I turned 30 this summer. It’s something I had looked forward to since my early twenties; I hoped that, by the time I was leaving that decade, I would feel more grounded, more clarity, more comfortable with myself and my place in the world. I hoped that maturity would ease my agonizing neuroses, that I would feel stronger, more confident, more capable. All of this has happened, and I have been taking time to reflect on the journey that brought me here and to be in gratitude for how far I’ve come.
As I reflect, I recognize that there are very specific choices I made and steps that I took that contributed to bringing me here.
An important background detail: I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home until I was 19. I was homeschooled and the oldest of six girls. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and I was Mom, Jr. By the time I was 16, I could run a household — cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare, budgeting, shopping, sewing, gardening. I was proud of this, but I was also exhausted, often. I would dream of other possibilities for my future, despite the fact that college and/or a career were discouraged for women according to our religious beliefs.
My mom chose to leave my dad and that religious life behind, and when I was 19 we moved to a new place to start a new life. I continued in my role as eldest daughter until a standoff between my mom and I resulted in my leaving home at 23. I had just broken off an engagement as well, and I found myself staring into an unknown future. Two months later, I started attending community college. I graduated after two years, and then, at 26, I packed up my bags and moved to Hawaii, having felt the unbearable push to go out and explore the world, to get away, to be free. By the time I was approaching my twenty-ninth birthday, I knew that I wanted to finish my undergraduate degree, so I moved again — this time to California to finish school in San Francisco. Then, a few weeks after graduating, this summer I moved back home to Pennsylvania to spend time with my family and recalibrate. Who am I now, and what do I want to do with my life?
And those questions — as I ask them now, after all that I’ve experienced and all that I’ve learned — I realize that they are the heart of feminism. Attending college in itself is not necessarily feminism. Moving alone to a new place is not automatically a feminist move. Coming back home to reconnect with my family and friends in a familiar place is not an earmark of feminism. But all of these things are feminism for me, because these are my choices. I made them, and they have made me. I am proud of them. Asking, “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” both brings one to feminism, and is also the result of feminism.
I now know in a fuller way than ever before, that this is something no one can take away from me. Never again will I feel that my needs and my options are limited by someone else’s needs or desires. I no longer have to fear losing myself under the overbearing weight of oppressive people: whether that is a parent or relative, a romantic partner, a work colleague or a stranger. No one can tell me who I am or am not, or who I should or should not be.
As someone who grew up crippled by the fear of what others think, and the need for approval, it is a boundless freedom to know that I am no longer controlled by that. I no longer need to use my appearance, my attitude, or my energy to please others (something that women are socialized to do in our culture even when they are not raised in conservative or religious families).
Whatever I choose to do, I choose it because it fulfills me. It expresses the authenticity of who I am. It brings me joy, it empowers me. Whether that’s talking about politics, working for social change, reading, writing, hiking, or cooking a meal, caring for children, decorating a room, doing my hair and makeup. Who I choose to be friends with, who I choose to date, how I choose to make a living — it all reflects who I am as an individual, and as an adult who finally knows herself.
As someone with five younger sisters, it gives me joy to be in a position to show them what is possible and to support them on their own journeys of self-discovery, healing, and liberation. As a feminist, I will celebrate and respect their individuality and the choices they make which honor themselves. I will respect and amplify their voices.
In a place and time where the voices, the bodies, the sexuality, and the autonomy of women are publicly under fire, it’s so important that we do not understand feminism as merely an ideology, but as a lived experience.