I had the pleasure of speaking at the Women and Girls Foundation’s Crossroads Conference for Women yesterday morning. I wanted to share my talk with you here. In service of the Women and Girls Foundation’s (WGF) mission to develop women leaders, and timed to coincide with Women’s History Month in March, the Crossroads Conference focuses on connecting women to one another and to the community resources which can help further their professional careers and strengthen their personal lives.
At last year’s Crossroads Conference, I was surprised by how little I heard the word feminism. It seemed like it should be a perfect fit at a conference for women. But that word, “feminism,” has a lot of baggage, amirite?
I’ve always been a feminist, I think, but I’ve rarely called myself one. But even avoiding the word “feminist” hasn’t completely let me escape the tangles of what people think it means — or what I thought it meant.
I went to Smith College, a liberal women’s college in Massachusetts, where feminism was on everyone’s lips at every meal and in every class. The definitions of feminism I heard ran the gamut from a free-love kind of sexual liberation to an intersectional feminism that dealt with race and class.
And then there was me, just kind of living my life, knowing I was awesome.
After I graduated from Smith, I moved to the Russian Far North for a year to teach English.
That year in Russia, my roommate was an intelligent, passionate, eccentric Polish teacher named Łukasz. When Łukasz arrived in Russia, he didn’t even know the Russian alphabet, and just kind of spoke Polish with a Russian accent — but hey, it worked! The only thing worse than Łukasz’s Russian was his English. So we spoke Russian.
A typical exchange went something like this:
Łukasz: I bought those things for us. That we saw at the store yesterday. I don’t know what they’re called in Russian.
Me: Is it a fruit?
Łukasz: Yes, it’s food.
Me: Fruit, fruit.
Łukasz: Ah, no, it’s not a fruit.
Me: Is it cheese?
Łukasz: No, it’s not a cheese. It’s a sea food.
Me: Ohhhh, seafood, seafood. I know what you’re talking about. Those… things. I don’t know what they are in Russian either.
We were both exiles there, cut off from friends and family. We both needed social contact and a shared story. So, from the beginning, we discussed history, religion, politics, big ethical questions. It took a long time to understand each other, but we did.
We have opposite viewpoints on hot topic issues like gay marriage and abortion. Back home, it would be easy to dismiss each other and distance ourselves. But in Russia, in Russian, we found common ground. We had to listen so carefully to understand each other’s words that we could actually understand each other’s points of view too. For the first time I had the experience of disagreeing deeply with someone who I also considered a close friend.
The first week we lived together, Łukasz and I went grocery shopping. Our grocery store was about a 20 minute walk from the apartment. When we’d finally made it through the hour-long cheese discussion, we had 8 to 10 bags of groceries. Łukasz, being the Polish gentleman that he is, offered to carry all of it. I thought this was ridiculous. Njet! I am a liberal American woman! I put my foot down. And this became a running joke for us. Ruth is a liberal American woman, and she isn’t going to stand for this kind of nonsense.
I returned to America with a strong sense of myself and the deep confidence that comes with surviving the Russian winter. I didn’t have a job and I was out of money and I had no idea what was coming next, but I knew whatever it was, I could handle it on my own.
So of course the first thing I did when I got home was to fall in love.
This came as a complete shock to me — this was not the kind of thing a liberal American woman should do!
Once again, I had to strip away the political baggage from words like “liberal” and “feminist.”
I had been taught to believe that marriage meant sacrificing the strength of your individuality, and that falling in love was for romantic fools. But then there was the reality that I felt in my bones that I wanted to be with this man. I may have had a lot of doubts about the institution of marriage, but I never had any doubts about Howard.
With Howard, who is now my husband, I learned how to listen to what my own heart and spirit were telling me.
I also learned that love isn’t just light-headed nonsense. Love is hard work and balance. Love is like a rope two people hold — if you stand too close, the rope goes slack and gets tangled around your feet. If you wander too far, you drop the rope and lose each other. It may surprise you to learn that my husband and I disagree on a lot of things, like how to fold the laundry and on just how much chocolate is acceptable in one day, and some deeper issues as well … but we dig past those differences to a common set of values. We want our children to grow up independent and healthy. We want to travel. We want to make the world and each other better.
In Russia I was deconstructing my definitions of other people — my preconceived notions of pro-lifers. With my marriage to Howard, I deconstructed my definition of myself — as a feminist — into a more complex understanding of the reality that I was experiencing. Someone can oppose gay marriage and be one of my best friends. I can be a feminist and be a wife and partner.
And that’s part of why I think this conference is so wonderful. In my book, we are all feminists here — if you believe that you as a woman are just as valuable as anyone else, then I believe you are a feminist. But you don’t have to accept my definition, and you don’t have to accept whatever internal definition is holding you back from being the nameless you that’s underneath.