Margaret Bearman is the author of We Were Never Friends, a story of friendship, the pursuit of a creative life and the legacies we leave behind.
What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism has profoundly shaped who I am both consciously and in ways I simply don’t know or can’t articulate. Feminism has influenced my body, my career and my relationships. Sometimes, when I am hesitant or struggling with something, particularly self-advancement, I interrogate myself. I sometimes try not to be silent and sometimes try not to speak. I am always seeking a means whereby I can say what I want, give myself as much voice as anyone else (plainly, simply without double-speak), but not fill the space with my desires either.
For me, feminism has been learning to invert your way of thinking: male domination was so accepted for so many years that it was impossible to imagine otherwise – what else is it impossible to imagine? What else am I not seeing?
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?
There are many moments. I remember when I first heard the word. It was a work function at our house for my parents’ colleagues. (This was in the seventies, I’m sure there were smoked oysters on jatz crackers too.) I was in late primary school and a woman asked me: do you know about feminism?
Then everything else beyond that is a series of layered experiences: my dear friend CH who upended my world by being a girl who liked girls; hearing too many stories of friends being abused by family or raped by strangers; being the only woman in a group of 27 doing honours in computer science (and all the privilege, scrutiny and assumptions that went with that).
How do you think feminism has shaped your conceptions of girlhood?
I have a troubled relationship with girlhood: I endured it. I was never particularly good at being a girl. I still feel mortified at my lack of girlish graces on occasion. Girlhood to me, is also about learning the dynamic of power: power between girls as well as the power of being a girl. At a more intellectual level, feminism helped me identify the social constructions of ‘being a girl’. My children played with ‘inverse’ gendered toys when they were very small – until they found themselves in the company of other children. This was not the experience of many friends or acquaintances: I found that many people were telling me that ‘it’s incredible how my little girl just wants to cover dolls with blankets or how my little boy just loves trains. They just do.’ I wonder if I would have noticed anything different if I hadn’t been taking a feminist eye to how my children behaved.
I think my ambivalent, uncomfortable relationship to girlhood continues: I’m still not sure what it means to me.
What role do you think feminism has played in your understanding and examinations of class and family dynamics?
As I’ve gotten older I’ve increasingly understood the power of class. I’m definitely very middle-class: I’m an academic, both my parents have PhDs, on my father’s side both grandparents went to university. I’m acutely aware, through the prism of understanding provided by feminism, that I can never truly understand this privilege or the privilege of being almost white. I recently read an article by a gay black writer from the US, who said that being gay and black had never caused him as much challenge as being working-class. It reinforced my view that class is often forgotten about, brushed over in many conversations.
Where I think family dynamics are interesting, is that they are more informed by gender than they are by class. Dysfunctions – gendered or otherwise – cut across class. But it seems to me that middle-class dysfunction is afforded a different kind of discourse, as if it’s somehow more acceptable.
Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?
Every time someone asks me this question, I feel like I never read enough to give any kind of recommendations…
Old friends that I love (no surprises here): Marguerite Duras, Adrienne Rich.
A newer acquaintance (from work): Karen Barad, whose philosophical works draws from quantum physics and feminist theory.
Actual friends (and relatives): Naomi Replansky, my 101 year old cousin who is a wonderful poet and spokesperson for a century of living; Hoa Pham, whose work slips between all different kinds of worlds.