It happens all the time: I step out of my comfortable, liberal bubble in which everyone is well aware that I am a loud, proud sex educator and feminist, and suddenly these things don’t go over as smoothly as I’d like. Once, I was in DC to attend the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Young Feminist Leadership Conference, and as my cohorts and I waited for a shuttle to take us from the hotel to the subway, a middle-aged woman and her son came out of the lobby to wait with us. The shuttle pulled up and ten of us piled in and squished seats so they would have room to ride with us. As the van left, she asked us where we were from. “New York,” a few of us responded.
“So, what are y’all in town for?”
“The Young Feminist Leadership Conference!”
She froze. Her eyes widened. Usually, I would give someone in her situation the benefit of the doubt. I would really like to assume that the look on her face meant something other than, “Oh, my God, these nice young ladies and gentlemen are a bunch of bra-burning heathens hiding hirsute armpits beneath their business casual blazers!” There was no mistaking this one, though, try as I might. Her jaw actually went slack. She hesitated several moments before saying, “So, is that just, uh…today?”
“Nope, it’s the whole weekend with a lobbying day on Monday.”
Part of me laughs about that particular encounter; another shakes her head. It’s easiest to deal with these brief, potentially comical interactions that remind me of why feminists need to be active and visible when they happen with a stranger. It’s harder when a friend says something disappointing or misinformed. Harder still when it’s family. It’s already enough of a challenge to tell your grandparents, “I’m a sex educator.”
Last weekend, I went back to my hometown for Father’s day. My Pop had his parents and one of his brothers in town that weekend, and I hadn’t seen them in quite a while. I had brought a six-pack, but I assumed I wouldn’t start drinking until the evening. The flood of unsolicited career advice from Uncle A and Grandpa I changed that. (Consider this a PSA, everyone- stop giving college students and young graduates unsolicited career advice…especially if you don’t know anything about their industry of choice!)
Uncle A did the closest thing to a spit-take I have ever seen a human do when I said my dream job would be working as an educator for Planned Parenthood. When he recovered, he said, “So, why don’t you do that?”
What, does he think a dream job is something you order off a menu and wait to be handed to you? “Well, the clinics in my region are really only looking for nurses right now.”
“Nurses?!” Another near spit-take. “They employ nurses at Planned Parenthood?”
“What? Yes, of course they do.”
“Why does Planned Parenthood employ nurses?!”
“Because they’re a major healthcare provider…”
I guess if he thought Planned Parenthood was an abortion factory, it probably wasn’t a huge leap of logic to assume that abortion factories are staffed by butchers, rather than teams of specialists and nurses.
Two drinks later, I was being subjected to Uncle A’s theory on the pay gap.
“But tell me this, why is it unfair that men should be making more than women? Women want a 40 hour per week job. Men are going to stay those extra hours, put in that extra effort and time to make sure shit gets done, and women are going to want to know their schedule and go home at the end of the day. THAT’S why women don’t get raises. Women want to be home with the kids, not working overtime. THAT’s why men make more money!”
I wasn’t about to fact-check him, so I took a different approach. “Did you know that in other countries, men are offered paternity leave if they have children? Most companies don’t offer that in the US. Our culture doesn’t encourage men to prioritize their children over their job, but women are fully expected to do that. Don’t you suppose that-”
He waved his hand at me and said, “Bullshit.” I took another swig of black Russian. Grandpa I picked up right where Uncle A left off.
“Feminist organizations are all so concerned with fringe group interests! You know NOW- the National Organization for Women? For the last ten years– ten years!– when asked what is their biggest priority, they said ‘lesbian rights!’ That is such a small segment of the population and THAT is their biggest priority? They should be working for ALL women, the average woman! Not a tiny group of lesbians!”
My blood began to boil and I said, “People who have been forgotten for the longest and oppressed the most have the longest to go before they achieve equality, so that work has to be prioritized.”
I hadn’t finished by the time Grandpa I was countering, “No, they should be working for ALL women! What about Sarah Palin?” Oh, he is not going to say this. “She’s a woman! Why don’t they promote her, elevate her?!”
Dammit, that is IT. “Because Sarah Palin hates women!” I snapped. “Sarah Palin is anti-abortion, cut funding for a teen parent shelter in Alaska, and would have had rape survivors paying for their own forensic kits!”
“I’ve never heard about that!”
It took every ounce of restraint I had to not say, “That’s because you’re horribly misinformed and under-informed about the subject you’re talking about and you get all of your opinions from conservative sound bytes!” Instead, I said, “Well, it’s true!”
When, later in conversation, I said that Barack Obama had done some good things in office, Grandpa I put out his hand and said, “I CANNOT talk to you!” got up, and stomped over to the dock to brood.
My younger cousin (not Uncle A’s daughter) was standing nearby and I called her over. “T, do you consider yourself a feminist?”
“I mean…I support women’s rights, but I don’t know if I would call myself a feminist. I guess some of that is a little…extreme?”
“Didn’t you produce a magazine last year about positive body image?”
“Yeah, I did, it was a lot of female empowerment stuff.”
“I think you’re a feminist, whether or not you label yourself that way. Feminism isn’t about being extreme, it’s about gender egalitarianism…”
I’m hoping that by Christmas, after her first semester at UPenn, T will respond to that question differently. As for Uncle A and Grandpa I, I’m not even sure how those subjects came up. I know it’s been said that we should leave our politics at home when we visit family, but I can’t seem to do that. Uncle A later insisted he was kidding (after saying, “If you saw a couple on a tandem bike, you’d pull over and scream at them if the woman wasn’t sitting up front!” which is just so clever I could vomit) but I see no sign of taking these things seriously. If he really is just kidding, when will he stop? When his daughter needs a life-saving medical procedure that his state decided is not morally right? What about when an employer doesn’t think she’s worth hiring because she has a child and won’t want to “work those extra hours?” When his other daughter is harassed and driven out of her workplace? When, years down the line, his grand daughter has to pay out of pocket for an IUD? When thousands of jobs are destroyed because Planned Parenthood closes its doors? So why should I have to leave my politics at home? I don’t understand why a desire for equality should be so isolating, so alienating. Is it really that hard to swallow? Am I going to have to hear this type of thing every time I see my family?
Three hundred fifty miles of highway later, I was approaching home. When I finally pulled into my gravel driveway, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that here, nobody would be surprised to hear what I had to say, whether or not they agreed. My partner, Mister, was eagerly awaiting my return, and lovingly welcomed me home. I told him about my conversation with Grandpa I.
“So he asks me why NOW doesn’t support Sarah Palin because, ‘She’s a woman!’”
Before I could continue, Mister completed my thought: “Because Sarah Palin hates women!”
Oh, my home. Home, sweet, liberal, home.