One woman's journey from hopelessness to empowerment
Life had been hard. Not the worst by any means, but hard.
I'd been a mother since I was teen and through a string of relationships that were dispiriting to say the least. I'd been in a perpetual state of starting my life over and over again – with some other man or some other dead-end job. My small child always seemed to be caught in the middle of it all – she and I trudging along together.
I was approaching my mid 20s and had accomplished none of the things I had always longed for. I wasn't educated or well travelled. I wasn't anything like the woman I had imagined I would become.
Worst of all, I was beginning to have a strong suspicion that she did not exist.
But there was still a spark inside me somewhere – some little voice that whispered, "Give it one last go. What have you got to lose?"
And so I went back to school and started all over again.
School was like resuscitation. Somehow I ended up in the perfect courses with the perfect professors.They saw in me what I had seen in myself but could never seem to actualize.
A friend suggested I enroll in a women's studies course that she had taken. If it hadn't been for that suggestion I wouldn't have chosen such a course. But life can be serendipitous and it certainly was for me.
In 2007, I found myself sitting in Dr. Susan Harris' Gender and Popular Culture course. It was one of those classes where I felt really intimidated by my peers – still reeling from a long bout of low self-esteem.
"I wasn't anything like the woman I had imagined I would become. Worst of all, I was beginning to have a strong suspicion that she did not exist."
Every time someone said a word I didn't understand, I would shut-down – feeling completely out of place and hopelessly less intellectual than everyone else. These days I just pull out a dictionary.
As the semester progressed, the course awakened something in me. Or maybe it shattered something that had been useless all along.
Reading feminist theorists for the first time was as exhilarating to me as bungee jumping or cliff diving might be to someone else. These women were saying things I had always believed. In retrospect, I had always suspected them to be true, but had no way of confirming them.
At one point I read an essay entitled "Claiming an Education" by the feminist writer Adrienne Rich, who said, "Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind."
For me, this was revolutionary knowledge. Not because it was new, but because these were academic scholars who were speaking about my life, my history and my future.
Rich also wrote that, "Responsibility to yourself means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives."
She seemed to be writing directly to me as a woman, a mother, a daughter and a spouse. It was writers like Rich and a dozen others who began the process of opening up the world to me. They helped to awaken in me the hope of who I could be in such a world.
I did not have to be ashamed of being a young mom trying to make ends meet anymore. Because now I knew there had been an endless procession of women before me and there are an endless procession of women beside me who are just the same as me. They too are working, mothering, and loving. And always surviving.
Years before all this I had told a very wise woman that I didn't like women and much preferred the friendship of men. She said something to me that has always stuck: "You don't hate other women. You hate yourself and because you hate yourself, you hate every reflection of yourself in others."
She said this when I was 22 years old and I was unable to fully grasp what she meant. But I now understand because of the time I've invested in studying the lives of women.
The more I've learned about women who are scholars, mothers, poets, and survivors the more I began to love women. And the more I loved women, the prouder and more loving I became of myself.
Onward and Upward
Completing a university degree was a huge accomplishment for me. But studying the scholarship of feminism created a revolution within my soul.
My academic journey ignited a personal journey, and I have been transformed.
I've been frankly discussing things with my daughter about what it means to be female in this world – both the ups and the downs of it.
But most emphatically, I have been able to instill in her an insistence that she comes from a rich history of trailblazers, pioneers, caregivers, artists, and revolutionaries. All who are women, incredibly strong women.
- By Melissa Molloy