Fueling the Feminist Flame


Some Thoughts Inspired by Women’s History Month

In the 1970s — after hearing Gloria Steinem speak — my mother found the women’s movement. She used her newly discovered voice to tell my brother and I to heat up frozen dinners so that she could attend evening support meetings. Later, as a career consultant, she used her strengthened voice to encourage other women to find their way in the work world.

Yet she was still a product of the 40s and 50s, so when she hit face-to-face roadblocks in her professional or personal life, my mother would write a well-crafted letter or take a lady-like bow. She was always polite and well mannered; she never showed her anger. Like so many women of her generation, she wasn’t practiced in navigating waves.

As the daughter of a women’s libber who encouraged truth telling, I captured my burgeoning voice with poetry and journaling. Later I professionalized my inclination to write by earning a journalism degree.

Compared to my mother, I was more comfortable with uncomfortable and I could say so, face to face. But I had been raised to be a good girl, and so I was sure to do it nicely, not over the line into what seemed at the time to be aggressive.

And so, because one’s voice was valued for the females in my family, I encouraged my daughters to find and use theirs.

But it became clear –  early on –  that my daughters were already living in a new era.

As young as 10 and 14, my daughters not only spoke their truth, they felt entitled to it. They were comfortable calling adults by their first name. They made spontaneous speeches to a roomful of people without rehearsal or a script. They freely offered their opinions on world events and questioned teacher’s policies and school dictums.

They weren’t just pleased that you listened to them, they insisted upon it. And if their opinions happened to trample on someone else’s truth or feelings, well, then, so be it. Where being heard is concerned, they feared not. They could be brusque, and if they felt something strongly enough, bulldozers.

When my eldest daughter, now a college senior, invited me to see her in “The Vagina Monologues,” I saw how very large that gap between us was.” It was my virgin “Vagina” experience and weeks later, I’m still recovering.

There she was, my 21-year-old, in pillow-stuffed stretch pants and grapefruit-filled panty hose draped around her neck, hunched over a walker as a 72-year-old woman telling the story her first sexual experience. She was talking about … female ejaculation. I can’t believe I just wrote that. And how after she was shamed by the boy, she never went “down there” again.

And that was just my daughter’s monologue. Others covered orgasms and rape and torture. One opened her monologue with “I’m angry! I’m angry about my vagina!” Another played with the c— version of the v-word, loudly and proudly, a word that I grew up thinking was not so nice.

What a leap from my grandmother, a strong, opinionated woman who would bite her lip before saying something that might be considered rude or disrespectful.

March is Women’s History Month and I can’t help wondering how much of the feminist flame lit by their grandmother and carried through by their mother impacted who they have become. So much of their sense of womanhood has come from their time.  How can they possibly comprehend the enormity of the jump from my grandmother’s lip biting to opining on the workings of a female body part? How could they ever really know how it felt to be a woman before?

Witnessing and hearing my daughter speak these words so confidently, so publicly, was potent, radical and attitude altering.

I wonder if that’s what Gloria Steinem’s speech must have sounded like to my mother in the 70s.

The feminist flame is, after all, fire, which has the ability to be passed back and forth.

Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright March 2010.