I didn’t call myself a feminist until mid-September 2007. I was 18, and had been automatically enrolled in my first college women’s studies course at the University of Maine. We sat in a circle on the first day, 15 women and our professor, and “checked in” — something that I had never in my life been asked to do.
“I feel scared when I have to walk to my dorm at night.”
“People call me anorexic because I’m thin.”
“Reading magazines makes me feel fat.”
I almost dropped the course. It wasn’t because I couldn’t empathize with these women, it was the sitting in a circle and the “talking about it” that made me feel uncomfortable. Like Bonnie Hunt in Jerry Maguire — having your girlfriends over to bitch, except it was a class.
I hadn’t yet tapped into how powerful a good bitch session could be.
Let me be clear, I didn’t grow up with some nasty, scowling connotation for the word “feminist.” I came from a pretty small town in Maine. There weren’t that many kids to play with. My mom was from there, my grandmother was from there – it was small. Feminism never really came up, to my adolescent knowledge at least.
As kids, we all bounced from house to house like one giant amoeba. We were a collective mass of snot and overalls with an unhealthy interest in road kill. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or if you were a girl, you could still play capture the flag.
Despite the fact that feminism had gone unnamed for most of my life, I stuck with that first Women’s Studies course and it turned out to be the most influential one I took in my entire college career. My professor was a slight, Franco-American woman, a two-time breast cancer survivor with a very detailed tattoo of a flower where her breasts used to be — I know, she showed it to us. Her name was Rhea.
Rhea instilled a sense of awareness in me. She got my eyes wide, my eyebrows raised. When I left her class, I wanted to stop people on campus, interrupt their ultimate frisbee games on the mall, grab hold of their hula hoops, invite myself to sit down on their picnic blankets and say: “Hey! There’s a lot of inequality going on in the world. Did you guys know about this?!”
Maybe I didn’t have the right language yet, or even a firm grasp on the current issues, but I knew something was up. Rhea laid down that ground level, but Hannah and Abbie built the bones.
Hannah and Abbie were two random roommates I rented a room from the following year. They were best friends, went everywhere arm-in-arm. Together, they were a matching dreadlocked version of an amoeba. They read each other’s journals and ate soup out of the same bowl. They took baths together, and always called it “taking a tub.”
Hannah and Abbie were feminist women to the utmost degree. They roared, they praised, they discussed, they checked in.
They had a framed poster of a smiling Ani Difranco in our living room. For months I thought it was just a photo of a pretty woman looking up into the light and laughing. Before I knew Hannah and Abbie, Ani Difranco was just a name I’d seen in my friend’s big sister’s diary. Now here she was, the Dalai Lama in my living room.
Hannah and Abbie signed every note they wrote with “Peace.” They didn’t shave their legs or their armpits. They wore mini dresses with leg warmers and drank cheap whiskey out of travel mugs with matching “I love my period” bumper stickers on them. They were the president and secretary of the University’s Student Women’s Association, which they only referred to as “SWA.”
These girls were the motherfucking bomb. They were an intriguing species of female that I had never encountered in all of my rhinestone pendant wearing, Cosmopolitan reading, junior varsity cheerleading days. Hannah and Abbie were the real deal.
They didn’t accept ignorance, and nothing could skate by them unaddressed. When a geology professor started holding anti-abortion signs outside of the campus library every Wednesday morning, they were there in silent protest at 7 a.m. with signs that read: Viva la vulva! When the school considered cutting the women’s studies department all together, op-eds were written, submitted and read aloud at our weekly taco party. When an opportunity came up to volunteer in an Ecuadorian village, Hannah and Abbie went — twice.
I lived with them for three years; within that first month I joined SWA and signed up for two more women’s studies classes. I reveled in check-ins and became a master at seamlessly incorporating Ani Difranco lyrics into everyday conversation.
Feminism was fucking cool. And finally, I had real girlfriends.
I went to my first performance of The Vagina Monologues on campus that same year, performed and directed by Hannah and Abbie. The next year I performed “Cunt.” The year after that, I directed the entire production and awarded myself the role of “My Angry Vagina.” In my free time, I made a 7-ft tall vagina out of scrap fabric, yarn, and sequins to use as a backdrop. The campus newspaper called it a “mixed media masterpiece.”
When I finally joined SWA, I pioneered the first feminist newsletter on campus, “The F*Word.” The first edition included a poorly illustrated image of a woman with a mouth between her legs personally drawn by me, and the campus Right to Life organization demanded that The F*Word be taken off the school’s newsstands. That rag still lives on today.
The woman I was in college was so different from any other girl I had ever been. She was outspoken, motivated and a little bit of a slut.
It’s been four years since I graduated from the University of Maine with a BA in journalism and a focus in women’s studies. Abbie works for a feminist health center and Hannah is a toddler teacher for a nonprofit daycare. Their dreadlocks have long grown out and even though a Christian group pickets Planned Parenthood every Friday, I don’t usually wake up early enough to hold my Viva la Vulva! sign.
Being in college was like living in Bio Dome – the community was so small, so air-tight, that you could see real change if you made it. But as much as I enjoyed bending my personality to run alongside Hannah’s and Abbie’s, that’s not really who I am today.
Today I am a 26-year-old woman. I’ve lived in the Caribbean, I’ve traveled alone, I’ve become my own boss. Today I spend most of my time living off-the-grid in a rural, eastern part of Maine. I can haul my own water and bathe in a bucket by a wood stove, but I’ll still splurge on a bikini wax if I go into the city. I’ve learned to embrace my contradictions.
Today, no off-handed rape joke or “Go make me a sandwich” t-shirt can slip by me, but I handle it all in a much more reserved way. I’m stronger and more solid, and my feminist identity is always flowing swiftly underneath my surface. I don’t need to be quiet and I don’t need to yell, I can educate and I can ask questions. Instead of writing people off, I want to find out if they actually know what they’re saying. I remember the 18-year-old me – just a little put off by the idea of “checking in.”
Today I’m just trying to apply everything I’ve learned – from that first women’s studies class, to living with Hannah and Abbie, to living with myself. I want it all to be part of my everyday life, my everyday me – the woman who exists beyond that closed ecosystem of college.
Back then, being a feminist was shocking. We weirded people out at parties, throwing our hands up in the air, exposing our unshaved armpits to the crowd while wriggling to Kanye’s “Jesus Walks,” and beating everyone at beer pong.
Four years later, it’s shocking to meet someone who isn’t a feminist. Those people who ask why “men’s studies” classes don’t exist, who don’t believe in the wage gap, who vote for the Republican candidate because “he’s already doing a good job” – those aren’t the people who seem to find me nowadays. Although I remember a time when I got rides home from them after babysitting their kids, when I dated them, when I laughed at their jokes because everyone else was too.
I don’t really play beer pong anymore and I’ve realized that a pair of unshaved armpits isn’t the most important ingredient in the perfect feminism recipe. But I’m still a feminist. And at 26 years of age, that word is in my everyday language, even though I didn’t use it in a sentence until I was 18.
And I’m thankful for those people who still don’t get it, who may have dropped their women’s studies classes after that very first check in – they prove to me that the need for feminism isn’t obsolete. Even if we didn’t catch it early, if it took us a little while to get there, we can all find our feminism.
This article was originally published on Human Parts, it has been republished here with permission.