Letters from Home

A Portrait of Modern American Feminism

A Guest Post by Karin Kuczynski-Holmgren

Cobweb by pmarkham on Flickr Creative CommonsIt’s a small cottage on the water in Bridgeport, Conn., a peaceful setting despite the overgrown parking lot and chainlink fence that surrounds it.

Just beyond the rows of parked Hondas and Priuses, the harbor twinkles with reflected factory lights. This vegetarian restaurant is called Bloodroot, run by a collective of women, and I haven’t been here since high school, with a Ms magazine and a paperback collection of essays by Dworkin, Faludi, Steinem, Pagila, Roiphe in my backpack.

In 15 years, the décor hasn’t changed. The cobwebs in the rafters  look familiar.  Gathered around the table, this could be a staging ground for revolution, political intrigue, or at the very least, serious conversation. Shelves in the bookstore reveal a specialty niche: feminist, new age, multiculturalism, gender studies.

No filler music. The windows are open to let in the autumn sounds and breezes.

Small groups of people sit together under the beamed ceiling, grasping hands across the table, sipping water or wine. A  gray-braided sprite greets us at the door and takes our order. Menus are handwritten on the walls; you need to walk the floor to decide what to order.

“No waitresses,” the owner says. “Just listen for your order to be called. ”

And bus your own table. Women may cook here, but there’s no serving. We order– escarole soup, green salad, and a local pinot grigio– then pay, cash preferred. We spot our friend, Annie – leaving soon for California – and join her, wishing for her career in acupuncture.

Portraits of women look out from the walls in black and whites or sepia tones. They gaze straight and determined into the camera, carved jawlines and a weariness around their eyes. You see that photographs taken when work lasted sun-up to sundown. At Bloodroot, customers are strengthened by its sense of community, built on the backs of these women, and fortified by a whole, vegetarian meal.

Work Done, and Not Done

The kitchen workers talk over quinoa, butternut squash, and farm-to-table salad on mismatched plates. They were all over 50 years old. How much has changed in the socio-political space for women since this place opened? Did this tiny restaurant influence their lives, the lives of their loves ones, the local political climate? Surely, they could measure the changes – in milestone laws, events and even in the crowd of customers on a Wednesday night. How did their opinions change with time?

Here sits the old guard, original revolutionaries and their stew. What are they thinking? Are they uplifted by Connecticut’s civil union passage? Did they cheer when women governors were elected? Now women surpass men in sheer numbers at undergraduate colleges. Girl Power succeeded against Raising Cain, right?

The women seemed subdued.

My thoughts turn to my friends at the table. Out of the group, only 4 of us were under 35. The rest, older. I didn’t see any young people in this restaurant. Did they know about this place? Did it not interest them, with the odd location and old school feel? They have no Facebook page or Twitter account;  just a barebones, 90’s-style website. They aren’t working to attract a younger crowd. And frankly neither is Feminism The Concept.

Old School Feminism has given me and my generation choices. Many choices. Overwhelming choices – from education to career, to have children or not, to choose and union with any partner. To rise up, sometimes only to a glass ceiling, but slowly, slowly, it’s changing.

But what is Feminism The Concept today? Madonna, Nancy Pelosi, Anita Hill. Are these the modern feminists and role models? Who are the modern feminists?

Old school feminists complain that modern women and young girls have forgotten the hard work and efforts of the prior generation to lift us up from the Mad Men working world. We don’t pay due homage when we wear belly-baring shirts and Jimmy Choos. They expected not only gratefulness, but someone to take the torch and carry on.

Is there anyone to do this?

5 thoughts on “A Portrait of Modern American Feminism

  1. Women have shied from that word today, I agree. Feminism is an action, and I absolutely agree with the first comment. Demand equality at home–demand it with love and with confidence.

    My son will pick up his room, he will put away his dishes, he will walk his sister to class, kiss her in front of everyone, tell her to have a good day. For him, to be a man is not to be the most studly soccer player (although, admittedly, I’m the one sitting on my hands on the sidelines, not his Dad). It’s to support the world with his positive, communicative, confident behavior.

    His dad is a lot like that, too, because his mom gently demanded the same of him. His mom, whom everyone thought was quiet dutiful Catholic mom, who was pulling Jim out of hockey to go see the symphony in the park and telling him very matter-of-factly that everyone deserves respect no matter what.

    At home, I grew up with a very traditional and terribly unhappy setting. Mom did all the housework. Dad went to the office. I didn’t make my own bed until college. I have no idea how to cook, and I can barely follow a recipe. But I learned very astutely how NOT to have a family from that example. Where everyone has a rigid role. You talk. You capitalize on strengths. You figure out your path. You use good manners.

    This is rambling, I know. I haven’t had adequate coffee yet. But here’s where the ramble stems from: Two years ago, I asked my family to drop everything, sell all their toys and for husband to quit his job, and to follow me back to the land of my ancestors, rural Croatia, to learn the lessons of my old family and so i could write a book about our experience. It had been my lifelong dream to write a book. An Iowan has to take drastic measures to get noticed in the literary world. So we came up with this harebrained scheme, and we got back 6 months ago, and the book comes out in May. They dropped everything to help Mom follow her dream. There is a line in the book that I’m working on: “I had asked them to drop everything to follow me. Because I would do the same for them, and had been doing it, for the past 10 years.”

    My Dad was sad that we went to Croatia. He e-mailed a lot. But my mom was silent the whole time. I have a feeling she wondered, during the entire time we were gone, why she had never asked us to do one thing for her. She had given her whole life to us. It made her bitter. And when I felt guilty on the trip, when things didn’t go just right, or when the village folks couldn’t understand why my man was home cooking and teaching the kids while I was in the fields (literally) doing interviews, I realized my kids got a major message from that trip that women and men can define their own family. There are no rigid definitions. But it’s still work. Hard work. That trip brought us closer together than we’ve ever been.

    These days, that’s what feminism means to me. And I call myself a feminist loud and proud whenever the conversation comes up. Then I start naming other feminists in the group, and then I define feminism (the belief that men and women should be treated equally), and I rarely have anyone disagree with that.

    Okay. I have to take a shower.

    Love to all you ladies out there fighting the good fight.

    Jen Wilson

    1. I am a feminist in part because of my parents approach to life… my mom was a teacher and my dad worked with his hands in a lab. So at home, there was a real balance to work life– Mom did cook, Dad did mow, but we ALL helped with everything. I don’t ever remember Mom saying to my brothers that it was there job to take out the trash, while we girls did the dishes. The work we did was shared by all. I believe we learn so much about who we are and what we can do by the work we are given. Colin cooks and I am far more likely to be found cleaning the garage or raking. Now we have children who want to HELP and I say YES! Here’s your tools– now become who you are meant to.

      At the kids’ school social recently, Kiki asked for a fairy to be painted on her face and Aniah wanted a snake. Yeah! Be who you are… don’t let the colors of Disney define you!

  2. I think at this point in the game, get your business together and blaze a trail there. Get your men to take on the housework, cook dinner and change the diapers. They can do it, just let it go so you can follow your vision and dreams that these fine ladies did for themselves and for us since the beginning. This is how we can repay them, using stealth methods, quietly.

    Mentor young girls to follow the line to success without all the noise that is so easily distracting. Housewives, Lohan & Hilton. Turn it off! Keep them busy and focused and to reach their goals from a young age, no matter what (marriage, family, ect). Men can do it and boys look up to that. Let’s gear the girls to do the same thing. We don’t have to feminize it. Just do it. We make the same green as the men do.

    Let’s get some ladies leading Girl Scouts. In Connecticut, girls want to join the scouts and there’s no women leaders! For weekly meetings? You should see our weekly Boy Scout meetings. You can’t get a parking spot at the middle school!

    Thank you to the brave souls who had to bear the brunt of the battle for us just to get equality, you have my deepest gratitude. I’m not about to let ANY one take that away from me.

    1. Melinda, What a great comment! I wonder if we still need to use the word “feminist” or should the new generation find a new term for it? We have to watch our girls and be their role models, everyday!

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