Sunday, March 05, 2006

I Am Woman

My mother was part of the 70's feminist movement. Back then, she drove a battered Toyota Celica with a spider cracked windshield, and the de-hinged driver seat was held in place by a bike rack, but the bumper was plastered with stickers that read: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" and "Question Authority" and "Women, Take Back the Night." When she attended assertiveness training seminars, I listened. I eavesdropped on her conversations with her womens group about all the things that kept women back. I got to march in an ERA rally, and we went to many female centric festivals where I walked comfortably among a radical community of artists and lesbians and Buddhists and Sikhs and jewish mystics and tie-dyed psychics and healers and dreadlocked goddess worshipers and crystal-toting witches and professors and philosophic lay abouts. I loved them all.


And yet I went to a Catholic elementary school where the girls weren't allowed play with the boys and where we had to wear dresses as uniforms. I was confused. The God represented at school seemed exclusionary and wrong. I felt I was being tested by a higher spirit to fight the injustice presented to me. I felt I had to carry on the battle as I was taught outside of the school walls, like I was a child solider for women's rights. I played kick ball and dodgeball with the boys regardless of the rules. I got into shoving matches with boys as I stood my ground against their ignorance. I'd say things like, "Tatum O'Neil is a good actor." While my classmates shouted that she was an AC-TRESS. And I'd say, "Men and women act so they are both actors." I could never get this to catch on. In fourth grade, my mother was called by the principal because I nonchalantly questioned the priest's stand on abortion in front of my class and my teacher. He was making a passing comment about the evils in the world and after he rattled off abortion as one of them, I raised my hand and said, "What if a girl is raped or in trouble or can't have a baby?" I remember the room going mute. They were aghast, looking at each other. I was regurgitating the feminist rhetoric for sure because they were the ones that shouted that I could do anything. They were the ones that celebrated goddessness and the power of my girlhood. Not the red-faced priests or the nuns in bondage.

At the end of fourth grade, I signed up for the annual talent show. When I told my mother that I was going to participate, she said, "What will you do? Dribble a basketball across the stage?" Which I felt was a fucked thing to say considering all her boisterous friends claimed I could DO ANYTHING. Everyday after school I practiced my act. I put on the music and did my thing for hours until my mother got home from work. When she took me to the auditorium the night of the talent show, she still did not know what I was going to do. I handed Sister Mary Theresa my album and told her to play the first song. I walked out on stage and though I was nearly blinded by the lights overhead I could see many parents and the smattering black and white of the priests' suits and the nuns' habits. My music began and at the top of my nine year old voice I belted out Helen Reddy's I Am Woman. "I am woman hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore and I know too much to go back and pre-t-e-e-end." I could hear giggles in the audience, but that didn't make me feel bad. I felt they were diggin it. When the bridge came, I really went for it: "Wwhhoooa, YES I am wise, but it's wisdom born of pa-in. Yes, I paid the price, but look how much I've gained. I am strong. STRONG. I am invincible. INVINCIBLE. I am wwoooo-mmaannn!" I was thrilled, man. I felt charged by saying things so powerful so loudly, and I could see my mother just beyond the lights sitting on a fold-out chair with her mouth slightly open.

Afterward, the nuns laughed and shook their heads at me. They made comments that I took too many vitamins and that if they didn't watch me close enough I'd be "swinging from the chandeliers." But I really thought I was the child solider. That I was fighting the good fight.

19 comments:

Marigoldie said...

Onward soldier!

You break my heart, but I love this story.

Heather said...

That's great!!! I love that story. You sounded and still sound like a character.

acumamakiki said...

What a great story. I love this image of you standing up there so proud of your beliefs......I feel like fighting someone for the little kid you were, even though you clearly stood on your own. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into what makes you a beautiful strong woman whose roar I hear out here in Joisey.

ESB said...

awesome story, and is that your artwork? it's beautiful and sad....

madness rivera said...

Not my artwork, no. But when I see a picture like that, it reminds me on the girl I was.

This story cracks me up too. I think, jeez, I had some BALLS. And sometimes when I feel I can't fight the fight right, I think of the I Am Woman talent show.

Green Whale said...

You were (and are) fighting the good fight! It's so fascinating to see the contradictions some people, like your mother seems to have been, can live with, going to female-centric festivals and yet hanging on to the harsh God of the Catholic faith. I loved to read about your not keeping silent about the things that mattered to you. It's so important to speak up, not to be afraid to ask the hard questions, to sing the song you believe in even at your Catholic school talent show. So many good, earthshattering things begin just with speaking the right word at the right time.

Deb R said...

That was so brave! It makes me want to go back in time and tell the little-girl-who-was-you that I'm proud of her. I hope someone back then DID tell you they were proud of you.

andrea said...

wow, I had that same helen reddy album and I played it til new grooves were worn into the album. I remember singing 'I am woman" to myself in the mirror. I'm not sure if I understood what I was singing about but I remember that it felt good.

if I had been in the audience that day, you would've been my personal hero.

Kathleen said...

man oh man...i am so proud of the shortie that you were! and what a great tallie you have become!
bravo to your strength!


grownups can be so screwed up with their words...

Janine said...

I have to agree with green whale, you are still fighting that good fight, each and every day. Your will feeds my own.

Melinda said...

The Man took a serious beating at that talent show!

Is there any videotape footage of this event? Because I'd pay good money...

ecm said...

Fantastic story! To all the children who are bold and speak their minds (and grown-ups too!)

Michelle Fry said...

Onward soldier for sure! I love it! I was raised in Christian school all my life and never knew what feminism really was (I thought it was a lesbian thing) until about 6 years ago. Now I am proud to claim being a feminist.

I love your stories because you are so strong in all of them and that's something I'm just learning how to be. Thanks for sharing.

madness rivera said...

The Man took a beating - hahaha.
I suppose this is a prime example that children will mimic what resonates with them. Thanks for the great comments!

Laini Taylor said...

Fantastic. That your mother made that comment to you, that turns a cute story into a complex one -- I love the details like that in your writing. With the little glimpses I've seen here of your childhood, I hope you have plans to write a memoir -- or to fictionalize it, or whatever way you could best make use of it in your writing and collect it all together for us to read. You have so many great stories!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

WOW! What an incredible image, madness, WOW!!! I am just leaving for a long trip, so I can't comment now, but hope to be back to look around! XOX

SUEB0B said...

You rock on, little sister! You make me proud!

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you could tell me who the artist was of the I Am Woman image? I was wondering what the image represented? I am taking a course Images of Women in Western Civilization. I did a google search for feminist movement 70's and your blog came up and I love the image and wanted more detail about it.

madness rivera said...

Hi Anon,I know the image is called Goddess Child, but I'm not sure the artist's name.