Welcome to International Women’s Day, when thousands of women across the globe will mark 100 years of women’s movement by crossing bridges.  But first, a disclaimer. I’m a reluctant feminist. I was socialized in an environment of machismo and taught not to speak louder than the boys. That would have been “unladylike.”  Instead, I was supposed to find more “refined” ways to “assert” myself, without asserting myself because outsmarting the boys – God forbid (sign of the cross) – might hurt their egos.

At the same time, my parents invested a small fortune making sure I had all the advantages they could provide, so I could eventually have my cake and eat it too. Years later, I laugh at these contradictions. Sometimes I find myself wondering what’s so great about working outside the home if no one picks up the slack at home when I’m at work.  (With time, I stopped caring whether it gets picked up at all.) When I worked full time, I still had to come home (tired) to cook. I still did all the baby laundry. I still got up at 3 a.m. to feed the baby. Then, at 8 a.m. I was somehow ready for another glorious day of meetings at the office.

These days, I work an extremely flexible schedule of freelance work and mothering work. By extremely flexible I mean I get up at 5 a.m. to do yoga (or else I can’t do all that follows), feed the animals, walk the dog, get myself ready, get the child ready, feed the child, take the child to school, get myself to either a place of work to conduct an interview, or my computer to write an article. In between, I come back home to walk the dog, do laundry, buy groceries, check my e-mail for new assignments, negotiate revisions to an article with a medical professional, race to school to pick up child, take child to extracurricular activities, help child do Sunshine Math homework, cook dinner, do dishes if husband is working late, feed animals, walk the dog, steal a few minutes to write a blog, figure out tomorrow’s schedule, put child to bed, put animals to bed (this includes husband), maybe read a book, go to sleep.  Because, you see, working non-stop from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. is what female equality is all about, right? What’s that? Ah, sí ya sé, gender equality doesn’t always translate into gender cooperation, or even self-empowerment (I empower myself to work like a mule?). Seems many women are realizing that while we’ve elevated our standard of living in the last 100 years (mostly by doing more), we haven’t achieved the quality of life our mothers hoped, and worked, for.

The more I read about feminism, the more I think we women have taken only baby steps. At this point in time, this might be partly our own fault. Like I said, I had not been interested in feminism in the past – I thought it always went without saying. I actually know some men who are more feminist than I am, at least in theory. And I’m only partially aware of how subtle social conditioning (and overt machismo, in my case) can keep a woman down. Many feminists think that women have merely achieved a masculine version of power that is ill-suited to the possibilities of the feminine. I’m still trying to figure out these possibilities. Or what, in the divine feminine universe, are they talking about…?

I cracked open the door when I discovered Henriette Faber, the 19th century crossdressing female doctor.  Then I started to find other women in history who went through similar crossdressing charades just to step into male-dominated spaces. I observed that they took control as opposed to waiting for anyone to give it to them. They claimed their territory for themselves, even as they were called squatters. There’s Loretta Janetta, the confederate soldier. There’s Jeanne Baret, the 18th century botanist/herb woman who circumnavigated the globe. There are pirates Mary
and Bonnie, 18th century Thelma and Louise of the high seas. And those are only a few of the ones who have been documented so far. There are countless women, especially women of color whose stories are lost from records, but who helped shape our postmodern world. Real women, not fictional characters.  In the coming weeks, I’ll share what I have learned from each of them. I’ll do this as I finish writing a paper that I will present at a conference in Boca Raton, Fla., in April. It’s for an organization called MELUS (Multi Ethnic Literature of the United States). Not surprisingly, many women who broke through gender stereotypes simultaneously broke through ethnic and class stereotypes. Will this make me a feminist by the time I finish writing? Are such labels important? Will we ever finish writing ourselves into (his)story?  When will it be (her)story?  If we make the rules, why can’t we change them? Why can’t we change the whole landscape? Just some questions I ask as I cross the bridge.

For another point of view, read about today’s feminine power movement, and how some think empowering women (or women who empower themselves) is about more than feminism — it’s part of evolution.

Read about Henriette Faber, the French/Cuban woman doctor who served in Napoleon’s army.  En español.

Read about women farmers in Puerto Rico.