Welcome to FEP!
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
My earliest moments in which I first I understood gender did not come from looking between my legs as a kid. Of course, I understood a biological difference between my older brother and I, but I didn’t understand that the depth of that difference went much further than my not having a penis.
For me, it was dresses that did it. Or how, when I got out of the bath, I had to wrap a towel at my sternum, while the boys in my life could keep there’s at their waist, even though both our chests were flat at five years old. How I was expected to keep my legs crossed in the car, while my brother’s knees spilled over the middle seat and into mine. How I should settle for a pixie cut, when I really wanted the buzzcut the boys on my tee ball team were sporting. How I hadn’t been expected to learn how to mow the lawn, but I had been disproportionately instructed to set the table.
Gender was something taught, not something I had been born with. I had been born with the anatomical parts of a woman, but what really made me a woman were the limitations and permissions that overtime sculpted me into what the world says is a “Woman.”
I’m happy to say I was never one to settle for gender norms or allow other people to limit me. This probably comes from lifelong stubbornness and a plethora of role models who redefined what it meant to be a woman in my eyes. And having an older brother really teaches a girl to push back against whatever boundaries are set for her. Of course I would play hockey or watch a Red Sox game or punch some boy at school in the balls - my brother was doing it, so why shouldn’t I?
When I grew up and heard about this “feminism” thing, I fell in love with the concept instantly. Not only did it believe in the most basic tenet of human rights - that all humans, including women, deserved rights - but it also advocated against some of the exact limits that had been set for me. It wanted women in STEM, who could be “Dr.” over “Mrs.”. It wanted women in sports, beyond ice skating and beach volleyball. It wanted women to choose when to have children or when to marry. And the most beautiful part of all was that it asked for equality with men - nothing more. Who could argue with that?
Apparently a lot of people. The first time I heard the actual definition of feminism was in high school, around the same time that many of my classmates would claim that they weren’t feminists because they didn’t hate men. Girls on my soccer team acted as if they had to tone down their desire for basic rights in order to have a boyfriend. Friends, family members, and most people I knew at fourteen were so afraid of feminism that it seemed just saying the word would set their bras ablaze under their shirts. It made me hesitate, too, hearing the connotations that people ascribed to this philosophy. I didn’t want to be written off as a man-hater or a future spinster.
But when I finally saw that definition on a white board in the middle of my freshman year, I knew exactly what feminism was, and I shrugged off whatever misconceptions I had adopted. Soon enough Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave her TEDTalk “We Should All Be Feminists” which debunked the myths about man-hating, unshaven, braless feminists, prompting many of my friends to shift their perspectives. Of course, those braless people could be feminists, too. Feminism is for everyone. And for my glorious high school years, I saw the world through my very feminist view and fell in with what can only be called a girl gang that agreed with my sentiments while simultaneously kicking ass academically, athletically, and in all ways one can.
This had been exactly what I had been searching for since my earliest understanding of gender and my identity as a woman. I was surrounded by like-minded friends and the majority of the world seemed to be catching up with feminism. Yet, I had been ahead of the curve, understanding the social differences between boys and girls when I was just a kid. I knew everything, until I didn’t.
In college, I learned exactly where my beloved feminism was failing. First, I learned that Betty Friedan, leader of second-wave feminism, condemned lesbians in a way similar to how my high school soccer team condemned feminists. If anything, Friedan saw the LGBTQ+ community of the 1960s as a threat to her feminist movement, believing their deviancy would be too militant for the second-wave’s mobilization of housewives.
Then, I started to learn more about race and privilege, something I had never felt I had to explore. In high school, if someone told me I was privileged because I was white, I would jump to tell them how hard my parents had worked to provide me with the life I had. When someone finally broke it down for me, I was ashamed of how long I had overlooked the role of my race in shaping my privileged life, therefore never even noticing the way it had shaped others’ experiences in ways different from mine.
Like any good Humanities-focused collegian, I read Kimberle Crenshaw and was introduced to her term intersectionality, which opened a new world for me to explore. Here was a word that helped to encompass everything that the definition of feminism I saw in high school lacked. I stopped saying the gender wage gap was twenty-one cents between men and women, and started recognizing that Latinas were paid a mere fifty-four cents to the White, non-Hispanic man’s dollar, and that this gender wage gap only accounted for men and women, leaving nonbinary people out completely.
I suppose one route I could’ve taken would be to condemn the feminism I had been charmed by as a teen. I could’ve written it off for being full of empty promises and created from falsities. If it really believed in gender equality, why couldn’t it also advocate against racism or ableism or homophobia or transphobia since all of the people plagued by those things had also been influenced by gender? Instead, I claimed feminism to be more of a part of me and attempted to join others who had recognized the same shortcomings. I wanted to take this concept I had been searching for since childhood, been enamored with and disappointed by, and do my best to expand it.
My story with feminism reached a head about seven or eight months ago in my junior year of college. I had the privilege to intern with a legendary women’s organization. Even saying the name of the organization to friends and family would bring forward impressed looks and words of validation. In my mind, it loomed as the pinnacle of feminism, even as I ignored the fact that it only seemed real in ancient, outdated textbooks.
The experience I had there was incomparable. I learned more skills than I ever could have imagined and got out of it what I had really wanted: the opportunity to write. Yet, with each day that I sat in that office, I saw just how outdated the organization had become. In many ways, it was like my first definition of feminism - though it had satiated me for some time, its limitations and exclusions became increasingly more apparent. The office felt like an alternative universe where issues regarding race or ethnicity or religion or anything beyond cis-gender womanhood didn’t occur, simply because they were never acknowledged. Instead, it highlighted its fifty-years-passed heyday as if to claim immunity from having to evolve into the 21st century.
This is not to say they didn’t do anything right or that I didn’t love my internship and the people who worked there. It was at this internship that I met a woman who would spur the inception of what is now Feminist Essay Project. Alejandra Pablos came to the organization to talk about immigration rights and advocacy for the 21st century, and myself and another intern had the opportunity to join the conversation. Everything Alejandra shared about her own story was fascinating, every word once again pushing me to expand my idea of feminism. Yet it was her perspective on activism that nestled in my brain. She talked about the young activists she knew scattered about the country that were looking for platforms to share their stories on, many of whom were high schoolers with a far more advanced understanding of advocacy and feminism than myself. While she listed off names and emails for my supervisors to scribble down, my mind began to explore the possibilities for sharing and connecting these stories.
The cascade of ideas that came next were cemented in text messages sent to one of my close friends. An erratic and excited conversation about feminism and its limitations as well as the power of storytelling set the groundwork for what I would spend the next six months working on. I knew I wanted to provide a space for storytelling - the reader in me has always credited sharing and reading stories with fostering empathy - but one with a mission to push feminists and activists like me to embrace different perspectives. People like to limit feminism to issues concerning gender equality and further limit gender equality to women, when in reality feminism is implicated in every issue, just as everyone is implicated in every gender issue.
Feminist Essay Project is the result of these early thoughts. It serves as a platform for any self-identified feminist or activist, whether you want to be a reader, a writer, or both. It recognizes the stages we’re all at on this journey. Some of us may know nothing about feminism, some of us may think we know everything, and some of us may be leaders of modern feminism. Feminist Essay Project is a space wherein you can never stop learning or growing more. It’s here to record your appreciation for feminism as well as your frustrations. Feminism, like people, can always get better.
My journey with gender and with feminism is one of almost cyclical ignorance and education, but your journey is likely different. Here, we can share both of those journeys and find a way to embrace both.
Welcome to FEP. We can’t wait to hear your story.
Rachel is a rising senior at George Washington University, studying English. As the founder and editor of Feminist Essay Project, she is passionate about providing creators with more inclusive spaces to share stories and ideas. In her freetime, she enjoys running, reading, writing, and cooking.