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My Mom, The Feminist

It was my sophomore year of high school. On the first day of my AP World History class, the teacher progressed down the aisles of rickety desks, asking each student to  say their favorite movie as a “get-to-know-each-other” exercise. “Name and favorite movie,” my teacher requested.

I was sitting in the last seat of the first row of desks, and, as my turn grew closer, I could feel my chest tighten with panic. Normally, I wouldn’t blink before citing my longtime favorite film, Good Will Hunting. I can recite every word along with Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Recently, though, I had fallen in love with Stuck in Love, and spent every night the week before school watching it. In that moment, my mind blanked, and I couldn’t think of anything besides Stuck in Love, but I couldn’t say so — I was too embarrassed to admit that I love the artsy, off-beat, romantic Indie film. I didn’t want to admit that I liked “girly” things because I did not want to be seen as weak. I wanted my peers and teacher to know that I’m a strong feminist.

I was raised by the ultimate feminist-in-practice: My mom. She graduated with a high GPA in chemical engineering as one of the few women in her class. She went on to become a manager of her department at Valero while earning her master’s in computer science. Then, she took a maternity leave when she had kids and never went back to work. Now, she jokes that she still has a job, it's just “unpaying” (but it's not really a joke).

While she may no longer be making waves in the engineering field, my mom has done plenty since to advocate for herself and others. She raised my brother and I equally: Growing up, we spent much of our time making stop-start claymations and playing video games. I loved all of these activities, which were typically reserved for the boys. My mom took us to science museums and allowed us to rough it on camping trips.

My mother is hardworking, determined, and the most relentless person I know. She has never worn makeup or cared about clothes or shoes. She has never let us see her expressing her emotions and seems to base all of her decisions on pure logic. She has broken countless stereotypes, and I grew up yearning for that same kind of strength.

But, somewhere along the way, I interpreted the strength she modeled as my only option. I saw my mom and thought I couldn’t like both playing with Barbies and playing Mario Kart — I thought I had to choose. I thought that in order to be strong and respected, in order to be like my mom, I should reject femininity, too. I tried to force myself into her mold. I shamed those who read books with girly plot lines or romance. Once at a tennis tournament in 11th grade, my female teammates were sitting on the side of the court and listing all the times they cried for no specific reason. One girl said she cries in the shower almost every day. I remember giving her a judgmental look, like I was above crying, and said nothing. What a fraud, a voice in my head whispered.

My past was riddled with similar instances of trying to force myself to be something I never truly was and am still not. The truth is I always kept girly books to read sheepishly in my closet. I cry every time I watch Obama or Hillary Clinton’s speeches (I had to hydrate a ton during the election). But for a long time, I could never admit to having these moments of perceived “weakness." I did not think that I could like anything girly and still be a feminist. I didn’t think women like myself who want to be judges or CEOs or lead nonprofits could coincide with being emotional.

This changed recently when I stumbled across a forgotten memory. In sixth grade, after finishing Mockingjay, I couldn’t stop crying. The last lines, the epilogue where Katniss and Peta’s kids were playing on graveyards, wrecked me. I lay in my bed, curled up in the fetal position around the blue book, my tears streaming onto the pages. My mom heard me, opened the door, and peered in. I tensed up, expecting her to get mad (she had always viewed crying as a form of weakness). Instead, she surprised me. She walked over to the bed, lifted up the covers, slid in next to me, and began stroking my hair.

Until I recently remembered this, I never considered the possibility that my mom’s hard core personality stemmed from the challenges she had to overcome working as a woman in a leadership position in the STEM field, starting thirty years ago. She always tells me that after she married my dad, her employees would ask her “Hey Nancy, what did you cook for dinner last night?" When she told them “cereal," they mocked her for not cooking a hot meal for her husband like she was "expected" to — even after a grueling fourteen-hour shift at work.

She adapted because she is strong, but her ability to be strong does not mean she is not feminine either. I realized that my mom has always put on her best, strongest face for me to set an example. But I recently have begun to pay more attention to the details of my mom’s life, to see if she is really as hardcore as I have always believed. I have noticed that my mom loves watching shows like Downtown Abbey, getting her eyebrows shaped, and really has always been there for me emotionally, even when I am breaking down over fictional characters. She is strong, she is a feminist, and she is also capable of being feminine. None of those things detract from another.

My mom has taught me to embrace every part of myself — even the girly, the frilly, and yes, sometimes pink. I can flick on cat-eye eyeliner in the morning while listening to NPR. I attend debate tournaments in sleek heels and red lipstick so and manage to feel cute while also fiercely debating. I read Pride and Prejudice every winter break, and I long for a man like Darcy, while also knowing I don’t need a man to be happy and successful. None of this makes me less of a woman. None of this makes me less of a feminist. None of this makes me weak. It just makes me me.



More articles by Category: Feminism
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Gender bias, Identity
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Julie Graves
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