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« Contempt | Main | Diversity of Thought Within the Civil Rights Movement »

Becoming a Feminist

By Diane Wahto
February 22, 2013

Recently, I was interviewed by a young journalist, Katherine Joyce, who writes for Religion Dispatches, a liberal religious blog. She was interested in hearing from some of us in the pro-choice movement, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s in Wichita, Kansas. As anyone who knows anything about that era, Wichita was the center of protests by Operation Rescue, then under the leadership of Randall Terry.

A lot of water has gone under, over, and around the bridge since those days of counter-demonstrating and clinic support that my pro-choice friends and I took part in. After Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church by Scott Roeder, Troy Newman, who taken the Operation Rescue name for his anti-choice group, turned his attention to Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Missouri, hoping to continue to fatten his bank account, something that he had been able to do in the past by using Dr. Tiller as the big, bad, bogeyman of abortion. Now that Julie Burkhart, Dr. Tiller’s former spokesperson, is now opening a clinic, we in Wichita once again face the prospect of antis harassing and threatening abortion providers and anyone connected with the clinic. The Kansas State Legislature is already hard at work on bills that if passed will target abortion providers and make abortion access difficult for women.

I’m no longer actively involved in the pro-choice movement. However,I still support Planned Parenthood, Trust Women, the Peggy Bowman Second Chance Fund, and other abortion rights groups with small donations and in other ways when I can. I also support the young women, and men, who now have taken over leadership of the movement.

During Katherine Joyce’s interview, she asked me how I became a feminist. My mind went blank at the question, as it’s not a question I’ve thought about for some time. The most vivid memory I had at that moment was of a night in 1971 in Port Huron, Michigan. I lived there with my husband, a community college librarian, and three children. One night, Ti-Grace Atkinson came to the community college to speak. My husband and I went to hear her. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember being excited at her words.

After the speech, at her invitation, some of us gathered in her motel room to talk. She asked us what we wanted to do with our lives. One woman, a friend, said she wanted to be a sculptor. I said I wanted to be a poet. I don’t remember what the other women said, but I do remember when I got home, still feeling excited over the chance to finally to say out loud what my dreams were, my husband was angry that I’d stayed out so late and he became physically abusive.

I related that story to Joyce, but after our interview, when I had a chance to think about her question, I thought back to the winter in 1963, when my third son was a baby. As I rocked him, I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Women across the country were reading that book then, in fact, and it wasn’t too long after that the Second Wave of the feminist movement took hold.

My situation was somewhat different than the typical suburban women Friedan addressed in the book. I had never lived the suburban life—my husband, my three children, and I lived in a rented farmhouse at the time. I had one year of college under my belt and I knew I wanted to go back and get a degree, something I did later. I had plans that included being in a profession of some kind. I was already on my way to educating myself, reading books and magazines that led me to know the direction I wanted go in. I wasn’t one of those unhappy, bored housewives. I didn’t like housework, but I did it because it was necessary. I did enjoy my kids and found them fascinating as they went through different stages growing from babies to toddlers to schoolchildren. I was married, a state I found natural, even though I didn’t like my husband very much quite a bit of the time. Despite that, I learned quite a bit from being with him because he was a reader and he introduced me to authors, books, and ideas that were having an impact on movements around the world at the time.

However, reading The Feminine Mystique solidified something I had known from the time I was a child—I wanted to do something important with my life. When I look back on my childhood, I realize my greatest influence was my mother, Lois Pearl Sansocie Daniels. My mother, who died several years ago, came of age during the Great Depression. She was one of eight children. Her dad worked in the lead mines in southeastern Kansas, before the depression hit. She was offered a small scholarship to a Christian college several hours away from her home, but her family couldn’t afford for her to attend. She went to work as a nanny and housekeeper for a rich family in town until she married my father.

She gave birth to three children, my two brothers and me, the oldest. She once told me that after my second brother was born, she wanted a tubal ligation. My dad agreed with her decision, but her doctor was reluctant to do the procedure. The doctor asked her what she would do if something happened to the three of us. She told him that we couldn’t be replaced by “new” children. So she got her tubal ligation and ended her childbearing.

My mother was good at math. When we were old enough, she went to business college and got a job as a bookkeeper at the local power company. As she got older, she started a tax preparing business, something she did until she got too sick from Alzheimer’s to continue.

Outspoken, often at inopportune times, she chewed out store clerks when they made a mistake on her bill and she often said things to people in our church that were inappropriate. She never seemed to have close women friends, that is, women she could confide in. But she and I were close. We often sat in the front yard of our house or on the side porch in the summer talking.

I don’t know what I would have done without her help when my kids were little. She and my dad were there for me when I finally left my first husband. The kids and I lived with them for several months, sharing the work and getting settled into a new life.

My mother supported me in everything I did. She was an excellent cook, she kept a house that gleamed, she took good care of the three of us, but she had a streak of independence that came out in her anger against those who would interfere with the private decisions of others. When the same anti-choice harassers who had caused no end of grief in Wichita went to Neosho, Missouri, to picket the nursing home where a young woman was being taken off life support, at her parents’ request, my mother was livid.

“Why can’t those people leave that family in peace?” she asked as she watched the TV coverage of the picketers.

It was shortly after that she and my dad, life-long Republicans, changed their political affiliation and voted for Bill Clinton for president.

When I think about my journey to feminism, I realize I was probably born a feminist. As was the case with many women of my generation, the feminist movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s came along just at the right time for us.

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