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I credit Fred Astaire with starting me on the path to feminism. When I was growing up, my mom and I would go every week to the library (and later, to three different libraries, one being insufficient for our demanding multimedia requirements), returning home with crates of audiobooks and VHS movies. We rarely failed to consume all of them by their due dates.
Between housework, which my mother probably delegated to me much more judiciously than I remember, and improvements to our neverending string of fixer-upper homes, there was always some kind of mindless work to be done in my family, and we filled the mental space with books on tape. In the alternate universe created by the myopia of memory, my audiobook selections fell neatly into four categories: Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.G. Wodehouse, and everything else. Movies were even simpler, with only two categories left after “everything else”: WWII films, and 1930s musicals.
My mother has never once actually sat down and watched a movie all the way through. Nearly every film she has ever seen has been viewed from behind an ironing board, the volume of laundry for a three-person household somehow dictating that the ironing would never actually finish. I can only assume that families in the 80s and 90s who had more than one child hired out their laundry so the homemaker of the family could occasionally eat a hasty meal standing over the sink. In any case, since you can’t keep both eyes on the TV while ironing without burning holes in your clothes, Mom needed movies familiar enough to be intelligible from sound only, and her go-to sub-genre was the RKO Astaire-Rogers musical.
In case you’ve never had the pleasure… um, spoilers? Every single one of these films involves a meet-cute between Astaire and Rogers, followed by some kind of falling out, the singing and dancing of many songs and dances, farcical but witty comedy, and an eventual reconciliation. In other words, romantic comedies.
We homeschooled, which meant that I spent lots of one-on-one time with Mom, who taught me everything except math. (My dad is the math brain of the family.) Most days we stayed home, but frequently we rode a circuit of thrift shops and grocery stores that took all day to complete. (Despite never having a “job” while I lived at home, Mom stayed busy by stretching every dollar we had to within an ace of shredding, and she accomplished this by never buying new clothes if at all possible, obsessively coupon-clipping and price-comparing food, and canning or freezing massive quantities of fruit and vegetables that filled every one of our successive garages and basements. When I tell you that, combined with my father’s supernatural ability to never buy anything at all, Mom’s thriftiness has enabled my parents to pay off three different mortgages over the course of their marriage, you might be able to imagine what I’m talking about and why “homemaker isn’t a real job” will never make sense to me.)
Those shopping trips form my strongest memory of middle school education. I remember sitting in the front seat of our big conversion van, getting a stiff neck from slouching over my books while Mom was inside the Half Price Books store planning the next phase of my education, better than I remember actually studying at home. And as soon as I think about studying in the car, I remember talking in the car, because having your teacher right next to you while you read is the best thing about being homeschooled. My mother’s model for education, especially once I hit the middle-school years, was to assign me a bunch of reading on a topic, then make me discuss it with her until she was satisfied I knew what I was talking about. And because neither of us is very good at staying linear, those discussions branched out in every direction imaginable.
My family was pretty conservative—in case you didn’t get that from the homeschooling and strict diet of black-and-white movies—and we attended an evangelical church in the Anabaptist tradition whose model for the family I have referred to elsewhere as “semi-benevolent” patriarchy. While I was living at home, my mother always stuck to the party line on things like wifely submission in marriage, traditional gender roles, and a woman’s place in the church. As I neared graduation, though, cracks began to show—subtle, self-corrected off-message rants and sentences that started with “I know the Bible says X, but….” Despite being (I think) generally happy in other ways, Mom was no longer satisfied with what the church was telling her about herself, and as accustomed as she’d become to dialoging with me about everything else, she couldn’t keep that conflict contained all the time. I left high school with several seeds of doubt about the Christian teaching on gender taking root in my mind.
I won’t detail the myriad steps that brought me to the place where I believed in egalitarian marriage and equality for women in the church. They happened in my college and post-college years—that glorious time when you re-think everything you believe and come to believe you know everything—and early in my marriage. I don’t even remember most of them, inconsequential as each incremental change seemed in its time. I’m sure working for three years on the staff of my local church contributed in some way, but apart from the realization that evangelicals treat their unmarried like second-class citizens, I don’t know how.
I do know that I fetched up in Indiana, where I went to college, back from a two-year residence in Los Angeles, where my wife did. Some years earlier I’d decided to be a screenwriter and film director, so I spent those two years working in the entertainment production business and writing a series of screenplays that no one wanted to buy. Despite assuming at the outset that I would write supernatural or fantastical thrillers (the genre of movie I most enjoy), nearly every idea I had somehow turned into a romantic comedy, so I decided to embrace my identity and not only write another rom-com but also produce it myself. It starred a high-school girl—with a single mom—who solved a murder using her photography skills.
I’d recently realized that writing strong female characters fascinated me, a fact that took the writing time of eight rom-com scripts to sink in. Since I was about to go into pre-production on the movie, though, I knew it would be a while before I wrote another screenplay. I decided to make the most of that time by teaching myself as much about women’s issues as my old pal Half Price Books would allow. I remember thinking, “I’m going to be the romantic comedy screenwriter who knows all about women’s issues!” Armed with absolutely zero research to guide me, I bought two books: The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, and Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf. I read them both within two weeks.
And suddenly, I was a feminist.
That was almost two years ago. I’m still very early in my feminist education, but I feel like growing up the only child of a homeschooling mom who didn’t recognize the concept of subjects being taboo to children (and also liked Astaire-Rogers musicals) has given me a bit of a boost—as backward as putting “30s musicals”, “homeschooling”, “evangelical church”, and “feminism” together may sound to many feminists. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a wife, a number of close friends and family, and a church who don’t think those things sound strange at all. Even more fortunately, while many non-religious feminists behave skeptically or contemptuously toward people of faith—particularly those from traditionally partriarchal religions—I know that the God I worship feels nothing but compassion for honest questions and loves to elevate the marginalized, be they slaves, the disabled, Gentiles, or—more recently—women.