My family isn’t exactly what one would call a bastion of progressive or liberal ideology. In fact, quite the opposite: much of my family is firmly planted on the right of the political spectrum fiction. And you would be hard-pressed to find people who are more caring, compassionate, respectful, generous or even-handed. Politics has divided us, and not for the better: people of good will can be found anywhere, and we will be a better society when we stop shovel-feeding ourselves preferred narratives, tell the politicians to shove it and realize that there is a reality that very much exists without our assorted grievances being rubbed raw all the time.
That said, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that our red-meat-potatoes-and-America family was decidedly feminist. And thus feminism isn’t a left- or right- wing proposition, but a human one. To reduce it, like so many other matters co-opted by activists and power players, to politics undermines everything that feminism–generally speaking, the idea that women and men ought to be on equal footing–stands for, namely, the provision of identity to people who historically have gone without. I would go on to suggest that identity politics is detrimental to respective causes, but that would be another conversation for another day.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I want to recognize a few of the women who were and are examples par excellence to me growing up, and who, wittingly or otherwise, made me an accidental feminist.
Growing up, I always looked forward to visits from my aunts Susie and Elaine. For many years, my father’s oldest and next-youngest sister lived with my grandmother in Milwaukee, and continue to do so in the exburbs. It never occurred to me that they were never married–Susie married later, long after her career at one of the largest banks in Wisconsin ended–they were always their own people, career women whose strength of personality left no doubt in my mind that they were their own people in their own right. Susie, the reigning family queen of the one-liner, taught me the power of humor and her sense of practical sense and savvy rubbed off on me by osmosis. When I was older and in college, I would spend days at their home, talking with her from morning late into the night about just about anything.
Elaine taught me the power of compassion and hope. An intensely religious person–my family is all pretty much devout Protestant and Evangelical Christians–her faith and love continue to speak volumes to me. Physical maladies have ravaged her body, but her spirit is strong and she doesn’t allow anyone to feel sorry for her. My aunt Nancy may have never officially entered the ministry, but to think of my uncle in the ministry without her presence and involvement is absurd. Her wit and grace, kindness and bedrock support to her family and the extended family–including friends who might as well be family–have been evident and enviable throughout the years.
Growing up in a family that was a clear partnership, and being surrounded by family that treated each person as a person, the idea of sexism was alien to me: why should women be treated differently from men? They were full participants in their lives and didn’t take crap from anybody. The women in my life were strong, confident, successful people. So, when I realized that there was a world around me that didn’t match the experience or perspective I had growing up–including an implicit sexism and departure from original views in the Christian denomination in which I was raised–I guess that’s when I realized I was a feminist, which isn’t necessarily feminist as much as it is pro-humans-be-treated-as-humans, which I suppose is a way to describe what feminism is at its essence.
The idea that women aren’t permitted to be ministers in parts of Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is fundamentally wrong and degrading to me as a man who was raised surrounded by strong women. When the urban church we were a part of in Kansas City accepted its first female deacon, it was natural for me to stand for an ovation at the announcement. When we moved to Springfield, we were part of a church that had already integrated women into its leadership structure and specifically sought out input from everyone involved. When we moved back here to Wisconsin, we joined with a church that again shared our values.
And I see many churches around the country whose directories show males as pastors and a female on staff as ‘coordinator’, ‘administrator’ or ‘director’. That’s horsecrap, and that’s not gospel. Some of the fastest growing churches in the country are sexist by design; those churches are horsecrap and they’re proclaiming a limited gospel, which could be construed to say they’re not proclaiming much of a gospel at all.
Priesthood of all believers: neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female. That’s my feminist credo. (That, and calvinus delenda est.)
Then there’s my wife: passionate, bold, her own person from a strongly matriarchal family not entirely dissimilar to mine. I couldn’t survive everything I’ve endured without her surviving and enduring with me. She’s given the paternal side of my family their first daughters in 60 years. No one will ever tell my twins they cannot do whatever they want to do in life. They already show the spirit of their female forebears, and they will be full participants in their lives, never second-class. I hope to provide a home like the one I knew as a child: where everyone is fully human and full participants. I want them to see a world where sexism exists as a strange and alien place and work to make a difference through their own gifts and graces.
Finally, my mother is the strongest person I know. The depths of her love, fire and inner strength are unknowable. Her patience and graciousness and generosity are unmatched. As she’s transitioned from Mom to me to Mimi to my girls, I’m always left blown away by the quality of person she is, the insight and wisdom she has, the incisive sense of humor I didn’t realize she had until far too late.
All of that doesn’t make her a great mom, it makes her a great person. And that’s the ideal, isn’t it? To see people as people, character and virtue above all else? That’s what I’ve learned growing up. And if that’s what makes me an accidental feminist, I guess I can live with that.
(PS – there are so many more women in my life and family who have meant so much to me. Please know that I love and value you beyond measure as well, even if you remain nameless…and, you know, happen upon this somehow.)