When I was in high school, I got a burr in my saddle to read the classics. Don’t be too impressed – this was before Facebook and texting, and I was stuck on an Army base with no friends, so it really wasn’t a stretch to wander over to the library and check out a half dozen books.
And they were boring. Like so boring I actually felt judgy towards the people who had deemed them “classics” and the authors who wrote them. Clearly, they were not that smart.
But then I came across A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Her premise simple, she asked what would happen if women were granted the same power as men.
Back that up, Virginia.
Women don’t have the same power as men?
Intrigued, I read on, trying to wrap my teenage brain around the concept that men and women were not equal, because up until that point, I’d been fed a daily diet that everyone in our country was equal (didn’t the Constitution like, explicitly state that?), I could do whatever I wanted as long as I set my mind to it, etc., etc.
Her examples were based on women’s experiences in the late 1800s where they were busy cooking, cleaning, raising children and basically doing every wifely and motherly thing that women were still expected to do some one hundred years later.
What were their menfolk doing? Owning businesses, building societies, making money…basically every manly thing that they were still doing, some one hundred years later.
I walked around grocery stores and saw the moms with their screaming toddlers and thought even though the frozen pizza they just tossed into their cart is easier to make than, say, porridge (whatever that is?), they still are responsible for cooking it.
I saw my own mother, who had dropped out of college to get married, wait up every night for my dad to get home from work so she could pour him a drink and sit up with him while he ate that frozen pizza.
I witnessed girls my age acting like they didn’t know the answer to questions when the teacher called on them because being smart might make the boys not like you.
I saw myself doing the same.
To say my little brain broke is an understatement. It. Blew. Up. My feminist teenage years were messy, and I blame it all on Virginia.
I took a calculator on every date and made sure I paid 50% of the check. (Little did I know I should have been paying less because women make $.77 for every man’s $1.)
When a boy said his friend wanted to ask me out, likening it to a “little test drive,” I told him, “No thanks. I’m not a car.”
It’s not surprising that someone wrote “bitch” on my locker. It’s also not surprising that I hung a sign inside my locker that explained the word was an acronym for:
Like I said, teenage feminism is messy.
Now I’m a lot calmer. It’s mostly age but it’s also the roles I’ve eased into that have helped me make sense of a world that infuriated me so much as a young woman.
I’m married, so I know it’s tough to negotiate gender roles when all you’re trying to do is love each other and put dinner on the table. I have two children and I want them to be happy – super-duper happy – so I am willing to contort myself into whatever shape is needed to achieve that. If it means feeling like I live out of my car because I’m driving them to soccer/gymnastic/football/princess-fairy camp, then I’ll do that. If I have to wake up at 5 a.m. to slice and wrap individual pieces of mango for the “Fruit Party” at school, I’ll do that, too.
But I do it as a choice, and with awareness. And in the spaces between the responsibilities and demands, I think about Virginia.
One thing I ponder most is the lack of room we create for ourselves as women. Even an hour of doing what we want, by ourselves, feels like an indulgent, self-centered luxury, if not an outright act against God.
So what if, to use Virginia Woolf’s metaphor from the title of her book, we had a “room of our own” where we were unbound from ours and others’ expectations, where we were free to reflect, create or even just rest?
(I know, my brain just broke again, too. But let’s keep going.)
What if we had a place where we could ask questions of ourselves and hear our own voices instead of the voices of our spouses, children, coworkers, parents and friends? Or the voice of perfectionism that serves as a slavedriver to so many women.
For a moment, imagine you could go there any time you wanted without guilt, without the world falling apart in your absence.
Because that’s what the world seems to do when we walk away into ourselves.
And if that’s too hard, imagine you have a broom closet. It’s tiny, unassuming, filled with brooms. More of a hiding place than a retreat, but that will do, too.
Ultimately, my hope is that we can build these rooms for ourselves individually, and then, collectively, start joining these rooms. (If you’re in a broom closet, I’ll invite you into my room to visit.)
Maybe we build a house together. And then a community, a city and then a country. And finally, a whole new world. A world where I value loving myself as much as I love my children and husband. Where society values women’s work as much as it does men’s, and by that I mean professions like teaching and home-making. A world where equality is more than just a noble concept but is practiced in every home and workplace and space in between.