Roundtable: On Discovering Feminism

This week’s roundtable will feature each of our feminist origin stories – how we came to identify as feminists and how it has impacted and shaped our lives. One of my favourite parts of meeting other feminists is hearing all the many, many paths that lead women to take on this identity. Some have always known, and others took a longer journey. It’s interesting to see what varied backgrounds we have to bring to the movement, and I think its a testament to our strength that all these women and male allies can identify with something that has a slightly different meaning for each.

So, read on and enjoy our stories, and leave your own in the comments!


I realized I was a feminist during my time in community college.  Somehow I stumbled onto the Social Issues section at a mega-chain bookstore where my sister and I would spend hours reading and drinking coffee.  Bitchfest caught my eye: I bought it, read it in 2 days and I felt like a veil had been lifted off of me.  Until this point I had been unaware and ignorant about what feminism was. So many women in my family have been co-dependent; self-esteem and fulfillment has been derived from romantic relationships.  I wish I could say that all of the interesting, smart, sweet, funny and capable women in my were also heroic and adventurous but the truth is they have mostly aspired to a happily-ever-after solution to Bachelorette life.  Growing up that was pretty much a given— I had two vague future plans: To go to college and become a smart, dignified woman, and to probably find the man of my dreams along the way.

After realizing there is more to life than both of these goals (the former i have accomplished), I was able to start thinking about what I wanted to do in my life FOR ME.  I read Bitchfest around the same time as I had a pretty devastating break-up and had to really think about the possibility that I might NOT fulfill the happily-ever-after fate I believed in.  Or at least, I figured I had to stop depending on male attention as a form of capital in my life if I were to be authentically happy.  In other words, truly happy alone, whatever alone means.

I was probably already feminist in my actions before “realizing” it—becoming vegetarian, refusing to “serve dinner” to male family members are  proto-Feminist.  But I think consciously connecting my distaste for relationships of power, and reacting to them to promote equality is what feminist essentially means to me.  In my perspective and upbringing, the power of the male gaze has been unequally greater than that of women.  I grew up believing my mother loved her husband more than she loved us daughters by putting him before us.  But I realize today its just another example of a relationship of power operating in our household— the currency of male attention was far greater than that of children.  Identifying this behavior and changing it has been part of my realization that I am a feminist.

I came to feminism in a similar fashion to Mary — through reading. There’s a great used bookstore in my home town that would have a ‘buck-a-bag’ sale every summer. So I made my very understanding, rugby-player boyfriend of the time get up extra early that morning to help me lug six or seven bags home that were overflowing with books! I must have only paid 3-5 cents for each of them. It took me awhile to get through all of them, so one day a few months later I found The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and began to read.

The story changed how I saw the world. I looked around and saw how much of my life I had taken for granted. And I also had new words for the aspects that made me uncomfortable. Like double standards, misogyny, gender roles, oppression, patriarchy. I saw my mother and grandmothers with new respect. And I went to the library to find more books. At first I would hide them behind other books. I didn’t want anyone to associate me with the “F” word. I was afraid of the negative stereotypes, and was pretty sure I would never get another date if people found out. Clearly, I was wrong. (Very wrong. Three Cheers for feminist men!!!)

Thanks to some kickass support from my best friends, my family, and from some truly amazing men in my life, I came out as a feminist in my first year of university. Really though, I’ve been this way all my life, but now I have the words to express it. I loved my first Women’s Studies class so much (props to Professor Katherine Trevenen!) that I even added it to my degree. And now I’m exploring all the wonderful ways to reconcile my very feminine nature with my badass radical feminist side.

I was late to the feminist game for a number of reasons.  For most of my life, I thought as feminism as a movement that opposes sexism, and I didn’t think it was very relevant because I didn’t think sexism really happened much any more.  The way I saw it, I’d never been a victim of sexism, but I’d been a victim of homophobia plenty.  LGBT rights was relevant to my life, feminism wasn’t.  I didn’t know any feminists, and I had a fairly narrow idea of sexism.  I thought about things like voting and equal pay (irrelevant to me as a young woman), but I didn’t think about all the interconnectedness inherent in third wave feminism, about how being a woman intersects with sexuality, race, class, etc.  I also didn’t recognize ways in which I’ve been hurt by living in a patriarchal society because I was so used to them.  So in a way, feminism kind of hurts, in that I now know that I’ve experienced forms of sexual assault/abuse, and I know that a lot of how I perceive the world is based on a fucked-up system, etc.

I started identifying as a feminist last summer, at age 23.  Some of my reasons for not being a feminism had evaporated, because they went hand-in-hand with being bisexual: I liked men to hold doors for me, I liked to feel protected by men, etc.  When I was 21 and my identity shifted to lesbian, I was less into those forms of Southern hospitality/chivalry, so they didn’t really serve as an excuse for not being a feminist.  I also knew more feminists in college and law school, and I started working at an abortion clinic, running a project geared toward increasing financial access to abortion and emergency contraception.  I also read some feminist blogs, reasoning that I still wasn’t a “feminist” because I didn’t work hard for that movement, and it wasn’t a part of my life, though I agreed with feminism’s goals.  After a few months working with the clinic, I finally decided that I could legitimately identify as a feminist since I was working for women’s rights.  I also started blogging and writing my legal papers from a feminist perspective.  At this point, I don’t know that I’d say that you have to work towards feminism or make it a big part of your life to claim the title.  I think it’s more about awareness and working in your own life/mind than it is an activist badge.

I guess I’ve never got been a feminist, but I started calling myself one about a few weeks after I got dinner with a feminist friend. He’s the kind of friend with whom conversation is challenging, argumentative, and respectful. At dinner we talked a lot about a bunch of feminist issues. I had just finished a women’s studies course called Gender & Technology that had opened my eyes one heck of a lot. On the first day of the class, I was rolling my eyes right out of my head, and denying that sexism even existed in Canada still. By the last day, I felt I understood gender issues way better. I read the news and got angry, I browsed the women’s studies section at Chapters, I called people out of their sexist language choices. But I refused to identify as feminist.

While walking back to the subway, my friend asked me, “so, are you a feminist?” I responded vehemently in the negative! Of course not! He asked why not, and I gave all the usual reasons: they’re always angry! I shave my legs! I don’t think women are better than men, just equal! He just said, “okay” and we kept talking about other things. Later I started to reflect on my answer, and on all the wonderful people I know that call themselves feminist, and I did some research into the history of feminism. I don’t know when it happened, but I started calling myself a feminist after that.

Strangely enough, I found my Feminism through Catholicism.  I was raised to be a devout Irish Catholic – mass every Sunday (and don’t even think about eating breakfast beforehand!), patron saints, Catholic school, the whole deal.  And for most of my childhood, I loved the religion.  I loved the ritual and theatricality of it.  I would dress in a bathrobe with tights draped around my neck and perform mass for a congregation of stuff animals, complete with juice and crackers.  But what I especially loved were my patron saints, fierce Joan of Arc and defiant Brigid of Ireland.  These were women who were special, were chosen, and they didn’t let anyone, not even kings, bar them from their mission.  I was encouraged to model myself after these fiery crusaders (no pun intended).

But by the time I was about eleven, when the boys in my class were recruited into the prestigious group of altar servers and the deacons were very grudgingly obliged to admit a couple of girls, it occurred to me that this faith I loved did not love me back.  I could perform all the Triscuits communions I wanted, and when I grew up, I could teach Sunday school, but I would never be welcomed at the place of honor at the altar.  And young as I was, I could never be convinced that my separate but equal status was anything like fair.  Soon after, I began to actually listen to those long-winded homilies every Sunday, and I became aware that they were, in fact, talking about me and about the glorious future that I could have.  As a submissive wife and full time mother to a brood of Catholic kids.  And before long, I went from hurt and confused to one angry kid.  I don’t know who, but some oblivious soul must have told me what Feminism meant – women being equal to men, with all the same rights and capabilities – and I naturally concluded, “Well, that’s me.”
How did you begin identifying as feminist? Leave your story below!

One Response to Roundtable: On Discovering Feminism

  1. Sarah says:

    What a great post! I love hearing how other people started identifying as feminists. I grew up with a matter-of-fact-ly feminist mom which I suppose actually left me a little naive about the controversy surrounding the term.

    I assumed the only people who wouldn’t call themselves feminists were ancient and demented men who sat around waxing nostalgic about the days when women couldn’t vote or something.

    So while I had considered myself a feminist for as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until the moment when I sat in a classroom of journalism students, most of them young women, who had just been asked whether or not they would call themselves feminists, and realized that I was the only person with my hand up, that it became really significant to me.

    I actually posted a longer version of this story on my blog last International Women’s Day and then took part (with Lisa) in a great discussion on the topic over at 20-something bloggers.

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