As a young child, I had mixed reactions to the concept of feminism. While I always futuristically envisioned myself as an accomplished working woman like my mother, the term “feminist” made me bristle. This was due to a known “feminist” in my town who I found to be incredibly insulting, demeaning and condescending. She also happened to have been my kindergarten teacher.
In our tight-knit community, she was known for advocating rights for religious Jewish females. In the kindergarten class however, she was known to me as the woman whose paintbrushes I spent the day washing, never meeting her approval (in any way) and always being sent back to the sink, missing outdoor time with the other kids.
With every other chore, it was the same way. Due to my undiagnosed ADHD back then, she raised the issue that my tendency to daydream was extremely “weird” and the question of whether I had “mental retardation” (I kid you not. This was the 70s. I found papers that I was never supposed to see years later and pored through them studiously in an effort to understand my early childhood).
After a very scarring year as a 5-year-old, I worked my tail off in attempts to excel in school and prove my former teacher wrong – even as she was now firmly out of the picture. She had never said it directly to my face, but she had made it clear that she felt I was hopeless.
I succeeded – though my elementary school did not do a proper job of acknowledging it, save for one oft-dismissed and belittled administrator who believed in me, a “she” with all the schooling and credentials to be our General Studies Principal.
However, her boss was the male principal who favored the popular kids, the ones whose parents were donors to our private school. Seeing him play basketball exclusively with those kids solidified the favoritism that was evident to so many of the rest of the students. High school, college and beyond would be where I finally felt better about my academic abilities and was acknowledged for my work. I was put in the proper tracks and given leadership roles, like editing my high school yearbook. I never forgot kindergarten and that teacher remains in the town where I grew up.
Until the 1990s, I did not make the connection about why the word “feminist” made me nauseous. Unfairly, it was only due to this one person and the memories connected to her. When I mentally sorted through my past, the administrator who later pulled for me under her difficult male boss, who wanted me to be in the higher tracks (where I belonged) and who put me in charge of a fifth grade writing workshop, won the tug of war. She too was a feminist.
In her lifetime, she may have not have prevailed on the school grounds, and she is no longer alive, but like many women before her, she fought for justice. Her cause: the kids. Sadly, while I remember how she pulled for me, some of my former classmates resentfully recall that she tried to abolish cliques and snobbery at an age when some girls really craved and cherished that. For me and for my friends then, it was uncool to thank her out loud for the meetings she called to address the elementary school social caste system. However, we silently prayed that she would bring equality and calm to the school grounds. That was her mission but until she died, she had to answer to her male boss who tempered and hindered her efforts and had very different priorities. She ended up leaving the school feeling somewhat suppressed and defeated as a professional as her own tragic battle with lung cancer waged.
As a child, another part of my routine was attending a synagogue weekly where women sat on one side of a partition and men on the other. It was not uncommon when we visited other shuls, to be in women’s sections where we were unable to see what the men – those leading the congregation in song and prayer and carrying around the Torah – were doing.
One time, at my ultra-orthodox cousin’s synagogue, we were in a room with a hole in the floor and through that little hole we could hear the men, but barely see them. Over the years, I would internalize how in very traditional cultures women are regarded as second class citizens and that memory of the hole in the floor always arose. I would hear about the advocacy work my former kindergarten teacher was doing in this regard, urging modern orthodox rabbis to allow women to have their own prayer services where they too could come to the Torah, also requesting that the Torah be passed to the women’s section for the women to hold. As kindergarten became more of a distant memory for me, I was better able to separate out the ideas that one could be a powerful ally for adults and a really lousy one for some children.
Although the kindergarten teacher’s name was often brought up when discussing feminism in our town, I would have to mentally substitute all the other names (and there are many) of feminists who I knew or knew of. I would have to remind myself that there are people I don’t like in every facet of life.
Feminism could be viewed through the works of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Simeon De Beauvoir…and the administrator who had advocated for me, who marveled at my writing, who hung my poems on the walls and put me in charge of the writing workshop. It was time to forget about the woman from early childhood – that same teacher I harped on about above and in life! – who loudly and with much fuss sent me first out of the classroom for IQ testing. I still remember the moment so clearly and astutely noting its significance at age five.
While I grew up to be quite liberal, thanks to the diverse people I’ve met in life who have impacted me and the experiences that have shown me there is no other that makes sense (for me), I remember getting sickened when I heard about my kindergarten teacher and her group of women advocating for women’s rights.
As ridiculous as it may sound, recalling those reactions has helped me to understand some of the views I encounter today from some conservatives. There is a sort of negative association in some people’s minds and we don’t always know the psychological roots. Perhaps their parents snickered at an “eccentric” neighbor whose intentions were ahead of her time. Or perhaps, like me, a person attached to important and good work had some glaring faults and a truly negative impact on them personally.
When I see my former kindergarten teacher today, I don’t think she recognizes me at all, but I do think about the time I was crying in the bathroom as I tried in vain to scrub those paintbrushes for the umpteenth time. I no longer think about feminism when I see her because of the many women I have followed in the news, because of lessons and documentaries (like Anita on Netflix, which shows what an amazing person Anita Hill actually was and is and how Clarence Thomas, the same judge who swore in Mike Pence, was an absolute jerk to her! This was not the account I remember hearing as a child, unfortunately!) and outstanding public personalities, male and female. I grew up with music that influenced me (notably Free to be You and Me with Marlo Thomas).
On a day-to-day basis, I meet women who impress me with their intellect, their actions and the impact of their work. However, I would be lying if I said I could not understand why I see some people wince at the things I post and talk about today with regard to feminism. Something has left a bad taste in their mouths.
Something makes them say “ugh, those women who make a big deal about women’s rights! If they only stopped making a big deal!” Regrettably – extremely regrettably - I said the same thing at age 7 when I lacked the sophistication to see feminism beyond the only extremely vocal representative I knew and when I didn’t know enough about what women are still fighting for.
For me, it was a matter of discovering the right role models, then finding my own voice on these issues. Of course, it has also helped that I am a woman who has her personal experiences, concerns and causes to champion.
Back in kindergarten one day, as I was rinsing and wringing those brushes until my fingers actually bled, a woman in her 30s peered down at me and asked “Why are you crying?” I explained to her that I was on duty for the classroom and that each time I returned, my teacher said “not good enough! Go back!”
“Let me take those,” said the kind woman as she put her arm on my shoulders. She guided me out of the bathroom and back into my classroom. I watched as she exchanged some words with my teacher and I took a seat. I can remember the relief that washed over me as I processed that I could finally stay, go to recess with my friends and not have to be cooped up in the bathroom for hours more. It may not have been my Kindergarten teacher, the woman who was entrusted with my school experience that year, who rescued me, but this other teacher - this other woman - spoke up for me. She confirmed for me that I was not being treated the right way. It was this other woman who showed compassion and helped me find my voice. I was encouraged not to back down when something felt entirely wrong about the way I was being treated.
So, at age 5 and a half, my own feminist journey with its built-in-speed bumps, obstacles and windy detours ahead, began…..