Rattle and Pen: This IS What a Feminist Looks Like

Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art. This is a reprint of a piece originally published in 2013.

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The year I went away to college my mother, who had been a nurse all of her adult life, went back to school, too. While I was in one corner of the state studying English at a small and expensive private, liberal arts school, she was in the other, majoring in women’s studies at a state college extension program during the day, then going home in time to meet my little sister’s school bus, make dinner, and throw a load of laundry in the wash before starting her homework. It must have been an incredible amount of work, but she loved it. She loved being back in school, loved learning, loved her new-found identity as a scholar. Whenever we spoke over the phone she quoted me passages from her women’s studies textbooks—“The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own” (Betty Friedan), for instance. Or, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (Virginia Woolf). She was incensed and inspired. I pictured her crossing campus with a Jansport littered in political buttons slung over one shoulder (“This is what a feminist looks like!” and “Riots Not Diets”), a pair of Birkenstocks on her feet, her hair growing longer as it grew grayer in the years to come. It was wonderful. And I found the whole thing to be an embarrassment. A serious embarrassment. I mean, didn’t my mother know she was about thirty years too late to that party? Why couldn’t she have burned her bra with the rest of her generation (back when she was still young enough for bra-lessness and liberal radicalism to be cute)? Having her political awakening at forty-three just seemed so socially awkward, not to mention inconsiderate. I mean, really; she was someone’s mother. And anyway, what was the point? Hadn’t equal rights for women already been secured in the U.S.? Like, a million years ago?

So there was this, my youthful ignorance and daughterly humiliation, blooming at the nautilus of my consciousness when one evening during the spring semester of that year I took up arguing with a classmate across the dinner table. She was a women’s studies major, too, like my mother, and she was appalled when I told her that I didn’t consider myself a feminist. How can you even say that? she asked. I don’t remember what I said in return, but I can see myself shrugging, dismissing her zeal as the usual sort of college activism-theater. Feminism seemed to me then just another costume people tried on while they sorted out their adult identities. And, I thought, it’d be about as relevant in the “real” world as the doublet that Medieval enthusiast kid in the next quad liked to wear. You see, at nineteen, I truly believed that I was living in a post-feminist society. I had never felt denied anything I had wanted to achieve because of my sex (because of my individual failures or inadequacies, yes, but not because of my sex). Sure, I’d had a few unfortunate run-ins with obvious misogynists, but they were the exception, not the rule. Men were my equals, I thought—and I thought it in just that way: men were my equals. I had no squabble with the world, and the world, I figured, had none with me.

And then I grew up.

Twelve years later I was seated at another dinner table. I was by then a member of the faculty in creative writing at a small, liberal arts college, and this dinner was in honor of a visiting writer my department was hosting—a male writer, much celebrated. I had read the visitor’s latest book before his arrival on campus and had been impressed—so impressed, in fact, that I thought I might teach it the following semester. I was eager to get a chance to speak to him after the reading, and was thrilled to be seated beside him at the post-reading dinner, thrilled to have the opportunity to tell him how much I respected his writing.

It’s important at this point to step away from the story and clarify that on this particular night, I was technically on maternity leave. Well, not actually “maternity leave,” since my college did not offer “maternity” leaves—more like the don’t-call-it-maternity-leave-in-public leave I had negotiated under-the-table with my sympathetic female dean. I was not teaching, though, and this dinner was the first event that had required me to be away from my newborn daughter for longer than a couple of hours. In anticipation of it, I’d been slavishly pumping and freezing breast milk for weeks, but as I took my seat next to our illustrious guest, I was still a little preoccupied with visions of the domestic unrest my husband might be facing back at home.

Also, and more immediately pressing, was the state of my under-nursed breasts. You see, even if you can accustom your baby to a night off the breast every now and then (and I wasn’t sure I had), it can take days to break your body of its lactation routine. Perhaps a reasonable new mother (or at least one with tenure) might have simply excused herself from the table for half an hour, retired to a stall in the restaurant’s lavatory, and “pumped-and-dumped” until the situation was resolved, but for me the humiliation of that scenario seemed too impossible to bear. I hadn’t brought a pump. And so by the time drinks were served, my breasts felt feverish and knobbly, as heavy as if I’d packed my nursing bra with pea-gravel instead of the Kleenex I was hoping would staunch any leaks. I was in some genuine pain. But I was determined to ignore it all for the time being. I was the only mother of young children at the table, I was seated next to my new literary idol, and I was not going think about exploding milk ducts or hysterical infants. I was going to be professional.

We ordered our meals and chit-chat started up. I turned to l’Auteur and introduced myself, smiled, told him how much I’d loved his book. He smiled in return, but then he asked me what else I was reading. “Well,” I said, my mind flipping frantically through the stacks of children’s books that made up most of my current mental library. (Kevin Henkes, I heard myself saying in my mind. Russell Hoban. Mo Willems. Are you familiar with his Elephant and Piggy books? They have such great narrative voice!) I paused.

“I’m reading the new Alice Munro,” I finally said. This was true. I’d bought her latest collection just before going into the hospital to deliver. I’d made room for it in my hospital bag, in fact, and the day after giving birth I had one beautiful, perfect afternoon sitting in my hospital bed, my brand new daughter sleeping on my chest, pale winter sunlight coming in through the window, and Alice Munro’s stories open in my hands. Alice Munro has been the major literary influence of my life. (My husband and I actually considered naming our daughter Alice for a while, or Willa, though we eventually settled on Virginia.) Munro is the truest of my book-loves, and in that afternoon of reading her newest collection in my hospital room I felt the brief, complete peace of the two halves of my self knitting seamlessly together: book and baby, baby and book.

But Mr. Literary made a face.

“You didn’t like it?” I asked.

He smiled again, polite. “I know lots of people love her work. I just find it… boring.”

Our conversation more or less ended there, which was fine, as within fifteen minutes I got a phone call from my husband, who had driven from our apartment to the restaurant and was sitting in the parking lot with our sleeping three-year-old and inconsolable infant (she wouldn’t take the bottle). I told my dean I had a family emergency, left my uneaten chicken tikka on the plate, and went outside to nurse my daughter in the passenger seat of the car. All the way home—once the baby was sated and sleeping in her carseat—I thought again about Alice Munro. I’d become one of her characters, it occurred to me: a woman who, nearing middle-age, suddenly looks up from the mostly good but sometimes numbingly circadian rhythms of her domesticity to realize that no one sees her as she sees herself anymore. They see her and everything she does, in fact, as boring. And they don’t care about her story.

This brings me to now, and to this blog. Last week [April 9, 2013], writer Deborah Copaken Kogan published an essay in The Nation (“My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters”) discussing the Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction) and her experience of writing and publishing as a woman in a sphere of culture that she argues remains dominated by men. She writes, “Men, in other words, are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.” Her essay comes a month after the 2012 VIDA Count, which reports only slightly less dismal findings than the 2011 Count. Women writers, it is abundantly clear, are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to getting their work published, reviewed, and read.

I read Kogan’s essay with a resurgence of the disappointment and discouragement I felt sitting in that darkened car with my daughter a couple of years ago. It’s a feeling that’s becoming more and more common among the women writers I know. A nauseous, angry burn in the gut. A feminist reflux turned literary GERD. It’s not a new malady, but I think that for a long time most of us simply ignored it. It’s unseemly to claim disadvantage, after all, especially in a world as directly subjective and inherently competitive as the literary world. And beyond that—worse than that—it validated our own secret fears about ourselves. What if it’s us? we whispered to ourselves over our novel drafts. What if our work is less important? Less relevant? What if our genius is smaller? What if we just haven’t been trying hard enough? Of course, these are the unspeakable fears that every writer knows—male and female; but I’ve begun to suspect that the voice speaking them rings a little louder in the ears of women writers. In the days after I read Kogan’s essay, I turned these questions over and over again in my mind. I worried them to hard little stones. I looked at my children and fretted that perhaps all the time I spend away from them trying to put words together into beautiful, meaningful narratives might just be wasted time in the end.

But then, I thought of Alice Munro. I thought of her and of all the amazing women writers whose work has shaped the person I am and the way I perceive the world. I thought of the gifted women writers I am lucky to have as friends and mentors, and of the wonderfully supportive men who have edited and read and cheered on my work, and my disappointment was replaced with certainty, with determination, with gratitude.

This column is a channel for that gratitude. My intent in creating it is to open up a space in which to continue in a more personal context the conversation about women and literature/women in literature that has already begun elsewhere. Currently, there are four regular contributors to Rattle & Pen, though I envision expanding the column over time to include a larger network of writers and reviewers—both women and men—who will discuss here a wide range of subjects. Because we’re all working toward the same goal: a vibrant literary culture in which good writing is lifted up, no matter its writer, and finds its way into the hands of eager readers.

And, p.s., I offered this to my mother to read before posting, just for her seal of approval, and she said, god(dess)-like: “It is good.” I suppose that means this is what a feminist looks like after all.

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