I didn’t always identify as a feminist. Truthfully, my feminist “A-Ha!” moment might ring familiar to anyone who was hit suddenly with the realization too. I had just finished my first year of college and was back in my hometown, coaching my summer swim team. Now, to preface this, the summer swim team happens to be for a country club — historically, not always the most welcoming of places. I’d wanted to come back and coach because how much I’ve always enjoyed the sport and the team. Having grown up swimming and taking advantage of the opportunity to spend a summer outside didn’t hurt, either.
During that first year of college, a health class I took required students to attend a certain number of wellness events on campus. I happened to pick one that was in a lecture hall close to my dorm room — to see Jessica Valenti speak about her blog, Feministing, and published books, like Full Frontal Feminism and The Purity Myth (both of which I recommend). I picked a seat in the back so as to not seem too eager, especially since I didn’t know what to expect. Once she started speaking I was riveted. It seemed like everything Jessica said was so obvious and made so much sense, that I was angry with myself for not knowing about it sooner. The point she made that stuck with me the most was when she asked the audience the insults used towards women versus towards men, and how the worst thing a man can be called is a woman (or wuss, girl, pansy, etc). I was amazed by how simply the truths she spoke washed over me and felt myself changing in a way. I think especially looking back, I realized all at once how complex women, and their understandings of feminism, are. After that event, I became more outspoken and confident in my opinions and even picked up a women’s studies minor.
This brings me back to my “A-ha!” moment. After a swim meet for my team, everyone had dinner at a local favorite pizza parlor and eventually it wound down enough to just the coaches and a select few ‘senior’ swimmers. Some of the other coaches had been asking me about how college had been going and the conversation turned to a failed hook-up of mine.
It had been nothing serious and through the recounting of it, I vaguely remember becoming annoyed by the conversation. I’ve been ‘accused’ of being sassy in the past and I have no qualms to this day about standing my ground in a conversation or saying what I feel — this hook-up story veered me in that direction. One of the senior swimmers, a 17 year old boy, found it hilarious and seemed to enjoy engaging with me about it. He mostly wanted to poke fun at me for my college ‘shenanigans’ and how it was so hilarious to him. When it was clear I wasn’t going to back down and that the whole story was just that, a story, it seemed to wind down.
Later, as we left the restaurant, I remember him saying to me, “I didn’t realize you were such a feminist.” Was it because of the story I’d told, my behavior, or something else? Truly, I could not tell you exactly why he made this comment. Either way, that interaction stands out to me because it’s the first time someone took the time to remark to me that I was perceived as a feminist. Make no mistake, I don’t mind in the slightest but it was the first time the label was tossed my way possibly as an insult or way to comment on me, as a person.
My guess is I shrugged off his comment or maybe I affirmed it. But it stands out in my mind as a turning point, directly linked back to hearing Jessica Valenti speak. A common theme of hers is something to the effect of, “if feminism wasn’t so powerful, people wouldn’t spend so much time putting it down.” I mention this because I think if I hadn’t shared that story and spoken the way I had, I don’t think that guy would have felt the need to try and label and reduce me to a ‘feminist’, in his mind. Was it his reminder that that’s how he now saw me? Did he want to keep me in a narrowly defined box, put me down, or was it totally innocuous? I can’t speak to that, as it has been many years since that conversation, but especially writing now, I wonder.