It just occurred to me that one of the odder anecdotes about my life that I don’t think I’ve commonly recounted is that when I was a “troubled teen” with self-harming issues I was, out of the blue, given the opportunity to go to feminist girl camp (for girls 13-17, I think).
It was a couple of days with a bunch of other teenaged girls at a local camp with only a few women mentors. There was a self-defense workshop; the specific methods I remember learning there are actually clearer in my mind than the ones I learned in four years of karate training. There were all sorts of workshops on topics related to self esteem, self confidence, overcoming eating disorders, depression, suicide. There were job and career counselling sessions.
There was some kind of workshop for coming up with a message or greeting to send to the upcoming 4th World Conference of Women, and encouragement was huge to find some way to attend the conference in person – recommendations on finding sponsorship in your community, and so on. It was absolutely assumed that wonderful things would come out of that conference and that it was a given that anyone would want to be there.
There were movies in the evening, a choice of Fried Green Tomatoes and Joy Luck Club, and just lots of sitting around chatting with other girls in a context where our experiences as people were important, were valued, where we were assumed to have interesting thoughts ourselves, where we weren’t assumed to have value based only on what we brought to the table in performed femininity.
All of the girls wandered around in what seemed to be the uniform for the event – loose flannel or cotton knit pyjama pants and loose t-shirts – I can’t remember if this was a recommended ensemble, but I think it was. It gave a pyjama party feeling to the whole thing. There was very little supervision, but there was this strangely earnest quality to the whole event. This was a refreshing break from our day to day lives, and I had the feeling that we, in general, knew how precious that was.
If this sounds a little bit too good to be true, I assure you it felt that way at the time. I wandered through the event shy but strangely outgoing at the same time. I was comfortable in the uniform, comfortable with the company, intrigued by the messaging. Surrounded by young women like myself I felt very free – it was a huge relief from the sexual bullying I was experiencing in school at that time.
And I won’t say that this one weekend changed my life profoundly. How could it, when I had to leave this and go back to my same old life, called a dyke by people who clearly thought that was an insult, threatened with sexually explicit violence in notes taped to my back or my locker or slipped into my binder, verbally and physically bullied in the hallways at school, groped by the asshole whose locker was near mine (and who, strangely, is one of the very few of my graduating class who was dead by our ten-year reunion – I’m still processing that one).
But it was a gift. It was a start. It was a moment. And it was important.
And that’s where we get to the two out of approximately 350, because that’s how many teenaged girls in my school got to go to this event that year. And everyone who didn’t go didn’t get told that there was a women’s conference in China, and that they should go, and that if they went they could make a difference in the world, that they were agents of powerful change in their communities. And that’s too bad.