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Shelf it: a conservative girl's guide to feminism

Aug. 31, 2017
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Now, listen: I am not, nor have I ever been, stupid. However, I will say that I was slightly ignorant for a long time. The thoughts that my high school brain produced often make me cringe, and my view of other women was disgustingly skewed.

You see, I was under the impression that I was going to change the world. I know it sounds silly, but I was dead convinced that I was going to be some sort of philanthropist/activist superstar who was going to change millions of lives and become a household name. I’m not saying I thought I was Mother Teresa, but I’m not saying that would’ve been too far off. 

I was surrounded by spiritual radicals. These were people who often referred to themselves as “planet shakers”, which in hindsight is a scary concept. Ever seen those “Not Of This World” bumper stickers? That was me: a righteous young Christian girl who believed it was her destiny to remake the world in God’s image.

Maybe I was prideful, but I was hell-bent on doing extremely important things with my life. I wanted to be better; I wanted to accomplish better things. And something I never considered to be better was women-focused work or women’s advocacy. I wanted to run in the male league. I wanted to be a CEO or something crazy. I wanted to be a philosopher. Name one profoundly impactful female philosopher. At age 17, I couldn’t. 

A piece of advice my mother gave me at a young age that I have always held onto is the phrase: “Put it on the shelf.” As I said, I grew up in a “spiritually radical” community where people would say all sorts of things to the youngest among us. I would often be given “words from the Lord”—people would speak to my destiny, tell me where and what they saw me doing years down the line. People would try to read me and tell me parts of my future. With every word I was given, my mom told me the importance of “putting them on the shelf”:  any word of advice about my future, any insight into who I was or what my earthly purpose might be, was to be placed on a shelf in the back of my head. If any of it came to pass, I could take it off the shelf; if it never did, it would rest on the shelf forever.

Around age 17, I started receiving a lot of predictions that I found utterly appalling. “You are going to be a great example to young women.” “You are going to be an advocate for women.” “Your work will be women focused and empowering to women.” Ugh. Vomit.  I stacked those things as far back on the shelf as I could and focused on dreaming up my career as an award-winning author—an influential thinker running in the major leagues with all those adult men. Essentially, my 17-year-old dream was to be a cis white man. I giggle thinking about this now. 

It wasn’t until my first year of college that I noticed real-life discrimination due to my gender. The first class I took for my Philosophy major was an all-male class, the only exception being yours truly, standing at 5’3” and taking notes in purple gel pen. Around all that masculine energy, I began to feel like I was stupid and out of place. And soon I realized that they thought so, too.

I recall thinking, “No, no, don’t treat me like this! I’m just like you. I want to seek intelligence. I want to write profound books. I want to analyze the Socratic Method just as much as the next guy. Don’t come up to me after class and try to re-explain to me what the professor just told all of us. No, I am just like you!”

Things were unfair. But I sure as hell was not a feminist. Feminists were vile, extremist women who wished they were men, had little respect for their bodies, never shaved their armpits, and were most likely lesbians. Right?

But, after all, the point of college is to open us up to new experiences. And it wasn’t until one of these new experiences that my eyes were opened: as I watched a Latina woman share her story of starting a nonprofit dedicated to aiding women rescued from sex-trafficking, my perspective began to shift. Here she was, this woman whose whole world revolved around the pursuit of justice. She was righteous. And she was a woman who had dedicated herself to helping woman.

I cannot explain what took place in me, but a fire ignited inside of my entire being. “I get it,” I thought. It was like all the clutter I’d been piling up on my mental shelf for years had collapsed on top of me all at once. She never even used the word “feminist” while speaking, but I left that experience claiming the word feminist with my entire being. I jumped right into doing research. I talked about the subject with anyone I could. I looked for more information about feminism everywhere I went.

How had I not seen it before? All the reasons I had never wanted to be a feminist were all the reasons I needed to be a feminist. Viewing women’s work as inferior? That was why I needed to be a feminist. My yearning to stand tall in the major leagues of publishing and philosophy with all those men? That was why I needed to be a feminist. I had too many huge goals and too many things to accomplish for me to disregard feminism. I cared about the well-being of too many people for me to not be a feminist.

Now, I would be honored to be called a vile, extremist woman. Some might even use the term nasty woman. But here’s the thing: I sure as hell would rather be a nasty woman than a complacent woman. I’d rather be extreme than be passive. I’d rather make a change in the areas that need it than fight for my own fame and glory. Now, I am not, nor have I ever been, stupid. But I am now several years into the process of ridding myself of ignorance, and I have no intention of going back.