It’s always a bit disconcerting to run into your younger self. That’s what happened last week as I was walking to my morning job at the theology library at Emory University, and a young woman and I struck up a conversation.
As we walked, I asked her where she was heading, and it turned out to be the women studies’ department. It seems she was working on her dissertation in a feminist discipline, and had been plugging along for quite some time.
In that moment, I remembered the years when I too had labored, oh so arduously, on my own feminist tome at the University of Florida, where I went on to receive a doctorate in philosophy.
I didn’t tell her the title of my dissertation, which I am now a bit ashamed of: “A Feminist Theory of Authenticity.” In that tome, I argued quite passionately for a conclusion I now find patently absurd and impossible: The solution to all the problems plaguing women in what I saw as a male-dominated society was (and here I have to pause to blush at my own innocence and ignorance) androgyny.
Oddly enough, despite my ranting over the injustices that women faced, I myself had been the recipient of many blessings, including a father who helped finance my dream of college all the way through graduate school; professors who granted me the privilege of teaching undergraduate classes; and numerous honors, including receiving a Ford Foundation Fellowship and being elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
All of this I had attained despite what I saw as a terrible drawback, which was my femininity.
Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut on that recent wintry morning as I accompanied that younger version of myself across campus, but I am famous for blurting things out, and so I did: “Oh, I was once an avid feminist myself,” I confessed, “but I eventually gave it up.”
The young woman remained silent as if digesting this odd piece of information, and then I dropped the bombshell: “In fact, I wrote a book about my experience called ‘Confessions of an Ex-Feminist.’”
At this point, the young woman was gracious enough to say that she would “look into” this book. By then, our paths on campus had diverged, and we went our separate ways.
I had to wonder what I would have thought, many years ago, had I accompanied an older woman with a message like my own. Would I have been as gracious? Or would I have remained fiercely silent while shooting her a dark look?
Probably the latter, because my indoctrination into radical feminism was so deep and so extreme that I rarely came up for a breath of air that wasn’t infused with the distinct aroma of feminist dogma. Like so many radical feminists, I surrounded myself with people who agreed with me and who rarely had much to do with those we saw as “the others.”
The “others” were the traditional women, the ones who got married and had families. They baked birthday cakes for their children, wore make-up and planned pot-luck suppers at their local churches.
They did not seem to share my belief that society had dealt them a terrible hand. On the contrary, many seemed quite grateful for the simple blessings of everyday life. Why, they even got down on their knees to thank a God that I had long ago given up on.
It took me years to travel the bitter feminist road and discover that it led, ultimately, to a dead-end. It took me years to see what others, much less educated, already knew: Androgyny is impossible because males and females are hard-wired to be different. And that’s because there is a God who truly did create us “male and female,” and who gave us different gifts and inclinations.
But this would have been quite a large message to convey to that young woman as we walked across campus. And even if I had, she probably would have smiled politely and tuned me out.
So I’ll do the next best thing, something I was incapable of doing in my own feminist days. I’ll say a prayer for her and leave the situation firmly where it has always been anyway: in the hands of God.
A very interesting story. My younger self slaved away in your theological library, as a seminarian. I did not necessarily create something I now regret, but rather I worked with too few tools and too little tradition toward the creation of a form of faith and ministry that would leave me quite unfulfilled. Now I knew some of the feminists in those days (mid-80’s). They were ruthless! My deep aversion to them never left me and played its part in making me a Catholic. O tempora o mores!
Dear Mr. Thomas:
I’m grateful for your note!
And here I thought one of the great things about being human is that, unlike the beasts, we can ignore our hard-wiring ! Otherwise, what distinguishes us from animals following instincts ?
Sorry. Hares can gambol over the body of a dead lion.
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