I have been feeling nostalgic since Halloween. When I was little, my mother used to dress me up as important women from history; one year I was Helen of Troy and the next I was Emmeline Pankhurst (I know there’s a big difference). This year I felt like being ironic, so I showed up at the ward’s trunk or treat as a Stepford Wife. I had a pink, floral, 50’s style dress on with a cardigan, apron and pearls. My name tag read “Mrs. Brandon S. Matthews…Stepford Wife” (this allowed my husband to go as himself). Honestly, I don’t think a lot of people got it, perhaps it would have been different if they had known that I have only partially taken my husband’s name and I am the breadwinner in the family. And of course, people now associate Stepford Wives with a horrible Nicole Kidman movie.
So you’re thinking, Okay…this walk down Halloween lane has been fascinating, but what does it have to do with how you became a feminist? I’m glad you asked. So there I was, walking around looking like Stepford Wife, holding my squirming baby dressed in a red M&M costume that I had stayed up till 4 a.m. hand sewing (I know, the ironies never end) and I ran smack dab into the man that made me into a feminist! Awkward! The last time I saw him, I was nineteen and telling him that it was ok that he hadn’t called me for four months and had broken my heart.
Immediately old memories started popping up, like the time he told me that “a college degree was only a piece of paper for a girl” or that “women have no history outside of their husband and children”. But my favorite was when he said that families with too many girls in them were “weak”, knowing I came from a family of all girls. Oh how I wanted to use my hard won assertiveness to fill this man with shame, but all I could do was stand there. He, on the other hand, quickly maneuvered a little pirate and his wife dressed as Miss America (I kid you not!) as the little boy asked, “Daddy, why aren’t we stopping at that one?” I heard him reply as he walked past me, “Because there is nothing there.”
The anger hit me in one huge wave and I wanted to scream at him, “Do you know what you’ve done to me!” But the nicety that has been socialized into me as a Mormon woman, the same nicety that allowed me to absolve him of his jack-assery towards me at nineteen, took over and I walked on to the next car. But not without reflecting on the road that this man inadvertently put me on.
I grew up in a pro-feminist home; I mean, my mother dressed me as Emmeline Pankhurst for goodness sake and my father is the kindest, most Christ-like man on the planet. I grew up reading Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, I identified with the strong female characters that I read about. I remember telling a little boy in 4th grade that I was a feminist (all I got was a puzzled look, how many 4th graders know what a feminist is?). When we got those ridiculous lessons in Young Women’s about homemaking and husband-keeping, I laughed at them and thought they were completely irrelevant to women of the 21st century. It honestly never occurred to me that some people still viewed women as less important than men. So I was completely unprepared for my first serious relationship with a man who happened to be a sexist.
A year at a church school had completely indoctrinated in me the importance of getting married and fulfilling my role as a woman as quickly as possible. When I went home for the summer to a new state and met that handsome and confident newly returned missionary, I was a prime target to be easily manipulated. I changed myself to fit what this man wanted; I pointedly ignored all the wonderful things I had been taught by my parents.
But nobody can change who they are completely and when we got back to school and I started taking a Women’s History class, the core of who I am started stirring once again. I remember talking to him about how women had been oppressed throughout history and he told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that I should keep my opinions to myself. Those words hurt me deeply but I didn’t say anything because I thought I was in love with this man and I wanted to keep him happy. After that, he never called me again. I think that he probably realized he was loosing control over me and so he cut his losses and moved onto a more malleable girl.
After the initial grief at the loss of my first love, the anger came. Anger at myself for changing who I was. Anger at men for being such jerks. Anger at the church for giving men the privilege of being jerks. Anger at God for allowing women to be oppressed by His sanctioned doctrines. I had a crisis of faith. It doesn’t matter right now how I got through that, I’m sure that I will talk about that at some later point, but a series of tender mercies were given to me and I am mostly at peace.
Like I said, I am mostly at peace and have a wonderful, happy life but I am not unscathed from my journey through feminism. Being a Mormon feminist is often a painful, lonely lot. I am much more cynical than I was at nineteen and I tend to see the worst in people, especially men. I won’t lie, there are days when I want to scream at that man, “Look at what you’ve done to me” because the journey is so hard. I know that I will spend the rest of my days fighting men like him and keeping my daughters safe from their sons. I will never fully forgive him because I will never fully be at peace, that is the lot of a Mormon feminist. But most days I am grateful for the road I am on and the awareness and complexity in my life.