I never though that I had to be a feminist. It actually never even occurred to me. Growing up the daughter of an ambitious and successful woman, I assumed that the glass ceiling had already been shattered. My mom, who was 39 when I was born and had already taken time away from her promising law career to raise my two eldest siblings, often spoke about the pushback she felt as a Congresswoman fighting for recognition in a man's Capitol, the female mentors who helped paved the way for her, and why it was so important that my dad not lampoon her ambition in front of us. But I—mouthy, cocksure, and steadfastly interested in so-called feminine pursuits such as horseback riding, magazines, and boys—still blithely sidestepped the glinting shards left in her powerful wake.
Later, after graduating from a Quaker high school that tried to instill in us the merits of egalitarianism, I got into the college I wanted to attend, and was able to take the courses I wanted to take. (I listened, of course, when my mom told me she went to Smith College because Harvard wasn't yet accepting women, but I still didn't really get it.) As an undergrad at a university with a sizeable Greek scene, I delighted in my role as the "cool girl," a trope Gillian Flynn famously zeroed in on in Gone Girl. I was the chick with a collection of "going out tops" who dated athletes, could beat any guy in a round of flip cup, and didn't flinch when another woman was described as a "slut" or "crazy." It's as if I couldn't see past the beer pong ball dangling from my outstretched fingertips. Maybe I had conditioned myself not to want to.
The unfairness of the gender paradigm—the wage gap, the discrimination, the lack of opportunity, the sexual harassment—continued to elude me in the job space. As I segued from a career in public relations to publishing, I had very few male colleagues with whom to compare my trajectory. (I have heard from the rare dude in this industry, however, that they willingly capitalize on the fact that some female bosses favor their guyness.) But, still, at no point in my life have I felt that something I wanted was strictly unavailable to me as a result of my chromosomes. This privileged purview, of course, might have plenty to do with the following facts: I am white; I am cisgender; I was born into an infrastructure that all but urged me to pass Go and collect $200. I do not think I am ignoring the role of intersectionality in feminism, and I fully understand that there exists a sliding scale of opportunity inside an already-unfair rubric.
Ironically, I never felt the pang of gender inequity until what I wanted was something as simple as a conversation. Recently, while sitting with a group of men (some I knew, some strangers), I tried to chime in on a subject matter I understood. And, in no uncertain terms, I was shut down. My contributions, I was told, were "cute but unsolicited." And as I looked around, my eyes pleading with my male friends to back me up, it dawned on me that they hadn't even noticed what had occurred. Even the two martinis coursing through my veins couldn't snub out the sting of feeling invisible. It took all of my impulse control not to jump on the table and deliver a Broad City-inspired rant about the tyranny of Uncle Sam "rape culture."
All of a sudden, like a Magic Eye puzzle or a newly learned vocabulary word, the discrimination was everywhere. There I was getting heckled in the security line before a red-eye flight, being told it was "refreshing" when I offered to pay for myself at a guys dinner I attended with my husband, and getting inundated with the message, via my favorite TV shows and movies, that girls are more often frenemies than friends. (The exception, of course, being Abbi and Ilana, but still, the companionship on Broad City has some serious Sapphic undertones. I can assure you that two women can be thisclose without secretly wanting to make out.)
Perhaps it never occurred to me to be a feminist because the payoff of sticking my neck out didn't seem instantaneous enough for me. For the longest time my feelings toward the feminist agenda were similar to how I feel when I see an architectural project that will be completed in 2020. Who has the wherewithal to think that far ahead? I've often wondered. "We could have robot arms by then!" I've joked—the desired effect, a laugh, easily achieved.
What I understand now, that I didn't before, is that feminism is a marathon, not a sprint. Feminism is not a one-woman job, a bumper sticker, an extracurricular to put on your résumé, or a mom stealer. It's a selfless pursuit that may not glean any tangible pursuits—say, a woman in the White House by 2016—but without which the mere idea that a woman could actually be in the White House is impossible.
As part of my new enlightened mentality, I see the benefit of banding with and supporting my sisterhood everywhere I turn: I make the effort to encourage young women in my industry; I gently correct the men I love when they say something sexist; and I try not to bristle when my mom feels like she has to wear a suit in order to be taken seriously on Face the Nation. Mine's not an award-winning performance by any means, but at least I'm finally acknowledging the broken glass underneath my pedicured toes.
Like Katharine Zaleski says in her mea culpa to working mothers everywhere in Fortune: "The way I acted in my twenties had a lot to do with denial." For me it was easier to pretend that the prejudice against women was somehow in the past, or that being a fired-up feminist was synonymous with hating men. I'll never forget when Dorothy Boyd, who had been spurned by Jerry Maguire, finally conceded to a group of bitter divorcées: "I've not been fair to you," she starts. "Women need to stick together, and not depend on the affections of a man to 'fix' their lives. Maybe you're all correct: Men are the enemy...But I still love the enemy."
I, too, love men, and I am not above delighting in their attention, but that doesn't mean I need to pretend that the structural and societal biases are fair simply because they're easier to uphold. What I realize, more than anything, is that there is no such thing as garden-variety feminism. You don't have to be preachy, angry, or even particularly organized to get on board. There is no price of admission, prerequisites, or bylaws. You just have to show up.
So, here I am, ready to get to work. My name is Justine Harman, and I'm a feminist. I'm so sorry I'm late.
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