My earliest lesson in feminism occurred in 1970. I was attending my graduation from nursery school (yes, that’s what they called it back then). Each child stood at the podium and declared their future career choice. I proudly stood before all the parents and announced that I wanted to be a nurse. As the family lore goes, my mother asked me after the ceremony why I wanted to be a nurse. My reply was something like the following, “Because girls can’t be doctors.” Horrified, my mother explained to me that, of course, I could become a doctor. That response would not only propel my professional destiny, but it also became the foundation of my feminist education.
Over the years, and throughout each stage of development, my mother’s voice would sound out in various ways, but always with the same message: You can be or do anything that you want. Given that I had already declared my passion for medicine at the age of four, the inferred presumption was that I would become a physician. And, of course, I did.
In retrospect, I realize that my desire to become a physician was intermingled with my concept of feminism. In a way, I was proving (to whom I’m not sure) that a girl really can do and become whatever she wants.
However, my mother also taught me – and these lessons were much more obtuse and never clearly verbalized – that a gentleman holds open car doors and of course, he picks up the bill after a date. She taught me that upon marrying, it would really be his job to support me. Although these contradictions seem obvious today, in my formative years, I was blindly indoctrinated in two parallel concepts: career choice for women alongside men’s responsibility to support me.
This pick and choose brand of feminism became even more complicated as I entered my early professional years. I had internalized this sense of gratefulness that I was allowed to be a physician (after all, my mother didn’t have that option). I felt like I had been accepted into a fraternity, and I didn’t want to rock the boat or call attention to myself as a woman. During my medical internship, I regularly experienced sexist comments. Some of the comments were seemingly innocuous. On one occasion an older male physician counseled the women interns not to wear perfume because it was unprofessional. In restrospect, “unprofessional” was code for “too female”. Other comments were glaringly obvious. I told my surgerical attending physician that a patient was bleeding profusely. His response? “Is it as much as your period?”
As a woman in a previously male dominated profession. My solution for success was to become as much like the guys as I could. I don’t think this decision was a conscious one, and certainly the fashion industry seemed to be experiencing the same challenge. Just like the women in the magazines, I cut my hair and wore flat shoes and shoulder pads. During my residency, I hid my pregnancy as long as I could. When my daughter was born, I used my 2 week vacation allotment and was back to work on day 15. As difficult as that experience was for me, at the time, it was also a point of pride. I didn’t want anyone to think that I required any special dispensation. I had just undergone childbirth – the epitome of a uniquely female experience. I was so short on insight in those days that I was incapable of recognizing how truly feminist that experience can be.
Not recognizing any deficiencies in my feminist doctrine, I proudly raised my daughters similarly to the way my mother raised me. The flavor was a bit different, because as a working mom, I felt that I was leading by example. But as my daughters reached their high school and then college years, it became clear that there were some cracks in my feminism. And it was my own girls who finally pointed these out. One day we were watching the news on TV, and I commented on the hair of the female anchor. I mentioned that I thought her hair was too long and she should cut it. My daughter pounced on me. She informed me that the anchor should be able to wear her hair any way she liked and that her hair length in no way reflected her aptitude as a news anchor. I was confused and didn’t understand the big deal. Another time, I commented on a pair of very short shorts a woman was wearing, and again, I was chastised. My daughter (the other one this time) asked if it had occurred to me that this woman was dressing for herself and not for others. Again, I was baffled.
These two examples demonstrate the core of my broken feminism. Over time, my girls have taught me that today’s feminism is not about trying to fit in with the guys but rather it’s about achieving all that a man can without sacrificing her X chromosome. A woman can be feminine if she chooses, and still be high achieving and equal to men. Or she can be a stay-at-home mom, and this choice does not diminish her worth or equality to men. Yes, to quote my mom, “A woman can be anything that she wants.” But she is inherently a woman first.
Looking back at my experience and then ahead to my daughters’, it has become clear that being a feminist in the 21st century means doing better than I did. It’s no longer enough to “be anything that we want”. Each woman’s personal pursuit must make sense for her both as a person and as a woman. We need to own our gender identity. And as our daughters move through life and into the next generation, they must grow and develop in a way that propels the definition of gender equality. I’m proud that my daughters’ perspective has built upon mine, and I hope to see what feminism will mean to my granddaughters and generations to come.