How I Discovered Feminism

This post is dedicated to team Red Four, who put up with my naivety and unfettered energy for a year, and who are responsible for shaping me into the strong and empowered woman I am today.

Ten years ago I was a rather ignorant young woman.  I had been fairly sheltered as an adolescent, grew up in the homogenous suburbs, and was attending a university large enough to find a tribe that would isolate you from any others.

I had a bleeding heart for cause based work, and decided to leave my degree path for a year and join the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCCs) shortly after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast.  I chose the program because it was structured after the military (structure I knew I required) and sent its members all over the United States.  Since it was so soon after Katrina, I was guaranteed some time in the Gulf.  Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Aid were my biggest passions, which made it a perfect fit.

Before my year with the NCCCs, I’d hardly heard of the word ‘feminism’.  I knew it was a movement that involved burning bras and garnering the right to vote, but that was the farthest my knowledge went and I did not identify with the label.  Little did I realize that by joining a national program that attracts all walks of life, I would mix with people I never would have otherwise and learn a lot — about others, and myself.

The first assignment my team received after training was to Operation TLC in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  The organization had been started by two Red Cross First Responders who could not in good conscience leave the Gulf after their three-week deployment (the American Red Cross policy of three week assignments is designed to provide maximum support while avoiding the development of PTSD in its members).  They stayed on and created the organization to serve Mississippians who had ‘fallen through the cracks’ — who no other organization would serve.

I was assigned as the Case Worker for the organization.  The organization was brand new, so not only was I required to interview people who were likely to begin crying while recalling their experience with the Storm, I first had to build it.  I was told to replicate the process of a few other organizations, create a double lock and key system, and color code for at-a-glance understanding of severity of the cases.  I had three filing cabinets at my disposal, so I used them to create a triage process in addition to the severity levels.  My other tool was a government cell phone, on loan to the organization.

My mentor in all of this was Tammy.  She was a powerful presence, with short dark hair, an arm band tattoo, and a voice as loud as her energy.  She could motivate anyone.  She oversaw the day-to-day work at TLC, while her partner (Annie) largely oversaw distribution of goods and services based on my casework.  The rest of my team ran the organization — reception, rebuilding where needed, distribution, and volunteer coordination.

The first experience I had with Tammy was the day of my assignment.  I told her I couldn’t do what she’d asked of me because I had had no serious training or experience (outside of the basic Red Cross orientation).  I wasn’t an empowered person, didn’t believe in myself, and had no idea that my ability to empathize and connect with people was the most important part of the job.  She told me I could and that I would, gave me the necessary resources to figure it out, and sent me on my way.

It was she that taught me about feminism.  We were on a drive to a neighboring town to assess a home based on the testimonial I’d received from the client.  We had to make sure the situation was what they’d described since resources were limited.  I cannot remember why she brought it up, but I do remember her direct question, “Do you know what feminism is?”  I blundered through my answer.  I hated to look ignorant in front of someone I looked up to, but all I could think of was burning bras.  I didn’t know anything about wage equality, the different movements, or the cultural pressure on both males and females to ‘act a certain way’.  I just knew that women cut their hair short and wore stifling business suits and that wasn’t something I wanted.

Tammy could have used that opportunity to school me on the topic, but she didn’t.  She knew that over exposure too early and with too much pressure could do more harm than good.  What she did say was that there was much more to it than what I knew, that it was about women being just as able as men and being accepted as such, and that neither sex should be required to conform to a mould.  And that was it.

Two months later I was redeployed as volunteer lead on one of the Habitat for Humanity East St. Tammany (Louisiana) sites (there were three major neighborhoods they were building out).  I worked with both men and women, and it was the women who had me in awe.  Some women walked the top of the frames as if they were born up there.  They knew how to get things done and didn’t hesitate to take action.  My supervisors, for the most part, were accepting of the female presence on their worksites.  But some of the male volunteers were terribly disappointing.

One in particular furthered my education.  Standing next to myself and another female Corps Member, he kept missing the head of the nail he was hammering into the OSB, each time exclaiming to himself, “You hit it like a girl!”  I still wasn’t an empowered woman, and didn’t know to say something, but my partner did.  It didn’t sink in, and he continued his offensive behavior.

Later, she whispered how offensive his comments were, forcing me to truly consider their origin rather than allow the incident pass as normal.  He was taught to think of poor construction skills as ‘female’, and strength as ‘male’.  And so was I.

After a year of fantastic mentors, a phenomenal  and supportive team, and a diversity of work, the concept had sunk in.  I had become a feminist.