You get these ideas in your head

Lately, I am attuned to the words people use. I am a writer, so this is nothing new. What’s changed is the filter through which I listen, a feminist one. Did I already lose you? Do you have an aversion to that word, feminist? I did. Sort of. Before.

“You’ve changed,” my husband said recently, referring to that dirty word, feminism, and all its connotations, the ones I initially rejected because I didn’t want to be defined by them. I haven’t changed, I thought, and maybe even said. But the truth is, I have. I am a feminist now (I credit Donald Trump for this), and I wasn’t before. I was asleep. Hibernating.

“I have a problem with radical feminism,” a friend told me last year when she was trying to figure out whether or not she could be yoked to me (hint: she couldn’t). “I do too,” I said, thinking about how much I like people in general, men included. As the words left my mouth, I realized I had no idea what the radical part meant. Did radical feminists hate men? Eschew pretty dresses and make-up? High heels? Did they focus on not looking like a woman simply to make a point?

Think about that for a moment. What does that mean, exactly, to look like a woman? Like which woman? The one in the magazine who is airbrushed? The one with an attractive WHR (Waist-Hip Ratio)? Why do we think, for example, that some women look masculine? I’ve already lost you, haven’t I? If you’re not a feminist, you’re rolling your eyes and saying, See, that’s the problem with feminists, they don’t want to be women. I think my husband feels this way, that there is a way to be a woman and a way to be something else entirely. One of my favorite feminists wouldn’t give up her heels to save her life. Another one wouldn’t be caught dead in them.

I’ve changed. Yes, I have. I’m more aware, more attuned. Here is one definition of radical feminist, for example, from Wikipedia:

Radical feminists locate the root cause of women’s oppression in patriarchal gender relations, as opposed to legal systems (as in liberal feminism) or class conflict (as in anarchist feminismsocialist feminism, and Marxist feminism).

I’ve changed because my mind creates its own Wiki page:

Radical feminists human beings (anyone who no longer wishes to be repressed or defined by—and this includes some men—the still strong roots of patriarchy, white male patriarchy in particular) locate the root causes of women’s oppression their oppression in patriarchal gender relationships, as opposed to legal systems (as in liberal feminism) or class conflict (as in anarchist feminismsocialist feminism, and Marxist feminism). and reject them by pushing back, often at great cost (I’ve already lost one friend, and may lose my marriage).

This is how I think, how I grow, how I change the way I filter what I hear. You get these ideas in your head, he says, and I’m already thinking about the judgment in the phrase. He doesn’t finish the sentence before I get an idea in my head: He doesn’t get it.

I’ve changed because I’m saying to myself: I don’t get it, either, but I want to. I want to understand oppression in all its gender-based and racial-based forms. I want to understand, for example, the ways I walk through this world as a privileged white person, and how that blinds me to certain truths, like the fact that racial prejudice is alive and well. I. Don’t. Experience. That. Ever. This means I can know it exists, but I can’t qualitate or quantify it appropriately unless I listen and learn, stay open to the stories and let them break open my heart.

Recently I was told, by more than one person, that using the phrase white privilege is the problem. I was told it is a divisive phrase, which at first I rejected. But it is, isn’t it? A divisive phrase? It should be; that’s its power.

Divisive—tending to cause disagreement or hostility between people.

I am struck by a missing word: violence. Divisive doesn’t have to include violence, but it does have to include discomfort. Change does not happen when people are comfortable. It happens when they are not. Change rises when something is terribly wrong. But let me be clear: Divisiveness does not cause violence, people do.

“Do you have dreams?” a man asked me yesterday, as we both stared at the departing sun.

I’d been walking on the beach, deep in thought, when a young man tripped on the outcropping of rocks he’d been standing on.

“I saw nothing,” I said, and we laughed and launched into the conversation that had led to his question: Do you have dreams?

I answered him then volleyed back the question: “How about you, do you have dreams?”

He paused. Looked thoughtful, and finally said, “I do, but they’re too deep to talk about.”

It wasn’t an uncomfortable moment, but an honest one, and I didn’t press him. Our conversation migrated, like he had from Argentina, back to the sunset and what we might look like if the sun were observing us. 

Too deep to talk about resonates with me this morning. My too-deep dreams for women festered at a very early age. The first one was for my gay sister (16 years my senior), who couldn’t come out in her lifetime. Next was for me, pregnant and married at 16, desperately trying to live up to the expectations of being a stay-at-home mom and being told I had no right to have dreams of my own. Recently, these deep-seated dreams are for my teenagers, three of them young women who have been watching me become a feminist.

I’ve changed, it’s true. Some of the metamorphosis is internal, still swirling—I have deep and private dreams too. But some is external, like the fact that I am no longer comfortable being identified as Mrs. Britton Swingler, even though I love my husband. Years of ignorance kept me from realizing that my history as a Mrs. had always been rooted in a man’s ownership of a woman, and the more obvious one that a man is never identified, in name, as being married.

I suppose I do get these ideas in my head, but I’m grateful for them. These ideas are how I grow, and how I evaluate pain, loss, and regret in particular. These ideas are how I refine my dreams, reject the ones that were never mine in the first place, and embrace the ones still deeply held.

18 thoughts on “You get these ideas in your head

  1. Often neglected in the equation is the oppression men inflict on themselves, to realize in quiet desperation that they are attached to a woman they have suppressed into a boring shell of her potential.

    1. This is a powerful and honest comment, Peter. I so appreciate this and am struck by its resonance.

      I am reminded of double standards that have allowed men, in general, to ‘behave badly’ without as much judgment as a woman receives for similar actions. I am struck by men who have a problem mentally monetizing their wives’ contributions to their families when they are not bringing in a salary.

      I am struck by how much I miss our deep conversations, but I am heartened by the fact that you are living meaningfully and giving back, as is your way.

      1. I love what you wrote ! It resonates with me and I would love to see you sometime soon. I have Parkinson’s Disease and have been troubled with walking and I cannot drive right now. Love you bunches. Lin

  2. This. “Change does not happen when people are comfortable. It happens when they are not. Change rises when something is terribly wrong. But let me be clear: Divisiveness does not cause violence, people do.” This is it. We need change. Great things (like freedoms, equality, rights) happen when people (all humans regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, political party, etc…) are uncomfortable. The only way things evolve is through challenging the status quo and asking, “Why?” And “How can we make us better?” Keep writing these ideas that pop into your head. Keep asking why. Keep questioning the status quo. And keep being an example for your daughters, your sons, your husband, and women like me.

    1. Thank you my fighting sister. You, too, are a fine example of a strong woman who takes that less-traveled road, not because it’s easy, but because it’s true. I appreciate you and the work you do every day.

  3. Radical – adjective – “Advocating for thorough or complete political or social change.” “Favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms.” All okay with me. I’m happy to say I’ve never had an aversion to the word feminist. I embrace it. Feminism itself is probably radical, but for me, it just means belief in gender equality. Well, not “just.” It means you’re willing to fight for it, even be obnoxious for it if need be. You’re willing to call people on sexist comments, even your spouse, whom you love. It means being hyper-vigilant to things he says that he wouldn’t say if he was commenting about a man. Like, “She’s gained weight, hasn’t she?” about a performer you’re watching. It means believing that government agencies – Congress, Governors, Mayors, Police Departments, the Military, etc. should be 50% female. It means if a woman is running for office, especially if she is running against a misogynistic creep and a megalomaniac, you fucking vote for her, even if you have some reservations. Not all women are good leaders and not all men are bad leaders, but we need to even the playing field to have a fighting chance for our daughters and granddaughters. Equality for all has a better chance when half of the participants are women. You’re right: When we’re comfortable, nothing changes. But something can be terribly wrong for a very long time before enough discomfort foments change. And sometimes the election of a tyrant and a bully and an attacker of females can mobilize radicals and invite women on the fence to have ideas in their head about feminism.

    1. Pat, you rock. How many times, of late, you’ve been an honest sounding board. How many times I’ve let my truths rattle inside me so powerfully that I’ve had to press out the dents just to go on, and you’ve been right there beside me with a rubber mallet.

      Women like you, who see the path so clearly, change the world for the better. Unafraid to be you, even when it is uncomfortable or even emotionally painful, is where you stun and inspire me. Your heart is as soft as 24-karat gold, yet you march with nerves and resolve of steel. How you strike such a powerful balance between the two is awe-inspiring.

  4. O M ggggggggggggggGosh,
    this is far too good, significant, relevant, and powerful not to send out someplace else.
    For example, The New Yorker!
    Loved it!

    PS. Until MEN step up and say “NO MORE,” nothing in our society will change.
    Can you imagine how amazing this will be when it happens?

    Xx xx from Duluth.

    1. Kim, thanks for the encouragement. I often feel my evolutions are too late and too trite, but knowing they strike a chord of solidarity, or that they might be capable of nudging someone to think differently, keeps me going. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  5. You are not only a great writer, but a great thinker and activist too! I admire your courage and strength to explore uncomfortable, divisive areas of life. Share this with the world!

    1. “Activist.” I’ve not thought of myself as one before. I look to women of the past who spent their entire lives living outside the comforts of the ‘thoughts of their day’ because of their beliefs. I ask myself: Am I willing to do this? I am listening for the answer…hoping I already know it.

  6. I can’t help thinking of our conversations, with a sense that you would indeed give voice—intelligent, thoughtful, heartfelt, seamless in its expression —of how you got to this awareness and all of its implications. Of course I resist the using credit and Trump in the same breath. It’s the unfortunate dark force of him that has surfaced at a time when you’re so clearly seeing the light. Great post, Britton

    1. I don’t always have immediate words to explain shifts in thinking. The arrive after much introspection and, in this case, wrestling. Thanks for being an early listener.

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