encourage you to read more on LGBT and family/child ethics with our special collection here on the blog and to comment below.