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OUR OWN FEMINIST JOURNEYS
We are feminists. But we were not born that way, nor did we have to earn our PhDs in women’s studies to get that way (though some serious college study helped). We both started out the most regular of suburban white girls in the 1970s — as if you couldn’t tell all of this by our first names. We did not suffer some of the worst injustices of our time: We were not wealthy, but our families had more resources than the vast majority of the world. We were immune to the prejudice gay people our age faced because we were born straight. Our upbringings were almost shockingly mainstream. We both embraced high-school cheerleading without irony, agonized over good grades and boy crushes, and worshipped the likes of Pat Benatar, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper.
Like our love for those ladies, our feminism evolved — from something cool to reference to something we believed was intrinsic to our lives. You might see a little of yourself in our stories, even if you aren’t just like us.
JENNIFER: WORDS GAVE ME THE POWER
My youth in south suburban Chicago, land of winding subdivisions and endless strip malls, did not favor the intellectual or political, though smarts and humor ran deep, and good grades were a priority. My parents and I — I was an only child until age eight — liked food (grilled hamburgers, baked potatoes), music (Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Joel), and baseball (the White Sox, not the Cubs). We lived in a brown split-level on a safe cul-de-sac called Forest Court. We liked one another. We acted like The Brady Bunch, with fewer kids and less strife. Yes, that little strife.
In fact, I consider both of my parents to be my first feminist role models. My father worked as a grocery buyer for a chain of stores called Scot Lad Foods, and he was the primary breadwinner. He carried a briefcase in which he kept tantalizing supplies such as yellow legal pads and paper clips, and he let me play office, one of my favorite activities, with his stuff. Even better, I got to visit him at work and sit in his chair, talk on his phone, and doodle on his desk calendar, dreaming of someday having a workplace of my own. I’d watched a lot of Mary Tyler Moore show reruns over the years, and in a twist I’m sure working girl Mary Richards could never have seen coming, I somehow managed to idolize her by idolizing my father.
My mother had a part-time job as a substitute teacher, though she mostly stayed at home to raise me. She served as a best friend as much as a mother, and we shared the same taste in pop music and clothing. I wanted to be her and my father at the same time. What a lucky kid.
Of course, traditional gender roles permeated our home life. When Dad came home from a long day at the office and noticed I was wearing something new, he’d say, “That’s pretty. Where’d you get that?” And I would answer, “Mom bought it for me.” This inspired chuckles from my parents but only later did I figure out why — it was Dad who earned the money, Mom who spent it. Even so, my family counteracted those traditional ideas with lots of empowering messages. My grandfather never stopped talking about how I would be the first woman president. (We’ll leave aside the fact that he apparently knew we wouldn’t be ready for a female president for at least another forty years or so.) My father played catch with me, taught me chess, and shared his love of astronomy with me. My mother insisted on giving me thorough and repeated sex talks, starting when I was in seventh grade, with lessons on everything from birth control to saying no to when to say yes. (My mother’s patented method to ensure the child will listen to these talks: Subject her to them in the car; the kid can’t escape.)
When my siblings were born — first my brother, when I was eight, then my sister, when I was ten — I became an assistant parent. This gave me an extra sense of authority and bravado that would come in handy later.
Both my parents supported my first feminist fight, though at the time I didn’t realize that’s what it was: After spending my formative years as a cheerleader for the Oak Forest Flag Football League, I started coaching the younger girls’ cheerleading teams when I was about twelve. At that time, the league decided to turn the annual cheerleading competition into an exhibition — that is, they wanted to eliminate the judging aspect and give everyone a nice participation ribbon and a pat on the head for coming. I would have none of that — if the boys, as football players, could handle weekly competition culminating in an end-of-the-season trophy ceremony ranking teams first, second, and third, surely the girls could compete for one night. To me, competition was what made cheerleading a real sport, a sport I happened to love for its combination of performance, dance, and athletic stunts. I argued just that when I went before the league’s board to fight for the cheerleaders’ competition. I lost, but I was glad I’d fought.
Such early lessons in gender relations sank in without my thinking about them much, because I was, in many respects, fortunate. Though I suffered a minor sexist setback when our junior-high band director told me I had to play the clarinet instead of the drums — those were for boys, he said — I got to do everything else I wanted. I was a cocaptain of my competitive high-school cheerleading team, sports editor of the school newspaper, and an officer in the National Honor Society and on the student council. I fell in love during my senior year with a boy named Dave who treated me as an equal and best friend, with sexual pressure taking a back seat to intimate talks. Life, overall, went smoothly. I had no reason to believe I would ever be treated as anything but equal — and usually as special.
College changed things. At Northwestern University, I fell behind. I no longer sat at the top of the class. I was getting Ds, I hated my dorm, and I had only one real friend: my perfectly coiffed, well-off, effortlessly successful roommate. Dave broke up with me out of the blue, leaving me to fend for myself among fraternity boys who wanted me to come back to their rooms and who had no interest in hearing my patented “I’m not ready for sex and I hope you’ll respect that” talk that had worked just fine on high-school boys. I no longer led anything, I wasn’t on any teams or councils, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be, and my roommate made everything look easy — it all brought on massive insecurity. Women’s studies classes, however, started to help turn things around. Recognizing my mother’s and grandmother’s lives — and everything about them I didn’t want — in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, I felt like a magic spell had lifted that fate from my shoulders. Simone de Beauvoir seemed to be explaining, well, everything in The Second Sex. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Of course. That’s what was happening to me at that moment, and had been for a while — I just hadn’t noticed, because life had previously been so kind to me. Now I saw all the messages telling me You cannot compete; you must not have sex; you must be sexy; you must be sweet. Womanhood was my problem, in a nutshell. I had become a woman, and I was pissed about it. I did what I could. I read every classic feminist text I could find. I volunteered to be a sexual-assault-prevention educator. (How sad that those were even needed, and that they still are, perhaps more than ever.) I ranted enough about the world’s inequalities that my mother admonished me for being “too feminist,” which felt like some kind of victory. Dave came out of the closet, which explained why our high-school relationship had been so romantic — which is to say, so loving but lacking in sexual pressure. Now I was worked up about gay rights too — I hated the things people said to him as much as I hated the fact that the only love of his life he could marry legally was me, the person with whom he wanted to share lots of things but not sex or marriage.
How had the world become so unjust?
That activist fire dimmed a bit once the real world took hold. I fell in love with a boy in college, and when I graduated, I decided to follow him to Southern California, where he was serving in the U.S. Navy. I became a newspaper reporter, and writing three stories a day about mall plans and petty thefts and county fairs left little time for worrying about empowerment. Not to mention that women had overrun at least the lower ranks of the media business, giving my small world an “oh, good, we’re done with that” feeling about feminism. I was more worried about maintaining the rather trying relationship with my boyfriend. It soon became clear that because he was a military man, I was the one who had to bend her life to accommodate the typical early-twenties on-again-off-again liaison. I thought that was what you did to get the brass ring — or, more specifically, the diamond ring — of marriage. You worked at it. You compromised.
This proved true, in a way: We eventually moved to New York, bought a condo together, and got engaged. I started working in magazines, and that’s when inequalities began to feel prominent again in my life. I got a job at Entertainment Weekly. Its staff was heavy on smart, empowered women, but the industry I was now covering was not: movies and television are not kind to women, particularly women over thirty or those with any discernible physical flaws. It depressed me enough — staring at and meeting freakishly perfect-looking actresses day after day — that I considered going to work at another magazine. But where would I go? To a women’s magazine so I could spend my days telling readers how to put on eye shadow and please their men, as if those were the only important things in life? No, thank you. I knew I wanted to stay in the media, and I loved the idea of addressing issues of womanhood, but the way most mainstream women’s magazines worked turned me off. And I had an otherwise dream gig at Entertainment Weekly, where at least, I figured, I could use my platform to critique the ways pop culture presented women.
Around this same time, I canceled my wedding, even though I had spent a decade dreaming of nothing but marrying the man who was then my fiancé. Things began to unravel when he started planning our life together — a house in suburban New Jersey, a dog, and kids were in his vision of the immediate future, and he simply assumed I wanted the same. It wasn’t until he told me this that I knew I definitely didn’t want it, the way you’re not sure what you want to eat for dinner but know it’s definitely not Chinese when your dining companion suggests it. I realized, with the same clarity that I know I hate beef chop suey, that I wanted something other than that life in the suburbs raising kids, the life my mother had accepted without question when she married my father, her college sweetheart. Nothing against my parents or the suburbs or marriage or kids — I just wanted to take advantage of the choices now afforded to thirty-year-old women, choices feminism gave me.
I could enjoy being single. I could focus on being a writer, which was what I now knew I wanted more than anything in life. I could live on my own. I also wanted to make my own money and decisions, something that just wasn’t built into the DNA of my relationship with my fiancé. He’d always assumed — dare I say it? — the patriarchal role in our partnership, and up to that point, I’d mindlessly let him. Now I saw it clearly, and I couldn’t live with it. I didn’t know yet how feminist this epiphany was. I just longed for a bigger life.
HEATHER: IMAGINATION + ENCOURAGEMENT = FEMINIST POWER
I grew up in California, the second of six children born to hippies. I used to use this fact as a punch line when talking about my parents. Usually, it came after I disclosed my full name: Heather Spring Wood. Only tree-hugging flower children could come up with that, right? I eventually realized that the hippie ideology meant more than long hair (Dad’s ponytail was epic) and an insistence on an organic vegan diet (not particularly yummy to a young child). It was a political statement. Being a hippie in the 1970s and 1980s meant eschewing materialism, embracing unity, and streamlining your life. Much of our food came from the garden and chicken coop that took up most of the backyard. Clothing was handed down, and shiny new toys were scarce. Instead, my mother — who stayed home with us kids while my dad finished school and started a chiropractic practice — let us run wild outside and entertained us by dancing and singing along to her favorite records by the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Fleetwood Mac — or, more often than not, just making up her own songs on the fly. It was the perfect environment to cultivate a vivid imagination.
My dad eventually cut his hair, our diet went mainstream, and we got the toys we begged for. It’s a challenge to maintain a political, restrictive lifestyle when you have six children who want, want, want! I admire my parents for doing it as long as they did, even if I hated the grainy soy milk and ill-fitting clothes. I credit this upbringing for instilling the hippie-centric values (now a compliment, not a joke) I practice to this day: conscious eating, environmental activism, and feminism.
My parents may have been cast in traditional roles — my father the breadwinner, my mother the caretaker — but this setup was never idealized. Both parents encouraged my siblings and me (just girls for the first six years) to set goals, take risks, and dream of careers. They pushed us to be self-sufficient and accountable. As a big sister, I was often left to care for my younger siblings and lead by example. This gave me a confidence I had perhaps not yet earned. Whenever I faltered, I looked to my early role models for empowerment. If Madonna, Debbie Gibson, and Cyndi Lauper could be superstars, I could do anything too. My path was decidedly less pop, though. I found my niche as a writer after joining my high-school newspaper, but I didn’t know it was my niche until my (female) adviser praised and encouraged me in a way that only my parents had done previously. Not to devalue my parents’ important, influential affection, but emotional cheerleading and unadulterated support seem more real when they’re not coming from the people who made you.
Ms. Noguchi (decidedly a Ms.) was one of my first feminist role models. She made me want to be not just a writer but also a leader. She ruled our rowdy newsroom with wit and discipline. In that environment, the girls seemed to thrive — most of the top editing jobs were filled by my female classmates. She encouraged me to apply for internships and scholarships others had deemed “too competitive” for me (something a male adviser told me on more than one occasion) and cheered on my “leap first, ask questions later” ambition. She knew it would force me to learn some tough lessons along the way (indeed, Ms. Noguchi, indeed), but she saw a spark and didn’t want to put it out before the fire could ignite.
I was becoming a feminist even if I didn’t understand what that was yet.
As I think of all the formative moments in my life, I realize that strong women are the constant. My hard-ass journalism professor at Syracuse University made more than one student cry with her unwavering expectation of excellence (you don’t win two Pulitzers without it). When it was my time for tears, she didn’t change the first grade of C I’d seen ever but instead nurtured my desire to earn the A. My first women’s studies professor wouldn’t pass a student if she didn’t commit to part-time volunteerism for at least a year — we had to sign contracts and everything. For a time-starved undergrad, taking on another task seemed impossible, and many dropped the class, but seeing the course through made me realize how important it was (and is) to give to others, always. The news editor at my very first newspaper internship took a red pen to every story I turned in, pointing out lazy sentences and lecturing me (hard) for any factual error. At the time, I thought she hated me; now I know she cared enough to make me remember, learn from, and never repeat my mistakes — an invaluable lesson for me as a journalist and as a person. These strong women reiterated for me the lessons from my parents: Believe in yourself and be yourself.
OUR FEMINIST MEET-CUTE
Jennifer and I met when we were both on a journey to find — and become — our true selves. We met when both of our lives were in apparent disarray: we had just lost the men in them. Jennifer had recently broken up with her fiancé, and I had just moved to New York City and left behind a ten-year relationship. A mutual friend recommended I connect with Jennifer because she thought we would click. What an understatement. We bonded first over broken hearts but quickly moved on to a shared passion to do something bigger than the traditional framework of our lives had outlined for us. In a way, we answered each other’s need to become a feminist activist.
On our first “date” we went to see, appropriately, Bend It Like Beckham, a story of female soccer players and friendship. Afterward, we agreed we hated current women’s magazines and wished we had our own publication for which to write, one that would print stories on things we cared about. Bust was just emerging as a more modern Ms. (and note: swoon!), but the newsstand was dominated by women’s self-help magazines — the kinds that tell women how to do everything they already know how to do and how to fix everything that isn’t broken. Don’t get me wrong: we both loved fashion, makeup, entertainment, and sex. But if we must write about makeup and fashion, we reasoned, couldn’t we write about the ways they both empower and restrict us? Wasn’t there a lot to be said about how pop culture treats women? Shouldn’t someone be writing more in depth and frankly about women’s sex lives? Where was all the real information in women’s media?
Buzzed on indignation and too much caffeine one Sunday afternoon, we decided to launch a website that did all of that. SirensMag.com went live in January of 2006. We learned to run our own business by making lots of mistakes. We found our voices as writers and as feminists. The more we spoke our own truths and allowed other women to do the same as contributors, the more we realized our site wasn’t just an alternative online women’s magazine, as we’d originally marketed it, but a feminist community.
We relaunched as SexyFeminist.com in 2011 to reflect our now-specific brand of feminism, one that, above all else, owns the oft-maligned word feminist and aims to show young women how fun, empowering, and, yes, sexy it is to fight for women’s rights and choices. This book grew out of that. We want to help other women find their own feminism, just as we found ours.
We set out on a mission to change publishing, and we changed ourselves instead. And that’s what feminism is about: regular people turning themselves into activists through the power of their own thinking.