One of my favorite quotes is by Margaret Trudeau: "I can't be a rose in any man's lapel." For years, these words have sung to the very core of my being, yet I failed to understand its significance to my life. A recent conversation led me to recall situations in coming-of-age that have awakened my reality.
I've had the very best role models one can ask for in this life. My father was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement right here in Jackson. He kept my sister and me entrenched in the atmosphere of advocacy. My childhood was filled with strong people who were determined to thrive and succeed. These people didn't have any plans from day to day on how they'd win in the end. They only knew that each day that breath found their bodies they'd have to keep fighting—for education, justice, freedom, respect. I had permanent fixtures in my life that I didn't realize then, but now I know, stood as examples of excellence. Most of these "fixtures" were men.
I've pontificated over why the men stood out so much to me.
Maybe it's because as a young girl, I attached my idea of power to my father and individuals who looked like and acted like he did. Maybe it's because the role of the woman, in my mind, wasn't as "in your face" as that of their masculine brethren. There's no question that they were there, at the meetings, planning, organizing, marching, etc. I remember seeing them even in my faintest recollection. However, the deep, loud proclamations made by the men overshadow their efforts.
Could it be that the women I remember being there did the ground work and the men swallowed the fanfare? Hmmmm.
Being raised in an environment that subconsciously influenced me to believe that women, although capable, were in some way inferior to men has, dare I say, confused the hell out of me. My ideas about feminism and womanhood have been fused with ignorance and attachment. Ignorant because as a woman, I didn't really understand why the memories that shaped who I am today didn't magnify people who shared my gender. Embedded deep within me was the outlandish idea that true power belonged to men.
Where did that leave me? My father taught me to be proud and to own my own power. But he didn't teach me how to do that and be a woman at the same time. Well, I'm not real sure he could have taught me that. But I never had to guess that he expected me to be powerful, but I am not a man. I was supposed to be just as capable, just as strong, just as smart. But where were the women who I was to pattern myself after? The men owned the voice. The men held all the power.
Don't get me wrong, since I met adulthood, there have been plenty of powerful, strong, Soldier Sisters in my life. No doubt about that. However, it's during adolescence that we begin collecting the mindset that will carry us through life. My youth showed me that men run the world. Men were the proponents of change, I thought. No matter how much assistance they have from women, men were ultimately the ones who plant the flags and got pinned for the victories.
I even married a man whom I consider to be powerful. It wasn't long after I met him that I could easily slide him into the vacancy my father left. When I married him, there was a subconscious safety in knowing that he'd be first and I'd be second. My husband, however, never subscribed to this way of thinking since he grew up with a very dominant, strong, powerful mother in his home and saw that in me—much like Daddy did.
I'm beginning to settle in the fact that no one put this concept in my head. I taught myself, probably because of some insecurities I had as a child that it was just safer to believe that men were our saving grace. But don't throw me to the wind, yet. Understand that my all the role models I adapted were masculine: my pastor, my teachers, community activists, etc. How could I not be confused?
I recall a conversation I had a couple of years ago regarding feminism. I vehemently stated to a female friend of mine that "I am not a feminist." I was conflicted with the word and what I'd taught myself regarding power and men. My friend turned to me and said, "Yes you are." For some reason the remainder of our conversation didn't stick. But I've carried those words with me for years—studying myself and embracing the word. It's as if it wasn't the universe's intent for her to tell me what makes me a feminist, but for me to evaluate myself and figure it out on my own. Feminism is defined as simply a belief in women's rights and the need to secure rights and opportunities for women equal to those of men.
Of course I am a feminist! Once I realized this, I began to realize that most of the ideas I had about men were extreme and fabricated by my need to feel safe and secure.
While I stand firmly on my beliefs and dare to be crossed, I have much work to do in shaping the woman I want to become. I know today that the women aren't prevalent in my memories because they were holding down another part of the struggle. They'd already marched before my Daddy got me to the parade. They'd already reached the finish line before the men even suited up. I have given the torch away without even running the race. I have succumbed to what my sisters (black and white) have already accepted. Now that I am the mother of a darling daughter, I must be that feminine force that I didn't recognize when I was a child. I refuse to cripple her future the way I allowed mine to be crippled.
I am a woman with strength unrecognized, a woman with power unmatched. I am a woman who can accomplish much with your agreement or without. I am a woman who does not now—nor will I ever—need approval to succeed. I am a woman whose only limitation is the one I set for myself. I am a woman and I will never again serve as a simple rose to your lapel.