This is the story of how I became a raging feminist before I was an hour old, how I lived with it for years (without knowing the source), and how I came to know it 55 years later.
I offer this personal story not because it’s especially dramatic (it’s not) or as a role model (I’m not), but because it represents two of the larger life truths that many of us are rediscovering and reaffirming in 2021: (a) as individual humans, we are both remarkably similar and extraordinarily different, and (b) the human species seems to be at an exciting and painful crossroads of consciousness.
Additionally, it’s clear that the local informal networks that regularly supported women in our daily lives have all but disappeared. Information and practical wisdom that we used to get in person, grounded in local realities, has been replaced by cloud-based corporate media products. To be sure, second wave and third wave feminists were already dealing with eviscerated women’s networking. But reading about birthing and early childhood in 2021, it seems as if so much more has been lost.
If nothing else, I hope this is a useful documentation of an era, possibly containing information that may be meaningful — especially for women — once we’re able to start restoring the earth and building a better world.
B. MY BIRTH, 1951
C. SPIRITUAL STORY OF MY BIRTH: Parts 1 & 2
D. LIVING IN MY FEMALE BODY: Teens and 20s
E. THE LAST 40 YEARS: How did I end up?
F. REFLECTIONS: Unexpected Allies
H. INSPIRATIONS for the Moment
I recently saw an article posted on 4W, one of the many new online news sites committed to sharing women’s stories and women’s truths, especially how gender identity ideology is negatively impacting women’s lives, women’s bodies, and women’s rights. I believe “4W” stands for fourth wave feminism.
The article I saw was titled: “Trans Toddler? Mother says her child ‘came out’ at 2 years old”. My immediate reaction was to some revulsion that a mother would be talking about this publicly. Irrespective of the actual label, it seems to me a kind of social pathology for a parent to pigeonhole a 2-year old in any kind of category, especially when done for public consumption during the child’s growth years. I would venture to guess that this mother did not have the support networks that I benefited from when I was a young mother in the early 1980s, most notably a drop-in center for parents and young children.
Family Focus in Evanston, IL was in the forefront of a national movement in white middle class communities to fill in the gaps created by an upwardly mobile nation, moving young people and young families away from extended families and moving young mothers into the workplace. In the early 1980s, the heyday of Family Focus funding and participation, the center provided a place where busy parents could bring their children, feel supported, and create community. The most important structure of the center for most families was a separate playroom for children and a separate parents’ room where parents could be alone or participate in the informal conversations that arose.
It was the parents’ room in which I imagined myself listening to the mother talking about her “trans” 2-year old. Conversationally, without judgment, but possibly providing some alternative perspective and information, I would have offered a short version of my story: “Before I was an hour old, I was a raging feminist.”
Of course, this is just a dream because in the 1980s, when I would have been a peer to the Trans Toddler’s mother, I did not know the full story of my birth and its impact on my female self. I did not fully know it until I was 55. But since I’m writing this at the age of 70 and it is a dream, if Trans Toddler’s mother wanted to know the details, this is what I would have told her.
B. MY BIRTH, 1951
Seventy years ago I was born, a feminist before I was an hour old. My parents wanted a boy. They already had one girl and my grandfather had recently died while I was in utero. I would be the first grandchild to be born after his death and, per Jewish custom, I was named after him. Had I been a boy, my name would have been David. Instead, my parents chose another common Jewish name beginning with D. But my parents were so disappointed in my sex that I wasn’t even given the courtesy of the formal version — Deborah. “Debbie” is the name on my birth certificate.
To give some credit to my parents, who went on to have two more girl-children (no boys), they never articulated overt disdain for us four girls or wishful thinking about boys. Likewise, they never overtly prescribed a life path for us as females or prevented us from following our paths.
In hindsight, this was both good and bad. By never articulating the specifics of female oppression in post-war U.S., my parents left me both free and temporarily stunted. I was free to identify and name the issues according to my own light. But it took me a long time to find some handholds. Once I found some handholds, it took me even longer to find the footholds that would allow me to emerge from the decades-long fog that was both the post-war “gaslit nation” (thanks, Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa) and my own lived experience.
What I might have shared with the mother of “trans toddler” while sitting in the Family Focus parents room are some personal awarenesses that I’ve had along the way and how I’ve been able to remember and reconstruct my own story so that it makes sense to me.
C. SPIRITUAL STORY OF MY BIRTH
At the moment of my birth, I was spiritually wounded by (a) my parents’ huge disappointment that I was not a boy and (b) not being welcomed into the world (because of their disappointment). I did not actually know this for a fact although for my entire childhood I knew something was wrong. My childhood was an unremitting power struggle with my parents (especially my stay-at-home mother), a situation not shared by my sisters.
I learned the source of my power struggles and chronic searching when I reached 55 years of age (a somewhat belated mid-life crisis perhaps) and had a vision:
I was sitting in my living room soul-searching, asking myself “Is this all there is?” Sitting very still, searching my inner self, in my mind’s eye I saw a big amorphous mass hanging in the air in front of me. I reached into the mass and immediately had a vision (again, in my mind’s eye): At the moment of my birth, my parents looked down at my genitals. Seeing that I was not a boy, standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, they stiffened and agreed that they could not love me or welcome me.
I believe this was a spiritual snapshot of my parents at the moment, not a physical one. It being 1951, I doubt if my father was even in the “delivery” room. They may not have voiced their disappointment or even thought their disappointment. But spiritually, that was what happened, and my infant spirit felt it. The birth of a raging feminist.
Having that vision and visceral sense explained a whole lot of my life up until that point, especially why I, the only one of four sisters, was such an overt, active feminist.
That might have been the end of the spiritual foundations of my early days, weeks, and months, except for another thing that I learned a year or two later, from my Aunt Lyn, my father’s sister. From the very beginning of their married lives, the two families lived near each other and were entwined in each other’s lives. My father and uncle were business partners for a while and my mother and aunt became very close as young mothers will do. For the most part, the family closeness has been maintained ever since. (It was my aunt’s second child, a second son born two years after me, who was named David after my grandfather.)
During a visit in my 50s, my aunt happened to mention that when I was a baby I cried when people picked me up. I had never known this before. Of course, this must have been difficult for the adults around me, as well as being counter-intuitive. Normally babies cry in order to be picked up and to receive some kind of satisfaction — feeding, diaper change, cuddling. But, no, I seemed to be rejecting attention. Why would I do that—when I so definitely wanted it (like all babies do)?
When my aunt told me, already armed with the knowledge of my parents’ rejection of me at my birth, I immediately knew why I was crying. I was crying to express my outrage at having been so wounded and unwelcomed at my birth. I wanted redress. I wanted an acknowledgment. I wanted to be heard. I wanted an apology. Thus my childhood was framed by a double insult: rejection of me as female and not being understood (or possibly even acknowledged) when I cried. (It’s worth pointing out that my 1950s mother was a Dr. Spock adherent in terms of letting babies cry themselves to sleep, etc.)
Of course my parents had no clue as to what was going on. The moment of their disappointment was already long in the past and they were getting on the best they could, young parents of two children, second generation immigrants, Jewish, post-World War II. What was wrong with their second child?
On the other hand, my childhood was underscored by an abiding disappointment that I did not understand and could not name, but that was ever-present in every waking moment. Something definitely was wrong.
D. LIVING IN MY FEMALE BODY: Teens and 20s
So, was I trans? Did I hate being female? Did I want to be male? No, no, and no. The thought of bleeding monthly was annoying, but once my period started I ignored it. I dealt with it mechanically. I don’t remember my first period, but month after month I seemed to be very regular. It started around 13, my period would last 2-3 days, and I never had cramps. My older sister had terrible cramps, sometimes making her bedridden. But I have enjoyed general good health my entire life, including having an active body.
The closest I ever came to changing my body or wishing my body different was when I read that Elizabeth Taylor, the iconic actress (especially for dark-haired girls), had had a hysterectomy. According to Wikipedia, this was in 1967 or 1968, when I was a junior or senior in high school. I remember reading the news in Life or Time magazine and feeling that the idea of having a hysterectomy was like a safety valve. It was there if I needed it. But, in fact, any discomfort I had at being female was mostly in my head and I already knew it was a political, civil rights issue. It wasn’t my problem that I was female. It was the world’s problem. I never again thought about having a hysterectomy.
Plus, I have always had an extreme sensitivity, an aversion to bodily interference of any kind, including surgery, piercings, tattoos, make-up, jewelry, fashion, etc. When I started to need eyeglasses in high school, my mother suggested going straight to contact lenses since she assumed that I would prefer the vanity look rather than glasses. I initially agreed, but after two years of blinking and tearing my way through high school, I said to hell with it. Soft lenses had not yet been invented. Anyways I really didn’t like sticking things in my eyes every day.
Much later, reading books like Judy Grahn’s Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, about taboos and human propensity for bodily decoration (pre-language ?), etc., I never really related to that aspect of being human. I wanted to be free to move, active, undistracted by stuff or how I looked. I didn’t understand why other people didn’t feel the samebut I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve saved a lot of money (and time) living my fashionless way.
In my early 20s I did go through a 2-3 year period of extreme fasting, diet, and health regimens. But it was more to discover truth, equilibrium, and inner joy than outer beauty and acceptance.
E. THE LAST 40 YEARS: How did I end up?
In retrospect, nine things have kept me relatively sane, grounded, and healthy through the age of 70:
a. Having a child at the age of 27 threw me into life and suddenly eliminated the activity of choice for choice’s sake. Breastfeeding alone was validating (and one of the most pleasurable feelings my body’s ever felt). Finding Family Focus when my daughter was 1 year old has provided me with lifelong friends, a lifelong network in my hometown, and, in fact, my first meaningful political action (with my daughter on my lap): a visit to City Council to seek funding for the center.
b. My abiding love and respect for nature and nature’s designs, including our bodies, prevented me from even considering destructive activities.
c. Twenty-five years as a professional gardener, artist, and woodworker kept me from going off the deep end in my head.
d. Living in a community near Lake Michigan filled with trees, beaches, and parks has kept me in touch with nature and bodily activities (swimming, bicycling, walking, breathing).
e. All the friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers who are providing some sense of community worldwide in support of women’s wisdom and #WomensPublicAuthority, esp:
— Indigenous scholars who are sharing details of their matrifocal governance
— Women—feminists and others—who have documented and are documenting their truths, experiences, and activism in books, articles, podcasts, and social media
— Men who are recognizing the need for women’s leadership on issues such as climate, money, democracy, justice, etc.
f. Actively participating in the dismantling and composting of our disfunctional institutions, while drafting blueprints and materials lists for the new. My most salient statements and project priorities are described on my Real Democracy webpage, starting with a working definition.
g. Curiosity about everything and learning how to learn, learning how to discard old, disfunctional things for better versions. This applies to ideas, practices (habits), relationships, etc.
h. Learning how to engage and listen to spiritual messages, spiritual technologies, especially the independent actions of our two spirits and the interaction between them.
Note: I subscribe to the understanding that ALL humans have two souls — an earthly soul and a divine one. Some references are:
— Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath: The Twinned Cosmos of Indigenous America, by Prof. Barbara Alice Mann
— The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun, by Martin Prechtel (a retelling of a Mayan story)
— Judaism (e.g., Rabbi Manis Friedman YouTubes)
F. REFLECTIONS: Unexpected Allies
It’s not uncommon for a second child to become the family scapegoat, and so I became (and remain to this day, even though my parents are long gone). I’m even the scapegoat with my adult daughter and my sisters (one older, two younger), even though my older sister once told me that she couldn’t understand why my mother was so hard on me.
The knowledge that I did not deserve the treatment I received growing up is still comforting to me now, at the age of 70, an indication that the wound is still there. Along the way, two other adults have corroborated this opinion. One was a psychologist to whom my parents had sent me in my high school years and who I contacted in my 20s to get my medical files. Curiously, he remembered who I was (describing himself as having a photographic memory). He also expressed wonder about why my mother was so hard on me. Unfortunately, he was a very patriarchal looking man despite his friendly but professional manner. I am sure that I never told him any of my deepest feelings or thoughts, especially about being female.
More recently, I came across a corroboration from another family member, my Aunt Louise, the wife of my mother’s younger brother. In 2006, my sisters and I had visited them in Santa Barbara. This was part of my thank you note to Louise:
I very much appreciated your sharing of your early acquaintance with my mother, especially regarding her treatment of me. I am sure had she known the damage she was doing, she would not have acted that way. But it’s now become very clear to me how those hidden aspects of our parents still affect the children so much. And I think the 1950s especially was a time of active disinterest in introspection; conformity and smoothing things over was so important to that post-war generation of parents. I see very clearly how my mother was a product of her times.
I don’t actually remember what my Aunt Louise told me in 2006, but just this corroboration of my innocence still seems alive and healing. Even though still wounded at age 70, I believe I’m on the right track.
I’m hoping that young women discover some of the riches and tools for healing that I searched for and stumbled across, without thinking they’re in the wrong body. Likewise I hope that men who reject patriarchal masculinity can find truth and healing in their own male bodies. FYI to women and men, a sexual orientation that is not yet recognized as such is “solo practitioner”.
How would my imaginary conversation with Trans Toddler’s mother conclude? Not being much of a fiction writer, I can’t really say. If it were really taking place at Family Focus, in the drop-in center’s parents room, most likely we would have been interrupted halfway through by one of our kids needing to go to the washroom.
But, to wrap this blog up with a bow, my current conclusion is that both transgender and feminism are unsatisfactory words for events that are happening in humanity right now, in 2021. I agree with those who say that transgender or changing one’s sex is nonsense, a biological stupidity. But the fact that so many people are attracted to the word or the idea seems to be tapping into some deep cultural and evolutionary events that we would do well to pay attention to.
On the other hand, feminism has never been an accurate or complete expression for this existential era, except perhaps as a name for one aspect of the current women’s movement: “To end,” as the late bell hooks said, “sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Even my own definition of feminism — “the act of remembering that no humans exist or thrive without the wisdom, agency, and authority of women — as indigenous individuals, as an intergenerational culture (women-to-women), and as the center of a wild species living on this Earth” — doesn’t begin to describe the suffering and destruction that humanity has endured without the Mother or the nurturing that women would provide if society was organized by and around women’s public authority.
Luckily the ethernet is filling with more and more women who are thinking, writing, and speaking, encouraging all the spirits who live in girl bodies to be our female selves and give voice to our female wisdom. May our political economies evolve so that more and more women are once again sharing some of that wisdom in informal local networks, on a daily basis.
H. INSPIRATIONS for the Moment
The last two are not only for the moment, but from the moment — a new Girl God post and a new Shaman’s Cave episode.
1. Family Focus
Family Focus Evanston — Our Place
I am happy to say that not only is Family Focus still in existence, but soon after it was founded (for white middle class mothers), it expanded to a center for Black teen mothers. It also started expanding into the greater Chicago area, serving Latino and other communities, and diversifying its services. Today in 2021 there are eleven centers in Chicago and surrounding communities.
2. Paula Gunn Allen“Where I Come from is Like This” (1986)
in Face to Face; Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening
edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson
“Through all the centuries of war and death and cultural and psychic destruction have endured the women who raise the children and tend the fires, who pass long the tales and the traditions, who weep and bury the dead, who are the dead, and who never forget. There are always the women, who make pots and weave baskets, who fashion clothes and cheer their children on at powwow, who make fry bread and piki bread, and corn soup and chili stew, who dance and sing and remember and hold within their hearts the dream of their ancient peoples–that one day the woman who thinks will speak to us again, and everywhere there will be peace. Meanwhile we tell the stories and write the books and trade tales of anger and woe and stories of fun and scandal and laugh over all manner of things that happen every day. We watch and we wait.”
3. Milli Hill, interviewed by Meghan Murphy
Positive birth, why birth is a feminist issue
Feminist Current podcast, Nov. 30, 2021
Podcast notes: Milli Hill is a freelance journalist and author The Positive Birth Book, Give Birth like a Feminist, and a new book for preteens, My Period. She founded the Positive Birth Movement in 2012 and ran it until recently, when she was “cancelled” for defending woman-centered language when talking about pregnancy and birth.
4. Mercedes Kirkel, spiritual teacher
Excerpt from Dialogues with Yeshua and Mary Magdalene (2021)
When parents see their own child being born, they often have an overwhelming feeling of love. That’s the Feminine. That’s feeling the divine in manifestation, incarnation. The love most parents have for their child, even throughout the child’s life, is the pure expression of the Feminine divine.
5. Alice Roosevelt Longworth: advice for life
(may be slightly paraphrased)
“Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches.”
6. Celebrate the Birth of the Divine Girl Child
Girl God Books, Dec. 22, 2021
7. When we Attach to Predictions we might Miss Opportunities
Why we should stay in the present
Shaman’s Cave, Dec. 22, 2021
Renee Baribeau and Sandra Ingerman