At what point in your life did you consider yourself a feminist? Was it an event or a process?
As a child, I believed girls could do anything boys could do. I grew up in a single parent household with a strong working mother who was the first woman branch manager in her organization’s history. I played baseball, not softball, on a boys’ team in elementary school. I loved She-Ra, the Princess of Power, more than Barbie. As I grew up, however, religious understandings about the “proper” behavior of men and women overshadowed the freedom I experienced as a child.
Identifying myself as a feminist and aligning myself with feminist causes was a process akin to an awakening. It happened slowly, as if I had to be deprogrammed from other thought systems that I had previously believed. Growing up with an evangelical Christian worldview meant that the oppressive nature of gender inequality was not only explainable, but patriarchy was supposedly divinely ordained. My awakening began during my undergraduate education at UCLA. I read feminist authors like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who explained that gendered oppression feels like a prison, and Betty Friedan, who put much-needed language to “the problem that has no name.” The deconstruction process continued when I researched the double-bind of Congregationalist missionary women who sought to fulfill nineteenth-century gender and religious ideals while negotiating “proper” gender roles to fully participate in missionary work. My studies provided evidence that gender was a cultural construct. Learning history revealed that systems of oppression, not only individuals, disenfranchised women from their civil and human rights.
While I have proudly identified as a feminist for many years now, I still seek out opportunities to learn from others and remain teachable. The privileges I hold mean that I have not fully experienced all the multidimensional oppression that intersects with being a woman. I am continuing my feminist awakening by learning from a diverse group of feminists, especially women of color and trans women, so that I am not advocating for change solely based on oppression I have experienced first-hand.
Who most influenced your awareness of your feminism?
My feminist awareness was most influenced, at first, by the feminist activists that I have read or follow on social media. I wouldn’t be the feminist I am today without Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gloria Steinem, Tamika Mallory, Roxane Gay, Peggy Orenstein, Anita Hill, Arlie Hochschild, Jen Richards, Anne Marie-Slaughter, bell hooks, Salahmishah Tillet, Michelle Alexander, Dolores Huerta, Mia Mingus, Janet Mock, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jackson Katz, and the list goes on.
My awareness of feminism has also been heightened by those who oppose feminism because they remind me about the work that is still left to do. Specifically, my feminism within Christian spaces is shaped in resistance to the mainstream evangelical movement’s leaders. John Piper, who believes women should not preach or be seminary professors, or Mark Driscoll, who supports male superiority and women’s submission, fuel me partner with others to bring about women’s full contribution and representation in religious spaces. As civil rights activist and feminist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Christianity is being concerned about [others], not building a million-dollar church while people are starving right around the corner. Christ was a revolutionary person, out there where it was happening.” Christian feminists like Nadia Bolz Weber, Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, and Latasha Morrison demonstrate that faith and fighting injustice in all its forms should not be mutually exclusive, even if that activism is within the church.
My feminism is informed by those who are brave enough to stand up to abusive individuals, systems of power, and those who are complicit. Reformers like Rachael Denhollander and the more than 150 victim-survivors of Larry Nassar; Kesha and Lady Gaga; the 700,000 female farmworkers with Alianza Nacional de Campesinas; and women in Hollywood have spoken out against the sexual abuse that is pervasive in all industries and across all socio-economic stratification.
My children make me most aware of my deep desire to advocate for equality because I want a better present and future for them.
In what ways has your feminism informed your life choices?
Feminism and the full equality of all people is the lens through which I see the world. My home, my classrooms, my church, and my communities are where I live out my feminist values. My life choices are informed by my belief that full gender and sexual equity will only come by simultaneously living out the best values of feminism while fighting for change in all areas of public life. I seek to empower others and multiply feminist efforts, so I volunteer in my community and support feminists/feminist causes with my purchasing power.
In what ways do you share your feminism with others?
I share my feminism through activism and using my voice to enact change. As Audre Lorde stated, “Your silence will not protect you.” I operate under the assumption that I will speak up even if my voice is shaking and no one else agrees. Sometimes sharing my feminism comes through a class lecture or a conversation with a friend while other times it conveyed through my actions, such as the products or programming I choose to consume. Often it is through organizing educational events on topics like Title IX or the Nineteenth Amendment. I am also known for having a pretty sweet collection of feminist shirts, totes, and stickers that help to spread the word.
Describe your vision of a feminist world.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the Commander tells Offred, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” My vision of a feminist world is one where better really is better for everyone. Intersectionality means that systems of oppression cannot be addressed or solved independently, and so my feminism focuses on advocating for structural change in all systems that perpetuate inequality. Social, economic, and educational transformation can be brought about through political and social activism. The phone calls, marches, petitions, meetings, votes, and more help to secure a more just world one action at a time. The personal is political, which means an equitable world would have equal pay for equal work; the eradication of sexual harassment and sexual assault; healthcare for all; a federally-paid parental leave; equitable female leadership positions in religious organizations; and equal representation in all areas of public life from Hollywood to our government structures. A feminist world is one that is freer for both women and men to live as they see fit. Feminism seeks to rid the world of toxic patriarchy, the deconstruction of which would free both women and men to both be fully human and unique individuals. In Broadway’s Hamilton, Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote the lyrics, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” I am here in my small corner of the earth planting away for a more equitable future. Grab a trowel and join me.
How I Define Feminism:
Feminism is human rights for women. This is not equality based on a woman’s status as someone’s sister, mother, or daughter, but equality and just treatment should be one’s birthright as a human being. Feminism means advocating for the full political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. Feminism also includes that all other forms of
oppression and injustice due to race, class, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and colorism need to be overturned because they are interconnected with full equality for women.
Michelle Stonis is a Lecturer of History at California State University Long Beach and Glendale Community College. She studies U.S. history and U.S. women’s history with a focus on gender in the nineteenth century, yet she is also known to teach on Beyoncé and other culturally relevant topics. Her research also focuses on the study of teaching and learning with an additional expertise in both academic technology and distance education. Her Master’s Thesis “On Heathen Ground”: The Double Bind of Women’s Roles in the Sandwich Islands Mission, 1819-1863 won the 2006 Best Thesis in the College of Liberal Arts at CSULB. Stonis is an active Women’s History Month committee member at both CSULB and Glendale Community College. She especially enjoys working with first-generation college students. She volunteers in Long Beach teaching professional development curriculum to women. She can be found on Facebook at History Time with Professor Stonis and online at www.michellestonis.com.