What women want

A generation-spanning mix of local writers consider the state of the women’s movement

Photo by Mike Iredale

A bright, shiny new decade is always a good time to take stock of where we’ve come from and where we’re going. So when SN&R decided to take an informal look at the state of the women’s movement, that’s the question we posed to a handful of local writers. The women who answered our call are pretty much all over the map—different generations, different experiences and, we think, a wide set of viewpoints (including one who is, her mother suspects, “brainwashed by anti-feminists”).

What they have in common is a commitment to making the world a better place—and to embracing what it means to be a woman in the here and now.

Natasha vonKaenel | Teens
Think globally

“You have been indoctrinated by the anti-feminist movement.”

My mom, a hard-core feminist from the flower-power age, crossed her arms and glared at me from across the room. The feminist movement should be happy to have such a dedicated supporter.

Photo by Mike Iredale

Ignoring my mother’s disconcerting attitude, I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain that while I felt the feminist movement was irrelevant to me, I had not been brainwashed.

I grew up attending liberal public schools with feminist teachers and a classroom of girls that fully endorsed the phrase “girl power.” The boys in my classes were regularly rebuked for any negative remarks about their female classmates. Many girls of my generation enjoyed the support of feminist mothers and teachers who worked to ensure that we felt equal to our male peers, so many of us never had the experience of feeling like a second-class citizen.

However, I know that I have been lucky to grow up with such a dedicated support system, and there are girls of my generation, in America and around the world, that didn’t have these advantages.

When I was 14, I entered high school, dyed my hair purple and compulsively drank triple-strength energy drinks. But in The New York Times, I read about Abbas Be, a beautiful young Indian girl who was gang-raped and forced to be a sex slave when she was 14. I cannot successfully argue that American women do not face far-reaching problems here at home. But to become pertinent to the changing world, the feminist movement needs to focus on the more serious international woman’s struggle.

The feminist movement has, unfortunately, become irrelevant to many American young people. While women around the world are subjugated and enslaved, raped, stoned and burned, we still hear about the struggles of American women, the income gap and discrimination in the workplace. While gaining equal economic status and recognition in society are important goals, they have been, for the most part, achieved. While older generations may still be aware of gender discrimination, my generation has been—thanks to the struggles that came before us—alleviated of this burden.

The world has entered a global age, and as a woman, I am more concerned about women being subjugated and enslaved outside my country than about women making less money than men inside my country.

After the police freed her from enslavement, Abbas Be began receiving an education and learned how to make a profit by binding books. She is now able to send her sisters through school as well, and the empowerment of one woman has led to the liberation of others. It is generally accepted that when women are given more productive roles in society, through education, microloans or other methods, radical extremism and political instability are reduced, and the community’s health and economic conditions improve. For American feminism to be relevant, it should focus on eliminating the horrible conditions that women around the world experience—forced prostitution, bride burnings, stoning and enslavement.

Empowering women like Abbas Be will lead the world into the next age.

Natasha vonKaenel is a 17-year-old student at West Campus High School who spends her time writing, drumming and failing at laser tag.

Photo by Mike Iredale

Kathleen Jercich | Teens
Burst out of your bubble

Sometimes, I’m afraid I’ve been living in a bubble.

When I hear about young women’s uncertainties with the term feminism as a label for their beliefs, I can’t help but feel conflicted. Sure, I can say I’m proud to call myself a feminist—but I’ve only ever had to when surrounded by similarly minded folks. For me, the problem isn’t the faceless patriarchal opposition: I can rant about Twilight or the Stupak amendment until the cows come home. It’s when I come across a friend or a lover who subscribes to any of those noxious, age-old beliefs which have crippled feminism since the first alleged trash-can bra burning. Instead of getting up in arms about being labeled as a “prude” or a “man hater,” I just turn red and change the subject to three-field farming.

When it comes right down to it, if I’m forced out of my comfort zone, I want to be liked too much to be anything but a pushover.

I had the privilege of spending my formative years at St. Francis, the only single-sex female high school now available in Sacramento. I know that pleated skirts don’t automatically connote equal rights for most people, but among all the stealthy mid-liturgical Gollum impressions and lectures about eating Hot Tamales in religion class, I spent most of my time at SFHS learning exactly why girls can do anything they want to do. St. Francis, as a whole, taught me that there was no good reason why inequality should even be a possible factor in my educational experience.

This buoyant feeling carried me through my first three years of college, where again I can say I’ve been pretty lucky. Though it was certainly jarring to have to remember how to interact with boys again, I’ve fallen in with a group of rapscallions—such as my fellow members of the Women’s Resource Center Advisory Board—who take equality for granted just as much as I do.

Though these environments were and are wonderful, they’ve also fostered in me a certain sense of complacency. When a creepy co-worker tells me what a good wife I’ll make someone someday, it’s easier for me to send a quick, enraged text to a friend rather than actually telling him to back off. Or when I’m trying to get involved with a new group and someone makes an inevitably disparaging comment about fat-positive women, I can’t bring myself to step up and tell off the ignorant jerk.

Much as I loathe admitting it, the same forces that urge many young women to reject feminism altogether—the belief that it’s too loud, too messy, too violent—push me to hide behind a veneer of resigned bafflement when immature morons make unenlightened comments. When I’m shoved out of my protected habitat into the real world, I’m often too afraid to rock the boat.

My resolution for 2010 is to cut that crap out. Nobody ever changed minds by being too chicken to call others out on being misogynistic sea slugs. Silence isn’t being nice; it’s being afraid. It’s time for me—and all the young feminists like me—to burst my own bubble, grow some ovaries and start being fearless.

Kathleen Jercich is a 19-year-old Folsom resident, former SN&R intern and student at Cornell University. She enjoys reading and writing about badass females (and, occasionally, the dragons who love them).

Photo by Mike Iredale

Jenn Kistler | 20s
Give back the rib

Eve is always to blame. She is the seductive original sinner, a produce-wielding siren inflicting mortality upon man. She also hijacked a bone from Adam’s rib cage.

Yet her greatest offense—which has left her female descendents in an eternal pickle—is that she was created after Adam. According to the religion of my childhood, since Adam was first in line, that logically meant men were in charge of religion, their families and of women in general. As a repayment for Eve’s rib-bone loan, women in my church were required to obey men’s decisions, maintain the household and raise obedient children. Jehovah’s Witnesses still declare that “[Women are] to be silent in the sense of not getting into disputes with a man. She is not to belittle his appointed position or endeavor to teach the congregation.”

While boys my age stood upon the church stage nervously cracking their knuckles and injecting “ums” and “uhs” into their religious speeches, I sat in the audience daydreaming about how I’d show them up—if I were allowed. Women were forbidden to speak to the congregation, serve as religious leaders, wear pantsuits to church, get in religious debates with men and pray in front of men (unless they adorned their heads with a doily, napkin or similarly ridiculous headpiece). Higher education was out of the question, too. Female independence went against God’s decree that man was king of the symbolic hill, so feminism of any kind was deemed evil.

By the tender age of 11, I was ready to return Adam’s freaking rib bone.

So I protested. I avoided learning how to cook, abandoned belief in marriage and vowed never to have children. (I even requested a hysterectomy as a high-school graduation gift—I was only half joking. My mom obviously refused.) My dad jumped the Jesus ship when I was 15, giving me an opportunity to embrace full woman power through education and debate, sans doilies. No one was going to silence this Eve.

Yet in college, I struggled to define a line between my feminism and my femininity. Was there a line? Did feminine characteristics go against the feminist credo? Was joining a sorority anti-feminist? Even if it led to me becoming involved in student government, community-service organizations, academic honor societies and serving as a leader? To some fellow students, sororities were the antithesis of female equality. I saw it differently and am a stronger woman because of my experience.

Somewhere between women’s suffrage, the feminist movement and the 21st century, the true meaning of feminism was obscured by the superficial “battle of the sexes” adage. For some women, feminism became an image dominated by abhorring “girly” interests such as bouquets of flowers, acts of chivalry by men and wedding ceremonies. Other women rejected the term feminism because they enjoyed those “girly” things and didn’t want to be considered a “feminazi.”

But they all forgot the original meaning of the word: “to make legal, political, social and economic change in our society in order to … eliminate sexism and end all oppression,” according to the National Organization for Women.

Yes, oppression based on one’s gender remains an issue worldwide. Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali related her personal account of being circumcised as a Muslim girl in her autobiography, Infidel. I was horrified that such misogynistic religious persecution and torture still occurred.

In an age when more people seem less dependent on archaic religious laws—where there are more secularists, humanists and atheists—there also seem to be growing numbers of religious extremists, a kind of third “great awakening,” to the detriment of women. Even in the United States, where there are more women enrolled in college than men, some religious sects prohibit women from aspiring to higher education. They are indoctrinated to bear unhealthy numbers of children, forced to stay in abusive relationships because divorce is a sin and prohibited from using contraception.

Feminism is not a battle of women vs. men. It never was. It means embracing the biological differences in men and women, yet realizing we are all humans in the end. Feminism demands humanity and equality for all; its survival is dependent on activism and continuing education. True equality for women, and men, cannot exist in a world where blame is always placed upon Eve.

Jenn Kistler, SN&R’s calendar editor, is a 26-year-old writer, graduate student and running fool. She survives almost entirely on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Photo by Mike Iredale

Amber Amey | 20s
I believe in women

I believe in change, in equality. I believe in peace and justice. I believe in living as one, working together for an active tomorrow. I believe in women. Though not a radical feminist, I feel the grind; I identify with the problems we face as women today.

What does it mean to be a woman? Well, it means to be strong, to be proud. It means to be determined and indestructible. To be a woman is to live, to compete every day for your place in the world.

Yes, we have come a long way from the days of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Olympia Brown—but the labor is not complete. Women still must fight for fair pay and recognition in the workforce, autonomy in society and parity in the household. Some are locked in an incessant struggle for freedom—and my heart cries for them—and some do not care. But I care. I care about my life and my fellow woman. I care enough to work toward making our existence in this world known and to let our voices be heard. I care enough to speak, and I care about our rights as women and as human beings. We are all a part of the movement. Those who do not march, who do not shout, are part of the movement. Those who do not label themselves are still a part of the contest. The women’s movement is a process of establishing fresh ideologies for aged standards. It speaks for all women and the voice that may sometimes be too small to understand.

To me, the movement is about growth and reconstruction. We must tear down the walls of social construction and build new ones of social acceptance, for only then can we surge as a gender. The channels of adequation are long, but they are not unachievable, because we are women.

It is in the way that you carry yourself and establish your dignity, your identity, that you become a woman. It is in the way that you stand solid and tall that you define femininity. It is through your awareness and self-assertiveness that the world sees you for what you are and recognizes you for who you will be. You must care, you must flare up and rise above, and pray that they will grow, that they will know that you are woman. Until then, you must run and breathe and live and laugh, and in time, you will find that you are woman.

Amber Amey is a 20-year-old student at Sacramento State and a lover of fiction and poetry. She is currently accepting donations for her college fund.

Photo by Mike Iredale

Lovelle Harris | 30s
Be prepared to resuscitate

Growing up in a female-dominated household in the frigid confines of Alaska, I learned the word “feminism” through the daily struggles of the women in my life: the anxiety of living from paycheck to paycheck, surviving the horrors of domestic abuse, and relying on a welfare system that was often demeaning and intolerant. It was through witnessing these experiences that I gained an awareness of just what the women’s movement could mean: women pulling together in a united front to bring about positive change for one another.

In a society obsessed with elective plastic surgery and the oversexed women of MTV’s Jersey Shore, it looks as if the women’s movement is currently in a state of decline, or perhaps in need of a shot of adrenaline into its failing heart. Gone are the days of picketing for equal pay in the workplace; marching in the streets for reproductive rights; and rallying in the halls of justice against the pervasive and destructive chain of physical, sexual and psychological violence against women.

While great strides have been made through the years, there is still much work to be done. Rather than the organized, grassroots activities that marked the first three epochs of the feminist movement, the issues have moved from the streets and into the corporate boardrooms on Wall Street and congressional quarters on Capitol Hill. From Sallie Krawcheck’s meteoric rise as wealth management chief at Bank of America to Barbara Boxer’s campaign to convince the United States to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a global-rights treaty adopted by the U.N. General Assembly more than 30 years ago, women are poised to blast right through that proverbial glass ceiling.

In the last 20 years, I have seen the fight for women’s issues evolve from symbolic gestures into highly politicized, cultural hot buttons, fought on the political front lines. Take the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2009, named after a former employee of The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company who alleged that she was paid 15 to 40 percent less than her male colleagues. It’s a piece of legislation that extends the statute of limitations on pay-discrimination lawsuits, and clearly a monumental win in the gender-based wage-gap issue, yet I only recently became acquainted with its existence. The moment occurred with barely a blip registering on the teleprompters of the mainstream media.

Perhaps this is why so many women in my generation, women in their early to mid-30s, don’t self-identify as feminists: Politics is confusing, the corporate world is intimidating and, to be perfectly honest, both are downright scary at times. I don’t believe my generation has forsaken the ideals associated with the women’s movement; there are many examples of local, young, strong, empowered women exacting change in their communities all around the greater Sacramento area. But I feel that there isn’t a singular, grand agenda uniting the masses.

Maybe that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the expansion of the Internet and the emergence of the blogosphere, perhaps technology is poised to take the stage as the grand unifier of women in this decade. One need only type in “blogs + women’s issues” in a Web browser to see just how much potential this newest wave of the feminist movement has.

However, given the current state of things, it still might be a good idea to have a defibrillator on hand—just in case.

Lovelle Harris is a 35-year-old writer still aiming for her first Pulitzer in journalism. She is forever grateful to the literary gods for getting her out of Anchorage, Alaska.

Photo by Mike Iredale

Rachel Leibrock | 40s
To be fearless

On my 10th birthday, my uncle gave me a T-shirt. It was pink, but hardly girly, with a message that read: “A Woman’s Place is in the House … and in the Senate.”

Somewhere there’s a picture of me holding up that T-shirt. I’m grinning, but at an age when I was more interested in Barbies and Scott Baio, I didn’t quite grasp the meaning behind those words.

It would be several years before I became interested or personally invested in feminism, but thus the seeds were planted at an early age—by my uncle, by my mother, by anyone who ever encouraged me to rely on my smarts, to push at boundaries, to be fearless in my endeavors.

Still, it was a message fraught with caveats and conflicts.

As a teenager during the ’80s, I witnessed powerful examples of women pushing boundaries, such as Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major presidential ticket.

Groundbreaking moments aside, however, it was also an era when powerful women were, more often than not, defined by the size of their shoulder pads and told they could bring home the bacon and then put on an apron to fry it up in a pan as long as, you know, they never ever let you forget you’re a man.

At home, the message seemed equally conflicted.

Raised by a mother who wished she’d been encouraged to pursue becoming a doctor rather than a nurse, she never missed an opportunity to tell me I was capable of being or doing just about anything—as long as I acted like a lady while doing it.

Among the discouraged unladylike behaviors: calling boys, wearing too much makeup, swearing and, seriously, stop calling those boys.

The contradictory messages continued into my 20s. Like the decade before, the ’90s were a largely ambivalent period during which feminism shifted into the culturally radical riot grrrl movement before being commercially co-opted into a “girl power” marketing phenomenon.

Riot grrrl started out as an underground feminist punk movement with an emphasis on DIY culture, gender politics and self-empowerment through everything from expressing sexuality and self-defense to playing music and making zines. Riot grrrl chapters were founded, workshops were held, we asserted ourselves.

Still, when it comes to big-picture politics and cultural mores, I’m not entirely sure what we accomplished during that time period; sure, there were historical feminist moments, but it seemed like some of the more significant watershed moments (the passage of Title IX in 1972 and Roe v. Wade in 1973, et. al.) were in the history books, and now we were just left to push feminism into pop culture, which meant the world was forced to suffer through the Spice Girls and all those “Girls kick ass” stickers.

That’s why I understand when many women in their teens and 20s don’t identify with, much less use, the word “feminist.” Over the years the term and the concept have morphed, mutated and been misappropriated so much that they’ve lost much of their original meaning and punch.

That said, I not only still call myself a feminist, but I take pride in the word and its most basic connotation, as explained by feminist scholars Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.”

Feminism still means exactly what my uncle taught me—I belong in the House and the Senate and any other damn place I want to be. All the shoulder pads, zines, riot grrrl conventions and Spice Girls CDs in the world won’t necessarily make that possible, but I can try, thanks to the power of other women’s accomplishments and the memory of a pink, but certainly not girly, T-shirt.

Rachel Leibrock is a 40-year-old writer of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. Yes, she still harbors resentment toward the Spice Girls.

Photo by Mike Iredale

Kel Munger | 50s
Mistaken identity

When I first started writing for publication—let’s see, that would be after Roe v. Wade but before Nixon’s resignation—I signed everything with my full name: Kelly Anne Munger. I figured if it was good enough for Katherine Anne Porter, it was good enough for me.

But in the late 1980s, my poems began to be concerned with violence, our responses to it and the sort of people I was seeing regularly in my work at the local police department.

I noticed something strange. The poems were suddenly being returned to me with no sign that they’d been read.

Back in the pre-computer era, when every painstakingly typed copy was examined with care and good-but-rejected copies were sent out again, that’s something a poet would notice. I knew I was submitting to journals that would publish that sort of grim work, but on a whim, I sent a group of poems out without my full name and my admittedly femme signature (you should see what I used to do with the “y” at the end of my name—almost as bad as those little hearts instead of dots over an “i”).

Instead, I used my nickname—Kel. No middle name at all.

After all, if it was good enough for George Eliot and all three Brontë sisters, it was good enough for me.

Now mind you, I’ve considered myself a feminist ever since I first heard the term in the late ’70s. Before that, I was a “women’s libber,” mainly because that derogatory appropriation of “women’s liberation” was all I’d heard in the small town where I grew up. But I really didn’t think sexism was making much of a difference in my life. After all, I’d been the first girl elected student-body president in my high school. I’d gotten college scholarships (and wasted them, like all good wasted youth). I had a good job at the police department—although, like me, most of the women in the department were clustered in communications and jail work, while most of the people on patrol duty and special squads were men.

I thought I was pretty savvy about discrimination.

Then the same poems that had been sent back before—unread, I suspected—were accepted for publication. Same journal, same poems; the only difference was the name.

The acceptance letter opened, “Dear Mr. Munger.”

Now, I’d like to think that’s a fluke, but unfortunately, I know better. I went to graduate school in a field—literary studies—that has plenty of successful women in it. And yet, I had one (male) professor describe women authors as “mostly concerned with domestic matters,” and therefore not as worthy of sustained study. Another (also male) described Nobel laureate Toni Morrison as a “twofer,” meaning that if he put her work on his syllabus, she counted as both a female and an African-American author, and then he could fill the rest of the cirriculum with white men. Left unspoken—but not unheard, at least by me—was the assumption that neither white women nor writers of color had written enough of value to justify replacing some of those white men.

Of course, I still get letters and e-mails addressed to “Mr. Munger.” Being mistaken for a male writer may be annoying, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay in order to be taken seriously. It’s also proof positive to me that the cultural and social beliefs that made the women’s movement necessary are still present, if slightly reduced in fervor and volume.

And it means I have two identities: Kelly, as I’m called at home; Kel is my professional name. I am, in some ways, “split” by the necessities of life in a still-suffering-from-sexism culture.

By the time you read this, Kel Munger will be 50 years old. When she’s not doing something or other for SN&R, she writes poetry and fiction.

Photo by Mike Iredale

Kakawasi Somadhi | 60s
Truth and the lie

I grew to adulthood in the late ’50s and early ’60s, during the height of the civil-rights movement, and I witnessed the rise of a modern feminist movement in the ’70s and ’80s while I struggled to find my place as a wife, mother, professional and spare-time community activist.

As I revisit those days, I am reminded of the advertising slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The cigarette and the slogan were created to capture the attention of women and shape their smoking habits by playing on desires to be good-looking, energetic and hip. In media markets for people of color, one would see glamorous Asian, black and brown women with bushy Afros or long dark hair, posing on the move, going somewhere important or daringly fun, with one of those cigarettes hanging from their lips. For white media markets, the models changed: They were blond, wore big glasses and tie-dyed outfits and perhaps sat on or stood next to a Harley-Davidson.

The slogan spoke truth, yet lied at the same time. It accurately reflected our determination to decide how we wanted to show up in the world. It implied, however, that we were free to do whatever we pleased, how we pleased, when we pleased; it implied that we had “arrived,” and that was the lie.

We struggled with abuse and oppression in our homes then, and many women still do, despite stronger laws with which to prosecute abusive spouses. We struggled with income disparities between the haves and have-nots, and that disparity has grown wider and is still more severe among women of color than white women. Those who made it into the professions back then beat their heads against a glass ceiling, stifling advancement and limiting how much money they could earn, and that struggle continues.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that we’ve made no progress—for that would also be a lie.

Women astronauts have flown into space, among them, women of color. The last three presidents appointed many women to high positions in their Cabinets, and there have been three women secretaries of state since 1997. Around the world, a handful of women have been elected to lead their nations. And in the United States, women have become CEOs of multibillion-dollar corporations. Indeed, some among us have come a long way.

Those women of the civil-rights and feminist movements who paved the way suffered through hard times. They were accused of envying men, women of color were accused of taking jobs away from men of color, and the remedy heard to cure our unfeminine aspirations was that all we needed were good (and virile) men to make us go home and act right.

Although I hear those things being said a lot less now, I realize that somewhere, in this country and in other parts of the world, women are still subjected to this sentiment and often worse.

This look back has, however, proved useful and reminds me of the work song—for its refrain combines nicely with that dangerously deceptive cigarette slogan: “We’ve come a long way, baby—but we’ve still got so terribly far to go.”

Kakwasi Somadhi, 69, just completed a second master’s degree in creative writing and is an instructor at Sacramento City College. She is a community activist and board president of the Black United Fund of Sacramento Valley.