I’d like to think that I’ve always had a strong pull towards feminism and therefore avidly identified as a feminist. I’ve come to challenge different stereotypes, much to my grandmother’s dismay. She belonged to the generation that believes that a woman’s place is mostly confined to the home, going to university is a clear waste of time and money will not help me in any way to find a boyfriend, let alone a husband. Quel domage! However, it wasn’t until my gap year that I realised I’d undertaken a fully fledged feminist awakening.
In an abstract ploy to ‘find myself’, disguised as an effort to speak Français fluently, I ventured from a small town in south-west New South Wales to a small town in the south of France. I had signed myself up to be an au pair with a family and was to live in their house and look after the kids for nine months – though I only lasted five. I’ll say this now, to avoid any misconceptions, because it sounds as though this should have been the time of my life. I found the opposite to be true. A couple of months in, I came to realise that the dream I had conjured, had disappeared.
I found myself, sure. I was alone, a foreigner, in a household that held none of the values I was accustomed to, making it extremely difficult to express my feelings and communicate efficiently with my host family. Behind my apparent failures as an au pair, which included being unable to perform effectively in the kitchen, converse and contribute fluently to conversation at the table and in the wider community, I found myself. I became a recluse in my room on the top floor of the house. I cried. I ate unruly amounts of chocolate. I slept. I started not to believe in myself. I felt worthless. I stopped smiling. And to top it off, my host mum noticed. I hated that. Clearly, in a state of denial, I lied and told her I was fine. I told her that I was homesick, which wasn’t totally untrue. It just wasn’t the real reason, with the reality being that our personalities clashed. Knowing this, she made my life unbearable. I felt like a complete outsider and failure.
And so my awakening began. Whilst I cooped myself up in my room, I started to read different feminist blogs, many of which I now cannot remember. However, one of my favourites, even today, is called Hellogiggles, which is partially run by the amazing and quirky Zooey Deschanel. Another favourite is the great Feminartsy. So, to bring my feminist sentiments into a fully fledged whirlwind, I read Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899). This book opened my eyes to situations of sexual, emotional and societal frustrations that are still ever-present for so many women today. I realised that it was okay to change my beliefs and my views, even if my friends and family disagreed with them. It was also in this bedroom, in a small French town, that I discovered what I wanted to study at ANU (where my heart was meant to be): a double major in English and Gender Studies under the infamous Arts degree. I suddenly felt a new sense of self. I felt I had a purpose!
Despite my newfound resolve, I still struggled with how to comprehend and respond to comments on why I didn’t wear make up, or have a boyfriend, or straighten my hair, et cetera, et cetera. I completely acknowledge that these are minuscule problems compared to other gendered issues. Nonetheless, they still reinforce the boxes that many women are forced into. And despite finding myself a feminist, I still wanted to be liked and to impress people, as self-destructive as it became for me.
Eventually and thankfully, I simply learned not to give a fuck! I learned that being a feminist doesn’t necessarily make me someone who doesn’t shave her legs, or hates men, as I was once told. Instead, whilst shaving one’s legs can be hard work sometimes (ladies, am I right?), being a feminist, to me, means that one may allow oneself to look at the world in a different, less rose-coloured light. I learned that white feminism is definitely not the only feminism that matters, that intersectionality should become a household term (think: frustrating discussions with my father), and that women are strongly underappreciated (cue my dad again: “Why do I have to come home and dinner not be ready?”). But you don’t have to take my word for it.
Another vital part of my feminist revelation in France came in the form of my Anglophone friends Amy and Polly. Amy lit up the room with her American aura. A vivid memory I have of her is her telling me about how she had been proposed to several times as part of her religion and had turned them all down. I didn’t realise this at the time, and I’m not sure if she realises it, but this anecdote threw down a patriarchal wall that is preconceived for so many women. I thought, that’s gutsy, right? She told me that some of her friends were married and having kids and it sometimes seemed strange that she wasn’t a part of that. However, she actively chose to be different, even if she was judged by others for doing so. Amy arrived at a time where I was lonely and incredibly homesick and she helped to lift me out of that. She was also someone with whom I could freely speak English, and who was my age and didn’t judge me for my own choices, especially when it came to my shitty au pairing!
My other friend, Polly, was a beautiful, older woman from England with whom I taught English at one of the local primary schools. We hit it off and we would often sit in her house, drinking Yorkshire tea, as I would listen to her tell me about her feminism and how it had changed. She fostered an acceptance and understanding about my own feminism that I never realised I needed. Polly let me ask her all sorts of questions and urged me to explore feminism in different ways. She has been one of the few people who encouraged my interest in pursuing Gender Studies as an Art major, rather than trivialising it. For me, she provided answers I couldn’t seek out from someone similar, like my own grandmother, who cannot even remember a time where Germaine Greer held a spotlight for feminism. Now, I don’t mean to say that I don’t love my Gran. I do. It’s just, well, we butt heads a little when it comes to talking about feminism!
Now, after studying Gender and English for almost two years, I think it’s safe to say that my feminist awakening has progressed. Coming to university and studying in these areas has opened my mind in understanding and acceptance that I would have never encountered if I had simply stayed at home on the farm. It has given me the opportunity to express myself and agree to disagree politely, especially when my Gran tells me that men are still the breadwinners (this is not an exaggeration – she actually said this to me this year and yes we are living in 2017). It has opened up possibilities for me of which I could have never dreamed. And part of that is writing this.