My Aunt Lynn was the first feminist I ever knew. She was the pariah of my family: whenever I did anything, such as decide to not eat meat, or stand up for my beliefs or myself, I was "accused" of being "just like your Aunt Lynn." I grew up in a patriarchal family: although my mother often made decisions, she hated her womanhood, distrusted other women, and accepted the belief that she and I (who was the only other female in my nuclear family) should be delegated such tasks as dishes, dinner, and basic cleaning up after any other family members.
My aunt never accepted this destiny. She too was raised in a patriarchal family, where her father dominated her mother completely. "He could so easily drive her to tears," Lynn said. "When he'd come home from work, he'd honk his car horn. My mother would drop anything she was doing and run to open the garage door for him. She was so anxious when he was around-everything depended upon his approval." Lynn decided she never wanted to be in that position, where she had no control of her life. She says her mother was "the anti-role model." "I never had any positive role models while growing up-I didn't know any women who were strong. When I was young, I did want to be a boy, because they had more fun, more freedom...."
Lynn perceived she was the failure in her family's eyes. "My father was chauvinist. He believed women should be pretty. My mother was a pretty woman. My sister was beautiful-she had a lot of boyfriends. But my brother was a failure because he was too gentle and not aggressive enough for them. I was a failure because I wasn't beautiful. My father never knew what to do with me. I looked more like him than my mother, so I was doomed to failure."
When she graduated high school in the mid-'60s, her fellow female graduating seniors believed there was one of four choices waiting for them. When asked the question: "What do you want to do with your life?", the overwhelming responses from the female students was: get married and raise children, become an elementary or high school teacher, become a secretary, or become a nurse. Lynn responded, "I want to do something constructive with my life." She wasn't aware of her options, but she didn't feel limited. She knew she wanted to leave her hometown and never go back-she wanted to travel, see the world, have adventures. "I was born with a 'tude. I just knew I needed to do what I wanted to, whatever it was...I guess I was a raging feminist from the day I was born."
Her feminism did not necessarily reach political bounds, although Lynn did protest the strong pro-life streak in her state, Pennsylvania. Her favorite causes have included animal rights, anti-war and civil rights, but she feels she has been feminist in her own individual struggle. "I would never put up with a man pushing me around." Although Lynn was neither moody nor manipulative or abusive, her ex-husband was sometimes afraid of her. A description he read of this small rodent in a mammal encyclopedia reminded him of Lynn: "small but fierce for its size." While Lynn was working herself through her Master's Degree, she befriended a woman who was active in NOW and the ERA. Her friend constantly attempted to persuade Lynn to attend NOW's meetings. But her friend would let boyfriends mistreat her and oppress her. Lynn didn't understand the obvious discrepancy. She thinks of herself as "not a joiner."
Despite her limited experience in struggling for women's rights in a political context, Lynn believes herself to be feminist. "If a feminist is somebody who thinks everybody should have equal rights, then I'm a feminist," she says. Lynn was always acutely aware of the obvious discrepancy between the way women and men were raised. Her first experience outside of home was on the playground. A popular boy taunted her incessantly, so she punched him in the face, and then a black cloud shrouded the playground, the teachers. She realized that "for a girl to punch a popular boy and make him cry was very devasting for everyone. He could have done whatever he wanted to me, and it would have been ok. But my teacher was very disapproving and I was shamed." Lynn perceives the inconsistencies even today-having an only child, a daughter, in the public educational system brings the same issues home. Lynn deals with the educational system by evaluating their programs, so she is able to view her daughter's school with a professional eye. "It's amazing how Sarah (her daughter) and her girl friends will be the liveliest bunch when they are here at my house. When you visit their school, they disappear. The boys are loud and act out, and the teachers give all their attention to them. They ignore the girls." She notes the conditioning that leads boys to be spoiled, cold-hearted, "princes"-Lynn mentions the court case that recently took place, where a large group of highschool boys "gang-banged" a retarded 15-year-old in New Jersey. She notes how these boys were the popular kids and didn't think it was "cool" to have a girlfriend. They instead have a small "harem" of girls who are there to "service" them. "They learn nothing about caring or nurturing...It's disgusting," she says.
Lynn made certain that she didn't fall into traps, even in small ways. "I never learned to make coffee," she says. "To this day, I am 53 years old, and I still don't know how to make coffee. When I was a receptionist at this furniture store, my boss and I used to get into arguments. He'd want me to make coffee and I'd refuse. I don't know how to type for the same reason." Lynn decided that she wouldn't get ensnared into becoming secretary or support just because of her sex. "Women who had their Bachelor's and Master's degrees, women who were highly specialized, still ended up being secretaries, while the men made decisions." Lynn was strong and persistent in following her dream-she graduated in her thirties with a doctoral degree in Education, after achieving her Bachelors and Masters in Anthropology. After working for Temple University for years, she recently resigned and opened her own partnership, where she earns a better income.
I've always looked to my aunt as one would to daylight streaming into a dark hole. Although I have not followed the academic route, I feel fortunate that I knew a woman who struggled before me-a woman who knew that she came first, a woman who never believed in the fairytale trap, a woman who was unafraid to be independent or to shape her life. Unlike any other woman I've known from that generation, my aunt never spent decades of frustrated housewifery and never had a child because she was "supposed to." Because Lynn remained firm about her choices early on, she never carried the extent of rage that most women do. Perhaps my parents consistent "accusations" that I was "just like your Aunt Lynn" helped me to likewise become independent and unafraid. After all, what they perceived as a negative, I always perceived as a positive. I am proud to be "just like" her.