At what point in your life did you consider yourself a feminist? Was it an event or a process?
I think I've always been a feminist, though I didn't have a name for the way I saw the world until I went to college. I remember two particular moments in my childhood that caused me to see women's treatment as unequal and often patently unfair. Both involve my mother, who was probably the strongest person I have ever known.
When I was about four, my mother explained to me that at one time she had had a different last name than my father and that when they got married, she changed her name. She explained that this is how people signify they have become a family. When I asked why my father hadn't changed his name instead, my mother could offer no satisfactory reason other than "that's just the way it is." I found this unacceptable and I couldn't understand why others weren't bothered by this double standard. I have a more nuanced view of this today, but at the time, I saw this in very black and white terms: women were expected to do things that men did not have to do. Women made sacrifices that men did not.
A few years after this event, I discovered that my mother did not have a credit card in her own name. The checks she wrote listed my father's name first. To my knowledge, my mother never had checks under her name only. This was despite the fact that my mother did all of the family accounting and was uniformly financial "whiz" behind my father's very successful business. It didn't make sense to me then--and doesn't make sense to me today--that my mother could not officially make financial transactions without the sanction of my father.
It wasn't until much later that I understood the historical roots of these kinds of inequalities, or that I was able to understand why these seemingly "small" details bothered me so deeply.
Who most influenced your awareness of your feminism?
Anita Hill profoundly changed my understanding of feminism. I was in college and taking courses in women's studies when she was called upon to testify in the Thomas confirmation hearings. In those days, I was commuting quite a bit and tuned into the radio to hear the proceedings. Afterward, I assumed that everyone had "heard" exactly what I had heard--the testimony of a woman who had been systematically harassed by a male employer. It seemed obvious to me that Thomas had--at the very least--created a hostile work environment and that Hill's complaints were not only legitimate, but called into doubt Thomas' character. I was stunned to learn that there were many people who thought Hill was to blame; some wished that she had not testified at all. Many of the people I spoke with who shared this opinion were women. Some claimed that the incidents she described weren't "that bad" and she should have just dealt with Thomas' "antics." Others argued that Hill's testimony could reiterate painful racial stereotypes about black men.
At first I found these points of view confusing and, frankly, infuriating. As women, I believed, we owed it to Hill to support her claims and to seek justice not just for her, but for all women in the workplace. As I learned to listen more carefully, however, I came to understand that feminists--like all people--form their opinions based on different histories and life experiences and unique sets of priorities. For many years afterward, I kept a picture of Anita Hill pinned to a bulletin board just above my desk to remind myself of my obligation to view things from other points of view.
In what ways has your feminism informed your life choices?
My personal and professional lives have both been mutually shaped by feminism and by a commitment to ideas of equality. My husband and I were both graduate students when I became pregnant with our daughter. Our initial plan was that we would both remain in our program and share childcare equally. Soon, however, we realized that this plan was untenable for us. Together, we ultimately determined that the best option for our family was to have one stay-at-home parent and one working-for-wages parent. My husband opted to fulfill the former role and I the latter. We have not yet--after more than 15 years--had an occasion to regret our decision. It's allowed both my husband and I to do work to which we are most suited and has also provided our kids with a non-traditional model.
In what ways do you share your feminism with others?
I have tried to lead by example--by deeds, rather than words. If asked specifically about my feminism (as in this venue), I am happy to share my thoughts. In my everyday life, however, I prefer to let my actions speak for themselves.
In the courses I teach on the history of women, I methodically talk about gender roles as they have existed differently over time and how they have applied differently to women on the basis of their race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. Yet I don't explain these in explicitly feminist terms. Rather, I let the weight of the evidence make the case that "gender" is a construct. When students reach this conclusion on their own--without coaching from me--it is often more powerful and transformative than anything I could "teach" them.
Describe your vision of a feminist world.
We live in an interesting time. In the US, we are closer than we ever have been to electing a woman to the Presidency. At the same time, this election has revealed some of the darkest elements of our society: sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. It's shown us the significant work that is still ahead for us at the local and national levels. It feels possible that we can make progress in all of these areas--indeed, history shows us that we can work toward a more equal and just society. For me that would mean equal access to education, jobs, housing and health care.
How I Define Feminism:
For me, feminism is fundamentally about equality and about removing barriers to achievement. As a feminist, I see creating access to success as my primary obligation. Sometimes this means helping a single person achieve a goal. Other times this means helping to create policies that can eliminate obstacles that stand in others' way.
Jennifer Thigpen is an Associate Professor of History at Washington State University. She studies US women's and gender history with a focus on the nineteenth century. She is the author of Island Queens and Mission Wives: How Gender and Empire Remade Hawai‘i's Pacific World and winner of the 2011 Jensen-Miller prize for best article on women and gender in the North American West. Her current research looks at the role missionaries and their wives play in US expansion into what is now the American West.
She is current President-Elect of the Western Association of Women Historians. Thigpen teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in US history-- her specialty courses offer a close look at women's and gender history. She especially values working with first-generation college students.