Letter to a Young Feminist

Letter to a Young Feminist

by Phyllis Chesler

Here I sit, head bent, writing you an intimate letter. I sense your presence, even though I don’t know your name. I envision you as a young woman, possibly a young man, somewhere between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, but you may also be a decade older — or younger — than that. You may not yet be born. Perhaps I am trying to speak to my own younger self. When I was coming of age — a process which is still far from over — no one ever spoke strong truths to me in a loving voice. When I was your age, I did not know what I needed to know in order to understand my life — anybody’s life. Perhaps, in writing to you, I wish to correct that, to make amends.

Yes, the world is different now than it was when I was your age… But the truth is, women are still far from free. We’re not even within striking range.

I don’t want to frighten you away, but I don’t want to waste your time either, so I can’t pretend that simply because you or I want it to be so that in fact women and men are equal.

Even when men and women do exactly the same thing, it means something different. The father who changes a diaper is often seen as a hero; not so the mother, who is, after all, only doing whats she’s expected to do. This is not true in reverse. The woman who succeeds in a man’s world — although she is not expected to do so — is rarely treated as a conquering hero. She is more often seen as an aggressive bitch. She may well be aggressive — but no more than her male colleagues are. And if some women try to prove their worth by outdoing their male colleagues in tough, anti-female behavior, others feel compelled to behave in “feminine” or “maternal” ways to appease those who would otherwise punish them for stepping so far out of line. Thus, unlike her male counterparts, the chief judge pours her own coffee, and the police officer may not use what she’s learned on the job to stop her husband from beating her; whatever she’s learned at work can’t override what she’s learned all her life about being a woman. The female employee — not her male counterpart — is still expected to buy the gifts, take the coats, bake the cookies for an office party, babysit her employer’s child.

Yes, the world is different now than it was when I was your age. In only thirty years, a visionary feminism has managed to seriously challenge, if not transform, world consciousness. But the truth is, women are still far from free. We’re not even within striking range.

The most extraordinary legal victories are only scraps of paper until human beings test them on the ground. Women are still punished for trying to integrate male bastions of power. Like their African-American counterparts before them, these women will not be deterred — but they will pay a high price. As feminists, we learned that one cannot do such things alone, only together.

I want you to know what our feminist gains are, and why you must not take them for granted. (Although it is your right to do so — we fought for that, too.) I also want you to know what remains to be done. I want you to see your place in the historical scheme of things, so you may choose whether and how to stand your ground in history.

You must stand on our feminist shoulders in order to go further than we did. Stand up as early as you can in life. Take up as much space in the (male) universe as you need to. Sit with your legs apart, not together. Climb trees. Climb mountains, too. Engage in group sports. Dress comfortably. Dress as you wish.

How do we stop injustice? We begin by speaking truth to power. That child who told the emperor he was naked is one of ours. We begin, of course, by fighting back.

To quote Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” Ah, Burke, evil also triumphs when good women do nothing. Toward that end, you must move beyond words. You must act. Do not hesitate because your actions may not be perfect, or beyond criticism. “Action” is how you put your principles into practice. Not just publicly, or toward those more powerful than you, but also privately, toward those less fortunate than you. Not just toward those who are (safely) far away, but toward those with whom you live and work. If you’re on the right track, you can expect some pretty savage criticism. Trust it. Revel in it. It is the truest measure of your success.

Those who endure small humiliations — daily — say that the most lasting and haunting harm resides in growing accustomed to such treatment, in large part because others insist that you do. After all, they have. What’s so special about you? “So your boss asked you and not your male colleague to make coffee at the meeting — Big Deal. At least you have a job.” “So, your husband keeps forgetting his promise to help out with the housework — at least you have a husband. Always implied, though unspoken: “It could be worse.” But things could also be better. That will not happen if you do not act heroically.

Asking a rape survivor, “Why did you go out with that guy in the first place?” helps shame a woman into silence and inaction. Such comments forbid her to storm the gates of power. In a sense, this kind of gatekeeping constitutes bystander behavior. Survivors of serious atrocities say they are haunted by those who heard their screams but turned their backs, closed their doors, remained neutral, refused to take any stand other than an opportunistic one.

You cannot remain a bystander without becoming complicit. Morally, you must “take sides.” But once a person takes the side of anyone who has suffered a grave injustice, listens to her, believes what she says, tries to help her — that quiet act of humanity and courage will most likely be viewed as a traitorous act. Commit such treason as often as you can. Women’s hearts, men’s hearts, are irretrievably broken when people default on the dream of a common, moral humanity (we are all connected, what happens to one happens to all) and do nothing.

Such interventions are possible when we are inspired by a larger vision, guided by a great dream. Not otherwise.

You must become radically compassionate toward yourself. This is hard, not easy, to do. I think both men and women owe women a large measure of radical compassion. Women often withhold this resource from each other, or dole it out as if it were a scarce commodity. And then only to women who do not threaten us. This tells me two things: that women are likely to be pushovers for the slightest bit of maternal warmth that comes our way, and that women need only a small amount of encouragement and compassion in order to keep going. With more than a little, who knows how far we might go?

There is a great advantage to knowing that, at any moment, you may become a casualty in the war against women. If you know that this can happen — that there’s nothing you can do to avoid it — you can learn how to sidestep some blows and endure the unavoidable ones, by keeping your eyes open, maintaining clarity, and naming each blow accurately, for what it is. You do this to aid yourself in remembering that you have not caused your own pain. It is psychologically crucial that you not blame yourself and not automatically take things personally. The truth is that many so-called personal things are quite impersonal — e.g., being captured by enemy soldiers, never being hired, being first fired, being rejected by your light-skinned family because you are dark, being rejected because you are homosexual or lesbian. I am not suggesting that you become fatalistic or go limp in the jaws of adversity. While you must understand reality with some detachment, you must, at the same time, learn how to take radical responsibility for what you do or fail to do. You have a responsibility to see that your wounded self does not get in the way of your warrior self. Therefore, act generously, not enviously. In my time, older women told younger women very little about what it takes for a woman to become whole, stay whole, and survive. If they had, we’d have understood, early on, that our first and greatest search should have been for ourselves, not for a prince (or princess), no matter how charming.

In my time, catcalls, smacking noises, and offers of money were what constituted “the outside world” for most unaccompanied young women. I could not sit on a park bench and gaze at a tree, listen to a soft rain fall, stand before a magnificent painting for the first time, or read a book in a cafe without being interrupted, or without fearing or hoping that I might be interrupted, by some male stranger. Only in retrospect do I understand that what I once experienced as reality “heightened” was, in effect, reality narrowed.

I loved the attention. I did not think of myself as prey on the move. I had no way of knowing that such men treated most young girls like this, that their noticing me was not really a compliment. I felt no danger. I felt invincible. I wanted to be as free, sexually, as boys were. I hadn’t a clue that a double standard existed that would penalize me for doing the exact same thing that boys did.

Know that, while your struggle for independence may be difficult, even painful, remaining unconscious, denying reality, exacts an even higher price. I came into consciousness on my own, mainly through books. Because I live in my head so much, and in books, what I’m about to tell you is, for me, very personal. From kindergarten until I was nearly thirty, I, the nonstop reader, knew practically nothing about women writers, painters, scientists, spiritual or political leaders, feminists, union organizers, revolutionaries. If only I had stumbled upon the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft or Matilda Joslyn Gage or Sojourner Truth, or Susan B. Anthony, surely they might have strengthened me, given me some self-respect, a clue, some company. What we don’t know can hurt us. Forgetting, not knowing your own story, is dangerous. If you do so, you will have to reinvent the wheel, fight the same battles again and again, with no guiding role models.

My generation had it easy. We had no Rolodexes. We didn’t network. We didn’t need to. Some of us had been active in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s , where we had been expected to make the coffee and enable the men to shine. (I was.) Some of us came from Ivy League colleges and suburban marriages, where we had been expected to do the same damn things. There was a new spirit in the land, a new organization too: the National Organization for Women. We joined. We were mainly, but not only, white and educated. We’d had enough of being handmaids. We were ready to say goodbye to all that.

One fine day, we opened our front doors and, like Ibsen’s Nora, simply walked out. Unlike Nora, we were not alone. There were thousands of women in each city on the move. Overnight, there were consciousness-raising groups, speak- outs, marches, demonstrations, meetings, campaigns in every major American city, on most college campuses, within many professional associations. Thousands of them. It was thrilling, miraculous, unbelievable. The media covered our every statement. Whatever we said was considered news.

We didn’t work for this; it was simply ours, an opening in history, a miracle. Overnight, or so it seemed, we formed organizations, ran for public office, sponsored legislation, created rape crisis hotlines and shelters for battered women. Consciousness-raising groups educated and empowered us to enter previously all-male professions.

Women’s entrance into higher paying jobs did not come easily. Once we became conscious, we still had to fight unimaginably hard for each small gain. But we had each other, which made all the difference. It made having to fight — which we often experienced as “losing — bearable, possible.

Without class-action lawsuits, I doubt that many of us could have borne the continued indignities and injustices at work. Without lawsuits, one by one we each would have been isolated, humiliated, threatened, fired. Had we tried to speak out as individuals, our allegations might have been brushed off as the misguided beliefs of a few crazy or difficult women. Had we not fought, the next generations of feminist scholars would never have gained even a toehold in the academy.

You are entitled to know our war stories. We cannot, in good conscience, send you into battle without giving you a clear idea of what may happen there. Submission and humility will not protect you from the injustices of this war. Nothing can. But clarity, and solidarity in action, will allow you to fight back — and to keep sane, no matter what happens. I was incredibly naive when I was younger. I thought I should be offered a place of honor at the patriarchal table — for my feminist work. I was foolish, but human, for wanting that. It took me time to understand that women — myself included — would remain oppressed for a long time, no matter how fast any individual woman could dance and shine. As Aristotle once wrote: “Revolutions may also arise when persons of great ability, and second to none in their merits, are treated dishonorably by those who themselves enjoy the highest honors.” He was right.

Do not try to win approval from your opponents. Merely fight to win. Keep your eyes on the prize. Do not let a little verbal shaming slow you down. Aim for Greatness, not “Goodness.”

Excerpted from Letter to a Young Feminist by Phyllis Chesler, published by Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1998.