Coming Into My Feminist Consciousness

July 17, 2020

My Humanities Moment occurred during my Junior year in college, when I attended an evening session with Gerda Lerner, the author of The Creation of Feminist Consciousness and one of the founders of the academic field called women’s history.

I read only short sections of the book assigned in my women’s studies class. (The course itself was a revelation to me, and a requirement because I didn’t score a 5 on my high school AP History exam. Being forced to take history courses in college was the bright side of this failure, because it was in those classes that I learned that history is more than the dates of battles, treaties, and founding documents — all activities of men. I realized that women were doing cool (and important) things while all that other business was going on.)

I remember almost nothing about the event except a single line by the speaker, which I can only approximate here. Dr. Lerner said that the tragedy of women’s history is the sheer waste of intellectual capital for millenia. She asked us to consider what our culture might have lost — what all the world’s cultures have lost — due to women’s subjugation and their lack of access to education. How many books were never written? How many works of art never made? How many ideas in philosophy and politics and religion and science were never engendered because of one gender’s systematic oppression?

I remember sobbing in my chair. I remember the choking anger I felt at this injustice. I also remember the feeling I finally had an answer to a question my father had once posed.

Now, you have to understand a bit about me to understand this moment, my coming to feminist consciousness. I was the only girl in a family of three boys. I was the daughter of a man who could have given the Great Santini a run for his money. Our household was run with military precision, my father being a retired Army officer, Vietnam veteran, helicopter pilot, and Ranger instructor, and my mother a traditional, mild-mannered wife. Our house was patriarchal, to be sure, and I did my best to measure up to a standard that placed male bodies and minds above all else. (My father, in fact, once told me that I was the “best son he ever had,” a true compliment coming from him.)

I understand now that my father was a product of his time, born in 1931 and raised in Tennessee, but as a young girl I received mixed messages about my place. He appreciated my intellect and we often spent evenings together watching Masterpiece Theater or some other PBS documentary that would be “wasted” on my brothers. During one of these evenings, my father asked me, “Why do you suppose there are no women composers?”

I cannot remember the exact tone of his question; he could very well have been taunting me, reinforcing the idea that women were inferior because, look, there’s the proof. There are no women composers. They must be bad at composing. Taunting me was one of my father’s unfortunate habits. But I like to think my father’s tone also included some confusion and curiosity. Here he was with this brainy daughter — who was, in his words, “smarter than all three boys put together” — but where could she really succeed if there were no women composers?

I certainly don’t recall my answer to my father’s question, but I do remember the roiling of my brain and the shame I felt at not having a good explanation for why there were no women composers, few women authors, no women presidents, and certainly no female helicopter pilots. I remember the queasy sense of defeat that whatever my intellect, I couldn’t amount to much — or at least not to the level of men. And I wanted to be a good man — the best son — for my terrifying, mercurial father.

Gerda Lerner’s words gave me the answer I needed. There were no women composers because, according to Lerner, patriarchy had “skewed the intellectual development of women as a group, since their major intellectual endeavor had to be to counteract the pervasive patriarchal assumptions of their inferiority and incompleteness as human beings.

That’s exactly what I had been doing in my family for 20-something years, trying to counteract the idea that I was inferior.

I never got to explain all this to my father, partly because I was too afraid, partly because I hadn’t worked it all out in a bell ringer, iron-clad speech that would once and for all convince him of women’s equality, and partly because he died soon after I graduated. But Gerda Lerner’s words have never left me, and they’ve helped me understand how the humanities — the intellectual endeavors of both women and men — can and do nurture the mind and the soul.