How I found the women: Reflecting on women’s space after Michfest

Michfest 1977 (Image: Facebook/Michigan Womyn's Music Festival/Joan E. Biren)
Michfest 1977 (Image: Facebook/Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival/Joan E. Biren)

When I found the women, my entire world shifted.

It had been a rough decade. Patriarchy had kicked my ass, and I was still dealing with the effects of a very long, controlling, and exploitative relationship. The year I turned 25, I spent a lot of time alone, thinking — sometimes crying — as I felt the intense growing pains of that age. I took stock of the scars I had — some of which I realized would never fade — and tried to imagine how to move on.

Life did go on, whether I was prepared or not. Love struck unexpectedly — I married a man who I thought would be a good father and provider, and we planned a life together. Having felt adrift, I clung to him. That’s the only option we’re told we have, after all: to be with a partner or to be alone.

But marriage seemed to bring only greater isolation. I was an alien in the country in which we lived, waiting for my PR status, and so had to stay home doing all the domestic duties in order to contribute to our household. My raison-d’être became cooking, cleaning, and ironing. “You are a failure as a woman,” my mother-in-law would tell me, when her son’s shoes hadn’t been polished properly, in order to remove salt stains from the Canadian winter. She explained that in her family unit, she had done a much better job of taking care of these things, and I would need to learn, if mine was going to thrive. My life spread out before me as a vision of segregation in the nuclear family. I cherished my relationship with my mother-in-law despite her harsh critiques — she was the only other woman I was close to. I knew she was trying to help me, but I could feel that something more was possible.

I craved intellectual stimulation beyond what was offered by my daily domestic routine, so was driven online. I tried my hand at freelance writing and had a couple articles accepted here and there. Then I thought: I wonder if there are any feminist websites. I found some like Feministing and Everyday Feminism, but the writing was deeply unsatisfying. Eventually I found Feminist Current, where I immediately found Meghan Murphy’s writing packed precisely the punch of challenging patriarchal power that others lacked. From there I was introduced to a global contemporary dialogue of brilliant women’s voices.

When I began to find the women through voracious feminist reading, I started to realize certain things about my life situation. I realized that the individualism of the family unit was a lie. Though I felt isolated in my marriage, I had never really been alone. It was an experience known by so many other women — an institution to which we were subjected on the basis of belonging to the class of female persons. I had always known this truth of shared subjugation on some level.

As a teenager, I asked the question: Where is the feminist movement? It was the mid-aughties and America was supposedly a post-feminist utopia, where men and women had gained equality long ago. The Internet was just starting to really be “a thing,” and the porn culture heralded by this new technology still seemed “edgy.” For a feminist education, I was recommended Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, where I learned that if I wanted to be a feminist, the most important thing I needed to do was figure out how to masturbate and enjoy it very much. Surely, women can’t have it so bad, if this is a primary feminist concern, I thought.

I sought out political involvement and found people who preached the evils of racism, militarism, homophobia, consumerism… but women were always a non-issue. When I was still a teen, I met a smart and charismatic older woman who was one of the few people I knew who spoke of female oppression. She told me that everyone was wrong and patriarchy was actually alive and well. It pervaded every aspect of women’s lives — so much so that it was inescapable, she said, and women’s only hope was to try to each, individually, get ahead. According to her, the idea that we could change the world for the better was a lie: “You can only change what is directly around you by helping the people you love,” she said.

Having fallen so deeply and naively in love, I followed her advice and tried to help her — the person I loved — financially, by achieving success in the individualist capitalist system. I worked day and night and made deals with various devils. My desire to create positive change was channeled into self-flagellation, which, thanks to the infrastructure of this world, was very easy to achieve.

Meanwhile, I was able to dissociate my active mind by retreating into the realm of philosophy. I became enamored with the postmodernists and their tortuous “deconstruction” (and depoliticized politics), as well as classic thinkers such as Hegel: The constant reversals of his dialectic provided an endless labyrinth for me to wander.

When I began to find signs of the women through reading feminist theorists who had been excluded from the canon, I realized success could be measured in ways that extended beyond the financial. Humans recast as “homo economicus” is the central illusion of the neoliberal era, compelling each person to become an “entrepreneur” in all aspects of their life and even to consider themselves a personal “brand.” When I found the women, I realized we were each part of something greater. We were not just consumers and producers, but political subjects that could mobilize along lines of class. We could personally thrive by banding together to fight for the gains of all women.

From the writing of radical thinkers like Lierre Keith, I learned that feminism is not about individuals. It’s not about what you wear or how much you masturbate. It’s not about a politics of purity — achieving some sense of superiority over other women because you don’t wear lipstick or have any children. Most importantly, I learned that feminism is not a matter of “identity.” Your self-identification (however “authentic” you might feel it to be) does nothing to challenge the material systems of power through which females as a class are brutally exploited. Though feminism is more talked about now than it was in the mid-aughties, its popular reduction to the micro-level of “identity” is perhaps more damaging than it lying in obscurity.

When I found the women (in coming to radical consciousness), they appeared as an island in that vast sea of atomized individuals — a politics premised on challenging systems, rather than celebrating personal uniqueness. I longed to plant my feet on its shores, after being tossed around for so long, depending on only myself to keep afloat. I had found various forms of life rafts over the years, but as that island appeared before me, a possibility for substantive political action, I realized I would need to let my raft go, though it meant swimming nakedly towards unknown terrain.

In summer of last year, I cast off what comfort I had in this world. I left my short, failed marriage and my home in Canada with no money and no friends. Beyond a bedrock of family ties, my life before marriage offered only a series of burned bridges.

But I did have something: I had seen glimpses of the women. I had met a few feminists through online channels of communication. I was made brave enough to start over, because I had felt a hint of female solidarity. I suspected that if I were to fall in this life, I was not entirely alone, and I might be caught by some of my sisters. Life was, I’d begun to realize, not just a matter of being with a partner or being alone — together we could decide to support one another.

At this point in time, I heard the call to go home. It was one week before Michfest, and I didn’t have a ticket or know any friends who were attending. But I had a feeling that there were sisters there. The act of gathering on the land together, as women, was, in and of itself, a statement of political solidarity. My heart was still freshly broken, but I knew I needed to charge forward now or fall into despair.

It’s hard to express exactly what happened at Michfest — it was as if being around all those women and feminist energy changed something in my molecular composition. I met many women and feminists, and learned histories erased from the university curriculum. We sang songs together, crowded beneath a flimsy canopy as heavy rain poured down, and I thought to myself: I found it.

Unlike any other oppressed group in history, we are the uniquely dispersed class. In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir explains that women’s capacity for solidarity has been obliterated in both consciousness and the material structure of social reality wherein we are commanded to love our oppressors. And yet we have still risen together, as a class, uniting under the banner of feminism, and, no doubt, in many small, unrecorded revolutions throughout history. Patriarchy reveals its fundamental impotency when it must suppress basic biological facts of females’ commonality, lest we realize our political unity. I realized this profoundly and physically, females pressed all around me as the rain pounded against our tent.

I hope that you, too, find the women. I hope you learn you are not alone in the pain inflicted upon you, which the world calls “normal.” If you’re reading this now, I’m sure you’ve already at least seen glimpses of it. That island is not just a legend from the past. Its basic form is primordial. And it beckons for us to build upon it.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.