“She never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize with the minds and wishes of others” (Davis 592).
Virginia Woolf’s polite, selfless “angel” surfaces again in Debra Anne Davis’ story of her heart-breaking rape. Tellingly, Davis recounts her indignation at his accusation that she fought back. She was a good girl, with all the pain and irony that entails, and living up to that myth came at a cost. Davis’ story is agonizing, especially when I can almost hear the voice of that angel in my own head two decades later in this supposedly “post-feminist” culture.
I became a feminist when I recognized these destructive, limiting gender stereotypes in myself. I know now that idolizing that angel and holding myself to that unrealistic image might have destroyed me. In the process of explaining why I and my peers worked so hard to live up to this impossible “angel”, I found solidarity in the feminist community. But, as Davis says, “just because I can see, understand and believe that something is false, that it’s not right, now, doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be a part of me, always” (Davis 591). Like so many others, I am still afraid of feminism when that need to be the “good girl” resurfaces.
I’m graduating in eight days, and I’m endlessly thankful that I took the time to refocus on what feminism means for me in the last, transitional, terrifying semester of my senior year. This semester has not been easy. I’ve confronted this “angel” in my head, and Davis gave me the language to describe the tension between my expectations and the reality of trying to be a “good girl”. In college, we don’t often give ourselves the freedom to reflect on our identities and relations to others, but I was lucky to spend much of my senior year doing just that. Turning the intense focus usually devoted to classes on myself was at times traumatizing, but ultimately rewarding.
An idealist at heart, I believed in perfection for a long time. Striving for selflessness – my ideal of perfection – hurt me, but I always thought that I just wasn’t good or strong enough. I thought that this trauma came from a personal struggle, but I found other voices speaking to the same struggle in the feminist community. These selfless ideals weren’t individual and isolated, but perpetuated by our culture; as Carol Hanisch famously stated, “the personal is political.” Feminism and its surrounding community embrace women as they are, helping them to confront the structures that limit their growth. For me, finding a community that applauds instead of represses the freedom to be has been immensely empowering. Without feminism, I would have few resources to explain my story.
To many of my peers, feminism seems foreign, academic, and polarizing. To me, feminism frees women and men alike to find their identity without unnecessary stereotyping, embracing the self in a community of acceptance and growth. My feminist education has been integral to my development as a person, and I will encourage every person I meet to explore feminism for themselves. I believe that the plurality of voices in the feminist community makes us strong, and helping this community grow is essential. While feminism can still empower twenty-two-year-olds like me, feminism is very much alive.