There isn’t a definitive moment in my memory when I became a feminist. I have always wondered why people aren’t treated equally and still think gender is the low hanging fruit for an inclusive world – yet it remains as a work-in-progress.
When I enrolled at university for my second degree I was 21 and heavily pregnant with my first child (who, by the way, has a PhD in gender studies). The man at the enrolment desk looked at my completed application and choices for subjects and asked me if I knew I had selected a full-time load. The implication that I didn’t know how to fill out a form correctly was the take I had on the exchange, it was only in response to me explaining that yes I was aware that I realised he meant – you’re pregnant there is no way you could do Semester 1 full-time … I mean you look like you could have that baby any day. Well he was right, the babe was due in Week 3 of the course – but he was 100% wrong that I wasn’t going to complete the course full-time … and for the record I did. It was in these early days of my adult life that I galvanised my feminist streak and it was mostly when pregnant (another three times) that I experienced discrimination and exclusion.
This week I was on a panel for International Women’s Day and a mother with a newborn was in the audience. We caught up with a mutual friend after the session. She had two children – the new one and a seven year old. I asked her if she noticed any differences between now and when she had her first child and she said no. She told me of feeling left out, invisible and two stories of being treated completely differently in academia – one where her lecturer asked her not to breast feed and another where the lecturer said bring your child to everything (it was a course where students would end up working in hospitals and medical settings and the lecturer figured if they couldn’t learn with a child in the room, then they couldn’t work in that kind of a setting). I saw this as a glimmer of hope. The young academic has received honours and national recognition for her work and could still be reduced to tears and feeling left out and left behind once she was seen as nursing mother. And while not all women are mothers, we all have a mother. We know the comfort, reassurance and warmth of the simplicity of arms around us, holding us in place, steady and hearts beating together.
The hug hormone of oxytocin apparently accelerates trust and deepens social connection (and they are relatively easy to get so getting hugging for the health of yourself and the planet). I have a suspicion that the confusion about touch in our culture is not helping feminism and is at the root of many of discriminatory behaviours. Maybe if we feel secure and operate with high levels of trust we are more likely to be huggers, although I can point to a number of people I know (all men as it happens) for whom hugging is on the verge of sexual predation. One of my favourite huggers is coming home to my town this week and we have regularly hugged for a little longer than usual to get a bigger dose of oxytocin and release some dopomine to help us through the day and deepen our connection. (If you want to know more about healthy hugging and how to do it here is a great guide.)
Touch and intimacy in our culture are so heavily encoded with sexuality, yet at its core it is an echo of the bond between mother and child we are all seeking to recreate. Even if our experience was not good in that first stage of life it is still a craving and trust is the first developmental step we need to master to grow into functioning human beings. Ironically it was Erikson’s work on child development that was the first course in my first semester of the degree mentioned above. This development step, according to Erikson develops the virtue of Hope. With hope we can successfully move to the next developmental step which will result in will after successfully learning the differences between autonomy and shame. I often think those who are not feminists are stuck moving onto the second developmental step while they have not successfully completed the first where trust is learnt and hope embedded.
There is nothing to fear from inclusion – you won’t get less and there is no need for a scarcity mentality. An abundance orientation knows there are enough hugs to go around. You won’t be left out if you let others in. I admit I cling to Erikson because it just seems to make sense to me. Every time I see a baby feeding at the breast I am reminded of the primary call and response of hunger and comfort and trust being built in every sip and cuddle. It is at the core of what it means to be a feminist for me too. When we hold each other we are all that little bit stronger, little bit braver. We can push through the nay-sayers who tell us we can’t do it, we are over committed, unable to balance responsibilities, incapable to completing what we set out to do … and we can find someone to give us a hug if we need one along the way or even if we don’t need one but want to give one … the effect will be the same. We will be held and holding – an embrace for ourselves and inclusion. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was Press for Progress and the kind of pressing I want to see more of to give us the support we need to stay the course, is the press that turns into a squeeze.