I Only Know About Feminism from Books

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I’m contributing a post today to Feminisms Fest.

The story I read wasn’t true, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. Perhaps a made up story was the most real thing I’d encountered in a very long time.

As a young college student obsessed with sports, dating, and highlighting passages in my Bible, I had a list of problems that mirrored every other white suburban college educated male. Perhaps those problems helped me read that “made up” but true story in the first place.

Good heavens, what college guy hasn’t had it out with his parents? We’d surely had our share of conflict as I exerted my new found freedom. As such, I lamented how I was misunderstood and held back. Everything in life was stacked against me. I was the parody of every overwrought pop song.

My life was a symphony of tiny violins.

In the midst of this shrill melody, that untrue story showed me reality.

Of course the only way to get a strident, conservative English major to really listen was to blend a good story with the Bible, and that’s exactly what Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin did for me. It hooked me with the religious drama that felt so familiar—the guilt, the fire, the expectations, the performance, the awe, and the mystery.

The story hit all of the right notes for me as it explored sin and judgment, but then a subtle message started to tap away at my flimsy, self-centered world.

I started by noticing the strained relationship between father and son where the son felt like he could never measure up to a severe father’s standards. It made me uncomfortable, and rather than explore this tension further, I searched for any other theme or story line that could relieve me of that burden.

The story of African American women in America could not have been further from my limited attention span at that time. Since they didn’t play hockey or baseball and my college was overwhelmingly white, I had few chances to see the world from their perspective.

That changed when I read Go Tell It on the Mountain. In the midst of the struggle between father and son and faith and doubt, there was a pulsating tension between the men and women in the story. While the African American men worked through plenty of conflict and disadvantages, the African American women had it far worse off as they suffered at the hands of both white society and African American men.

One bit of dialogue that I can’t quite remember involved a conversation between two African American women. One of them remarked that there was no one lower than a black woman. As I watched the men abuse, take advantage of, and abandon women throughout the story, I saw her point. Who would speak up for their interests? Who would give them a voice?

Throughout Baldwin’s story, the men repeatedly made decisions for the women, leaving the women at their mercy.

Thus my eyes were opened for the first time to gender inequality, to say nothing of racism. I saw how dramatically different my own life had been and would be in comparison to these women who were expected to submit quietly to their men while bearing the brunt of the responsibility for any moral lapse with a man.

For the first time I saw just how dramatically my gender and race impacted my advantages in modern America.

We all have a tendency to think we’ve got it the hardest. Take Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock for instance, “I’ll tell you who has it the hardest: White Men. We make the unpopular, difficult decisions – the tough choices. We land on the moon and Normandy Beach and they resent us.”

While we laugh at that, there’s a kernel of truth in that little bit of fiction. We know that Jack isn’t a real character, but he also acts as a mirror we uneasily hold up to ourselves. Yes, we all have our problems, but some folks have much bigger problems than us white men.

Ever since those days in college where a made up story opened my eyes to the truth, I’ve avoided debates and arguments that stray from stories, particularly true ones. Any time I heard a preacher on the radio decry the “feminist movement,” I knew that he’d lost sight of the stories of real people who want dignity and equality.

Every significant change in my life has come by interacting with a story. That’s why I’ve been committing to sharing stories above entering into arguments. In my own case, a made up story in a book was the best way to teach me the truth.

Read more stories about feminism today at Danielle Vermeer’s blog, fromtwotoone.com or link up with your own post about why feminism matters to you.

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