This Is What A Feminist Looks Like: Gretchen

Name: Gretchen Sisson
Age: 27
Occupation: Writer, Researcher
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Gretchen (right) with Megan Smith (friend and founder of the Repeal Hyde Art Project) and Dr. Leroy Carhart.

How do you define feminism? 
I define feminism as both a personal belief structure and a social movement that values and works toward greater political, economic, and social equality for all people, regardless of sex or gender.  I don’t see it as an isolated concept, but part of a broader social justice framework that must incorporate race, class, sexuality, and other forms privilege and disadvantage.

When did you first identify as a feminist? 
I think I was always a feminist — I never really had a moment that I became aware of it.  My parents are both feminists; my mom campaigned for the ERA and worked at Planned Parenthood long before I was born.  I think it was meant to be.  My mom has also always said that she was very shy and somewhat intimidated growing up, so she was committed to having my sister and me be more self-assured, out-spoken, empowered young women than she remembers being.  I don’t know how she would’ve done that without taking a feminist approach to our upbringing.  (Though, I think she might have regretted some of the out-spokenness during our teenaged years.)

If I did have a “click” moment, it was probably in my ninth grade English class.  My English teacher was astonishingly bad. (On the first day of class she told us we’d be reading Great Expectations later that year, which “is a bear and is ridiculously long, but somehow we’ll get through it.” Way to encourage a love of literature, there.)  She also managed to teach Streetcar Named Desire without talking about the rape.  When we watched the film in class (the Marlon Brando/Vivien Leigh version), one of the boys in my class howled (literally, while shaking his fist in the air) at the revised ending (when Stella leaves Stanley) and said “Ohhhh, the feminazis changed it! Damn them!”  The teacher nearly doubled over laughing, and I just remember thinking, “What… the… fuck?”  I felt palpably that something was missing: a discussion of the historical and sociocultural forces at play, or at least an acknowledgement that the most important scene in this work involves an act of sexual violence.  It highlighted what was lacking in my education, and for the rest of high school I actively sought to correct that omission whenever given the opportunity to do schoolwork independently.  When I got to college, one of my majors was gender studies.  When I finished there, I went to graduate school in sociology and focused on race, class, and gender.  These aren’t just academic interests, though; I use academia to fill in the parts of the world that don’t make sense without feminism.

Has your (definition of) feminism changed over time? How? 
My feminism has become more expansive over time, and I became more aware of intersections with other forms of inequality, injustice, and oppression.  It’s also become less theoretical, and more focused on policy: what can we do; what actual, concrete steps can we take, in order to live in a more just and more equal world?

Have you ever experienced resistance to identifying as a feminist? If so, why do you think that is and how do you handle it? 
I never have, personally.  However, I’ve been frustrated by people that I know whose beliefs and politics align closely with my own, yet still reject identifying themselves as a feminist.  Usually I use it as a conversation starter to ask them what keeps them from using “the f-word,” and sometimes they come around.  It used to bother me more, but I’ve come to understand that it’s a complicated label, and the beliefs in equality and progress are really the important parts.

What do you see as the future of feminism?
I think the next critical step for feminism will be to have a wider range of people (including more men) recognize that patriarchy and inequality are bad for them, too, and that they have a personal investment in feminism’s success.  Right now feminism is still largely seen as a threat to something worth preserving.  However, once you recognize you can’t address racism or classism or heterosexism or transphobia without addressing misogyny, you recognize we all have a stake in this fight.  Even for White, upper-middle class men who enjoy a lot of societal privilege, a traditional gender construct should be a problem: it limits their acceptable range of emotional expression, it places the burden of financial responsibility solely on their shoulders, it constrains their role in parenting, etc.

Even for the groups that might benefit the most from preserving the status quo, there’s a

lot to lose.  There shouldn’t be any us verses them; there should just be people verses our shared, problematic past and our critically flawed social institutions, working to build a more equitable society.

Gretchen Sisson has her PhD in sociology, with research interests focused on parenthood and reproduction, specifically infertility, teen pregnancy and young parenthood, adoption, birth, and abortion.  She works in teen pregnancy prevention and young parent support and volunteers with the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund and the Repeal Hyde Art Project (where she encourages you to please, put a bird on it). She blogs regularly at The Abortion Gang and occasionally at The PushBack.  You can follow her on Twitter @gesisson.

If you would like to participate in this series, please contact me for more details!


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