Around the time I first heard about feminism, my best high school guy friends came up with a scintillatingly descriptive nickname for me: Tits McGee. To be fair, we were 16 and didn’t know any better. Ron Burgundy’s mustachioed crudeness exemplified humoristic finesse in our eyes. My friends didn’t think anything of it. What’s worse—I didn’t think anything of it.
The chest bit soon became a running gag in our friend group because I seemed to be able to take it well. A year into the amicable teasing, a new copy of Time Magazine caught my eye as I picked through my parents’ correspondence. Its headline read, “The 50 Year Anniversary of The Pill: So small. So powerful. And so misunderstood.” Probably projecting myself onto the bookends of the post-colon phrasing, I eagerly flipped to the issue’s cover story.
Soon enough, I paused on a short paragraph that set my San Juan hometown-sense ablaze. In 1956, through an initiative spearheaded by Margaret Sanger, birth control activist, Harvard scientists Gregory Pincus and John Rock began holding clinical trials of the pill in Puerto Rico. Because testing the pill as a contraceptive was illegal at the time, the circumscribed Puerto Rico was the ideal petri dish. The researchers probably thought: “A country with no de jure anti-birth control laws and hundreds of women searching for better health resources? Sign. Us. Up.”
The article failed to mention how most of the female participants were poor, uneducated, and marginalized because of their race. While the pill was found to be “100 percent effective,” 17 percent of the female participants reported side effects that were not thoroughly investigated. It seemed to me like the researchers’ priority was to make the pill accessible to U.S. markets as soon as possible.
Sanger would afterwards be heralded as an “ardent feminist” who just so happened to be on board with eugenics and, frankly, unsexy interpretations of sexuality (see “What Every Girl Should Know,” an ode to the “dangers” of masturbation). My poorly-informed teenage self was baffled, outraged, and caught off-guard.
Initially, I wondered why Sanger’s feminist vision only favored a very particular group of people. I was unsettled by how, in this case, endorsing the feminist cause meant that some groups, no matter how much they needed support, would be oppressed to the point of negligence. The thought kept me going. I had to do something, but first I had to re-examine my own life, starting with the most insignificant interactions. Maybe I was doing my gender an injustice by being cool when others playfully put down the female body. Well, to keep it short, duh. I was probably not supposed to laugh at my friends’ jokes if I was always the butt (or boobs) of them.
Before I could try to work with this newfound consciousness, the college application process revved up and I was forced to ignore real life for a bit. Graduation then swept my previous doubts away, only to have them thrown back at me when 90 percent of my Harvard classmates frequently used terms like “problematic” and “social construct” in section. I took my first Women’s and Gender Studies class my freshman spring, and, I swear, every class sounded like this:
“Hey, Ms., NOW’s the time to dismantle the patriarchy. Stop being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, do away with that stiletto feminism, and take on the intersectionality that connects Pocahontas and La Malinche with the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Virginia Woolf, and Margaret Cho.”
If you got every reference mixed in there, congratulations. You’re a multi-issue feminist and you can’t un-see problems with how our society deals with race, gender, and sexuality. If you didn’t, welcome to the chunk of humanity that should. For too long, I mistakenly assumed that being a feminist meant that everyone within the cause had to have the same outlook. Going into WGS here exposed me to a radically different vocabulary than what I was used to, one that showed me just how difficult and diverse the issues we discuss can be. You can imagine how complicated things get when they leave the cushiness of a classroom.
Though it took me a while to acknowledge, being a feminist begins with acceptance. It begins with accepting your faults so you can see larger societal patterns that are detrimental to a particular sector. It progresses with the thought of allowing everyone, female, male, or whatever, to have a choice. That choice should be one full of dignity and respect. It continues with little things like “My eyes are up here” and ends with important elements like equal pay and the end of rape culture. While I’m sure I got a couple of scoffs for the end of that sentence, I’m not worried. You’ll come around with time. We’re all thinking. I know I am now. I think, therefore I am, I am, I am a feminist.