Thanks to my great friend and an activist who has always put her convictions into action, Rita Harkins Dickinson for this guest post. She wrote this moving personal essay after attending a WomenGirlsLadies inter-generational panel.
After attending the Feldt-Barbanell Women of the World Lecture at Arizona State University recently, I have questioned if I can honestly call myself a feminist. I always thought of myself as one, but do I deserve to wear the badge? The remarkable women on the panel had defining moments that justified them considering themselves feminists. I don’t have one “aha” moment. My sense of feminism is more organic.
My childhood was glorious. I am a Boomer, but June Cleaver was only a fantasy character on television. Conversely, I didn’t have militant women in my life either. Women surrounding me were strong, independent, and smart. Although our family is small, I had eight significant female relatives within reach: my mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmother, my aunt, two great aunts and a great-great aunt.
Most of the significant influences in my childhood were subtle, yet extremely fond memories. I remember attending graduate classes with my mother, taking colored pencils and newsprint (we weren’t allowed to have coloring books – they would stifle creativity). We spent a great deal of time outdoors; we went to the beach, and we camped every summer. None of this is remarkable, except that my mother had survived polio when pregnant with my older brother, resulting in paralysis from the waist-down.
One of my earliest memories is of serving cookies at Red Cross blood drives while my mother volunteered. And I remember when I was about nine years old, a man at church said something about my mother being a paraplegic. I assured him that she was a Christian. I guess I had never heard the word.
I never felt my family was different from others until a few years ago when conducting a class on “the changing face of the family” and we featured families who were traditionally considered atypical. Talk about an “aha” moment!
There are those who resent the Americans with Disabilities Act and the adaptations that provide accessibility to those who have physical challenges, and there are those who park in handicapped accessible parking places. They have no idea! Looking back, I remember my mother having to park far from entrances, struggling to open heavy doors while balancing on her crutches, navigating turnstiles and very small public restroom stalls. One of the aspects I considered a treat but now realize was a big hassle was walking to the deep recesses of public buildings to find the freight elevator, gaining access, closing those heavy gates, and chugging up and down to access upper and lower levels of those structures. And I remember when children (and some adults) would stare at my mother’s full braces and crutches. She would calmly explain that she needed help walking.
My mother was never a victim. She drove, she worked outside the home, and she certainly carried her weight as a wife and mother. She was college educated and yet was unable to apply her education because women who were not considered “able-bodied” were also considered unable to work in the professional arena. It wasn’t until I lived on my own that I realized most fathers didn’t do the grocery shopping.
Why do I believe in health care reform? My family did not have health insurance when polio struck. My mother, a graduate of a prestigious university, spent months in an iron lung along with hundreds of others in a public facility.
Why do I believe in civil rights? I remember, on a very deep level, how my very intelligent mother was treated as “less than.” Looking back, it was a lifelong lesson in discrimination.
Why do I believe all people who love each other deserve rights? I know there are those who questioned how my father could stay with my mother after she was paralyzed.
Why do I believe in reproductive rights? I have personally heard people say that people who are physically disabled should not have children. Thank goodness my parents didn’t feel that way!
I know I am a pacifist. I know I am a humanist. I know I am an activist. I know, as trite as it may sound, that struggling teaches the deepest lessons. Did I have to struggle? No. Did I know my mother was struggling? No, not often. Does it hurt to the core when exclusive comments are made? Absolutely.
Recently I have been concerned that the lessons of the Seventies have been lost. Perhaps it is because those who did not struggle or did not witness struggles take for granted the progress made in the second half of the twentieth century.
Am I a feminist? I hope so. Can I justify that? I hope so. Do I put my thoughts and words into action? I hope so.