I remember the first time I was outed as a feminist. My friends Anna, Mary, and I were sitting in the high school library, and Mary made some sort of crack about, “those awful feminists,” laughing at her own observation, and smiling knowingly as if we’d agree.
Crickets chirped. There was about 30 seconds of uncomfortable chair shifting. Then Anna gingerly (because sometimes you need to have a soft touch with someone who you think is being a complete dummy) and perhaps with a slight tinge of devilish satisfaction, said, “You know Genny is a feminist.”
I was a high school junior in 2007. Slightly before the question, “Are women funny?” was asked for the first time, and years away from when Beyonce would declare herself a FEMINIST in capital letters. There was no discussion in my classrooms about equal rights, there were no girls creating homemade signs telling teachers to punish the boys who looked at them rather than the girls who wore spaghetti straps. All the intel I had on the F word, were the wonderful women at Jezebel and a google deep-dive into the Riot Grrrl movement, but that was enough to pique my interest.
I had quietly been collecting facts. In film, if women were objects to be looked at rather than fully developed human beings, then this was called the male gaze. In my AP Environmental Studies class we learned that countries where women had access to family planning and education, were significantly more likely to become “developed” (though this term is now debated, remember this is 2007 in suburban Pennsylvania). In my English class we had read ZERO female authors. None of this would do. I was quickly realizing that once you see, you can’t unsee the cracks in the veneer.
However, I was not one to draw attention to myself in high school. I kept to myself and my small inner circle of friends, I had no trouble speaking out in class, but to label myself as anything — to care about anything — seemed like trying too hard. And we all know that enthusiasm is opposite of coolness. So I was a feminist on the sly. Anna was one of my closest friends, who had heard all of my questioning. The shy and hesitant confession I had made to her, “I -uh- I think I am this,” where I waited patiently for the blowback, but much to Anna’s credit, received none. I was not “out” so to speak. My social beliefs were not part of my identity.
Mary looked like she had seen a ghost. Not only had she completely misjudged this social interaction, but a real live FEMINIST had been secretly amongst her mists. Mary was not our close friend, but she was in many of our classes and we would have lunch with her occasionally and include her in our study groups. I could see that she was trying to figure out how to exit this interaction gracefully.
“It’s okay, you didn’t know,” I told her, like the benevolent Madonna that I am.
For the record, I don’t think that Mary is dumb. But I don’t trust people who can’t listen and empathize outside of their own experience and I couldn’t trust Mary in the same way as I had before. I had slowly been building an army inside myself and she had proven that she was not an ally.
My resolve, the moment I truly felt confident enough to tell everyone who I am and what I was about — even my parents, even my grandparents — did not come later until college, where people are more open to having an opinion. But this moment has stayed in my memory because it was the first time I allowed myself to be seen, naked, just for an instant.