I knew I was a feminist the day I read Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” aloud to an English class when I was fifteen. The poem concludes with the resounding lines: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” I didn’t know exactly what it meant to be a feminist, but it felt like a treasure to claim. Feminism was me, as a girl, freely accomplishing everything I wished to do. Feminism was defying female restrictions and stereotypes, creating waves in order for a society to recognize me, Jennifer Schmohe, as an exceptional and innovative woman. I wanted feminism to save me. I wanted feminism to save me from falling into the hole that was my mother’s housework, alcoholism, and drug abuse. I wanted feminism to save me from the life-long eating disorder that rooted itself in my earliest memories. I wanted feminism to save me from destructing my body, from dismantling my sense of self.
Four years later, Bettina Aptheker’s Introduction to Feminisms was my first Feminist Studies course taken at the University of California Santa Cruz. Back home in the Mojave Desert, I was the only member of my circle of diverse friends to be a self-proclaimed feminist, and lacked any strong feminist figure in my life. Upon seeing Bettina’s first lecture, a compassionate woman just a few years older than my mother, with such knowledge concerning her beliefs and lifestyle, I was brought to tears. She read from her
working definition of feminism: “[…] Feminism is about the elimination of all forms of hierarchy, and all systems of domination. It is about honoring the preciousness of all life.” She proclaimed her twenty-nine year relationship with her partner, Kate Miller, and was embraced with a breath-taking response of cheering and applause. When class was dismissed, I called my significant other, just to tell her “I love you.” Bettina’s words have the power to unveil all that is beautiful in the world, even alongside the horrible injustices feminism is known to challenge.
Throughout the course I absorbed fist-fulls of facts and theories from lectures, readings, and sections - all of which greatly helped shape and strengthen my grasp of feminism. A significant aspect of what I learned was the value of my own story and interests - how personal epistemology has an important place in our culture and how one woman influences many when she chooses to live her life outside of a socially constructed norm. Though Gail M. Nomura’s piece Filipina American Journal Writing: Recovering Women’s History is an ample manifestation of the worth found in every person’s story, Adrienne Rich argues for the enrichment of the expressive self best in her speech Claiming an Education:
often told us that this should come second to our relationships and responsibilities to other people.
We have been offered ethical models of the self-denying wife and mother; intellectual models of the
brilliant but slapdash dilettante who never commits herself to anything the whole way, or the
intelligent woman who denies her intelligence in order to seem more “feminine,” or who sits in
passive silence even when she disagrees inwardly with everything that is being said around her.
It was important for me to read this speech because I was so often discouraged from studying poetry and feminism, the two subjects that make me most happy, due to the verifiable truth that they could not be easily adapted into a lucrative career. Coming from a background with a “self-denying” mother who abandoned her medical dream to pursue hairdressing (mostly because her parents did not believe she was “bright” enough), I have witnessed first-hand what it is like for a person to sell themselves short of what they could have been and the repercussions this imposes. If I do not face what is holding me back, the criticism and disapproval of those who do not understand my dedication to writing and feminism, I will be left unhappy and unfulfilled.
My section for Introduction to Feminisms was comprised of a small group of students who met in the on campus Women’s Center on Tuesday mornings. Most often I felt as if I was sitting in group therapy, meditating on the subjects of gender, rape, domestic violence, and body image. I had planned to go to an Eating Awareness group each week to help sustain my eating disorder recovery, but was unable to due to a conflict in my class schedule. I was thankful for the safe, open environment my teaching assistant Alex Mufson created because I was able to mentally replace group therapy with this small feminisms section. In Abra Fortune Chernik’s article The Body Politic, she advises: “As young feminists, we must place unconditional acceptance of our bodies at the top of our political agenda.” Though I struggle daily with poor body image, I am aware of how important it is for me to overcome my ailments in order to become the strongest version of myself.
bell hooks writes in Love as the Practice of Freedom:
directly threatened. Often, then, the longing is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to
politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us.
My first interpretation of feminism was to empower myself, but I have grown to see the great evolution it can provide in a collective people. We must care for one another, we must use the love within us to provide for the comfort of others. Feminism saved me from the demons inside of me and created a powerful source of compassion I hope to share with every person I meet.