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By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Ageing into Feminism

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Ageing into Feminism
By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev
This article was originally written for Off Our Backs, celebrating its 35th year as a feminist publication. It was not accepted for publication there, which I think speaks to my tenuous relationship with mainstream feminist voices, and whose words are silenced. It has since been published in various forms in many other publications.

Thirty-five years ago, I was just 12 years old. I spent my time listening to Michael Jackson sing "A, B, C, it’s easy as 1, 2, 3…" on an A.M. radio that I carried with me at all times. My best friend Linda and I chain smoked cigarettes hanging out at the local schoolyard wearing army jackets with male names emblazoned on the pocket. In the humid Brooklyn summer evenings, Linda would take me upstairs to her attic bedroom, and climb on top of me and rub herself against me, pretending to be my boyfriend. The next day she flashed the "L" sign to me and winked.

I couldn’t imagine marrying a boy and since there was no other alternative I decided in my early teens that marriage was a trap that I would never willingly step into. I was liberated not because I had sex with boys, or even because I had sex with girls, but because I insisted on my right to have sex with whomever I pleased. When I voiced opinions in school, on interracial relationships, the Viet Nam War, and gay liberation (meaning gay men) I was sent to the principals’ office. When I smacked a boy upside the head who tried to grab my breasts, the home economics teacher told me that, "I would never get married if I couldn’t stop acting like that," I made a pact with myself to continue acting just like that for as long as I could. I didn’t play dumb, so they called me a women’s libber, a bitch and a witch. Years later I circled naked under the stars with radical dykes and claimed those identities with pride.

My single mother spoon fed me women’s liberation and taught me to work hard, get a good job, and never expect anyone else to take care of me. Yet she was once very disappointed in me because I got a speeding ticket, saying, "You are a beautiful woman, and you let some man give you a ticket. He’d give you anything you wanted if you played your cards right." I struggled with the hand I was dealt and paid my ticket, because I couldn’t give a man a smile he didn’t deserve.

I discovered feminism with an insatiable hunger. I read every book, saw every film, bought every woman’s music album and read Off Our Backs religiously. I joined consciousness raising groups, support groups, coming out groups. I attended concerts, panel discussion, conferences and festivals. I marched in Washington DC for the ERA, and in local small town gay pride rallies in upstate New York. I worked at rape crisis centers, provided birth control to teens, and cleaned abortion machines. I spent hours trying to reach consensus. I have never shaved my underarms.

Eventually the bubble burst. I realized the feminism was not perfect, that we had made some glaring mistakes. Feminism tried to be all things to all women, without really hearing the voices of women of color, or working class women, of women working in the sex industry. We put down stay at home mothers and stay up late at night butch/femme bar dykes. For all that feminism had taught me about gender it also denigrated my desire for butch women. I got tired of hiding sexy lingerie in the back of my sock drawer and the expression the personal is political began to take on a new meaning.

I stopped drinking herbal tea about 20 years ago. After living in lesbian-feminist communities for most of my life, I just lost the taste. Potlucks became tedious, and political correctness became exhausting.  Feminist discussions circled ’round and ’round like our covens under the stars, and political actions were so mired down with rhetoric that I could determine the conversation and tone, as well as the players, before I entered the room. I grew tired of marching, and began to suspect we were had lost direction.

I began to question feminist authority, and wonder whether feminist answers were the only answers. I was battered by another woman and realized that violence was not a just a male prerogative. I began to read On Our Backs, and queer theory. I’ve learned that some of what sucks about human relationships has little to do with gender or politics, and some of what is great about living has lots to do with gender. I began to change, and like so many lovers before and since, feminism – she who loved my body like no other – did not necessarily change with me.

The lesbian-feminist community that reared me does not exist anymore. The small coffee houses, the sense of commonality, the badges we wore to recognize each other on crowded enemy streets, are relics of another day. Partially the movement that was has been absorbed into the larger LGBTQQI-alphabet soup movement for queer civil rights. Partially it became transformed into academic women’s studies programs. Partially it has been co-opted, sold out to the dazzle of consumer capitalism and the lure of romantic security, represented by gay business and gay marriage. Partially, it continues onward, limping, like all of us ageing crones still following behind. 

I read the obituaries in feminist papers today before I read the festival news. Every paper reports the deaths of the women who changed my life, women who died of cancer, and women who died from their own hands. Feminist leaders, thinkers, activists who died of disabilities that were supposed to kill them 30 years ago, and crones who dared to die as old old women. It is the passing of an era, a generation. Those of us still alive go back to school, raise children, fight for disability payments and search the eyes of women to find those who remember.

Today, in the online social work course I teach, the female students insist they are not feminists. Of course they believe in equal rights and equal pay for equal work. Of course they think that "girls" should go to college and become doctors. Of course, they think they can have it all — work and children, love and a professional paycheck. They look up to me as their role model, but still believe that feminism is a bad word and that feminists hate men. I try to explain that it was actually men who hated women, and we rebelled, us feminists. I tell them that all they have in their lives today is the fruits of a movement that women planted with our own hands, the soil was our very bodies. The men in the class tell me that they too have been battered, by the hands of a woman, raped by their mothers. I tell them that all pain matters; women do not have a monopoly on victimization. But I also tell them the story of women’s liberation, of how battered women were called masochists who invited their husbands to beat them, and how fathers ruled their homes and rape in marriage was legal (A friend who read this just told me it still is in some states). I tell them that I was 11 years old before I was allowed to wear pants to school, and they tell me they had no idea I was that old.

And somehow I have grown a bit old, not quite a crone, but no longer any where in the vicinity of young. I can see reflected in my students’ eyes that they see me as a graying fat maternal rendition of their mother, a bit hipper perhaps, but from another generation, someone with a view from a far. My feminism is quaint to them, not the radical edge of human transformation, but nostalgia from a bygone generation. I have become, in their eyes, a woman who still thinks that gender matters.


I am nearly 50 years old, almost ½ century on this blessed planet. I still devour feminist books, but I no longer allow feminism to devour me. I am critical of some of what has been done in the name of feminism, but I will not let other women define feminism for me, or dictate which acts of mine are feminist and which are colonized. I stand firm when I am accused of being a feminist by those who are attempting to insult me. I claim and reclaim myself as a feminist still, a feminist teacher, a feminist therapist, a feminist academic. I keep insisting that feminism is not a dirty word, but a movement that has made possible all that has come since.

I work for transgender rights and argue queer theory, and insist that it is feminism which was the mother of these freedoms. I give credit to women’s liberation for not only changing my world, but for changing the whole world, for starting a dialogue about rethinking gender that continues on today. Like all important tasks, dismembering patriarchy is the work of my many lifetimes.

Today I live with two young boys and a dyke who can pass for one. My breasts miss the sun in Michigan every summer. I embrace the queer youth of today, and I know they can do what they are doing precisely because we did the work of feminism. However, I still rear my sons to be feminists, just in case we don’t eradicate gender completely in the next few decades. I plan to get old, older, and tattooed, grow my chin hairs out and wear bright red lipstick. Feminism has given me the freedom to be fully myself.