Chipped and cracked, I still have in my possession my childhood mug that reads, “A Woman’s Place is in the House…Senate and Supreme Court.” That statement, at such a young age, made an indelible mark on my sense of self and my view of the world around me. It seems as if I’ve spent my whole life defining and honoring my own personal interpretation of feminism.
What I have determined is that my feminism is not defined by the fact that I went to Douglass College, or by my personal perspectives on family or politics. Nor is it defined by the fact that I have spent the majority of my career working to advance the social justice issues influencing the everyday lives of women. My feminism is rooted in the inclusive philosophical considerations of “humanism,” which speaks to the self-determination and advancement of all peoples. It is the breadth with which humanism affirms the dignity of all peoples that most accurately aligns with my view of the feminist movement as being a part of the larger social justice framework.
Defining feminism in this context underscores the need for individuals and organizations to work together to overcome all oppressive norms. In order to effect sustainable change, advocates must be sensitive to the delicate ways in which gender is influenced by race, ethnicity, spirituality, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, educational attainment and age. To not evaluate gender-specific oppression in this larger context is to deny the rich and complex realities that shape the lives and identities of women. To address one of these influencers, as if it exists in its own isolated silo, is to disregard the way in which various forms of oppression intersect and overlap.
It is in this intersection that my feminism resides, and if by chance my commitment to feminism should ever start to waver or a sense of false confidence regarding the status of women should try to emerge, I need only think of my work with Women Aware, the comprehensive domestic violence agency serving Middlesex County, New Jersey. It is the reality of my work that prevents me from falling into a place of complacency.
Each year, we provide free and confidential services to thousands of women and children moving beyond abuse – families who have been economically oppressed, emotionally tormented, physically and sexually assaulted, and psychologically demoralized. During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, approximately 250 women will call our hotline, 15 women will escape violence by seeking refuge in our Safe House, and 50 women will seek the justices afforded them by law through our Legal Advocacy services. And we are just one organization, working within one county, in one state.
As a domestic violence service provider, I spend 365 days a year entrenched in the feminist movement and every day I am inspired by the strength and resiliency of women – women who are not defined by their past, but driven by their dreams of the future.
And so…I have my own dream for the future – one in which all people are able to live lives free of the fear of abuse and the oppression of institutionalized privilege. We can start with 16 Days, but it’s not enough time to right the wrongs of generations’ worth of gender-based oppression. Sixteen days is not enough time to heal the wounds caused by violence. But, if for 16 Days we can focus on our collective strength as women, we can shift the tides of change. Because the stakes are too high for us to allow ourselves to succumb to apathy. Because our foremothers have paved the way for us to be forces for change, so that our daughters and sons may live in a more just society. Because we are strong. Because we are humanists. Because we are feminists.
by Patricia Teffenhart
Patricia Teffenhart is the Assistant Executive Director for Women Aware, the state-designated domestic violence organization serving Middlesex County, New Jersey. She also is serving her second term as elected Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees for the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and is also a member of the Board’s Governance Committee.