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Wait, How Exactly Did I Wind Up a Feminist?

Photograph by Twenty20

My mother has never identified herself as a feminist. Perhaps it's because she came of age during a time when popular culture associated feminism with bra-burning man-haters.

For what it's worth, the notion of bra-burning as a pervasive form of feminist protest is itself a myth. Feminists in the 1960s and 1970s were far more concerned with ensuring that women could get mortgages and credit cards without needing a male cosigner. They were far busier addressing reproductive rights and fighting to prevent women from getting fired from jobs or rejected from colleges simply for being women. Burning bras was one of the least of their concerns.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Kristen Oganowski

Whatever the case, my mother did not purposefully raise me or my two younger sisters to become feminists. She did not describe her values or parenting style as feminist. And none of her children identified as a feminist until late into our teen years.

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Nonetheless, I don't think that I would be the feminist I am today if it weren't for the way she raised me.

From the time we were little, my sisters and I had Barbies and baby dolls and make-up kits. But even as toddlers, we also had a doctor's kit and primary-colored Legos and a microscope. My mother never pushed us to play with one set of toys over another. She never described any toys as "for girls" or "for boys." She simply allowed us to play and choose whatever brought us joy. Sometimes what brought us joy was building a Lego-office in which Dr. Barbie could see her patients.

She might not have called herself a feminist. She might not ever call herself a feminist.

As children, my sisters and I sometimes wore pink, frilly dresses and white lace tights (which were awful, I'll admit). But we also had grungy clothes that we caked with mud when we played ankle-deep in the creek behind our house. My mother didn't just let us get dirty. She encouraged it. What's more, she welcomed dozens of temporary pet caterpillars and frogs into our home. She dug deep into the hall closet to find the spades we'd use to dig up worms and the fishing line we'd tie to sticks so that we could "fish" in our trickling creek. She gave us the hammer and nails that we and some of the neighborhood kids used to build a fort in the front yard.

She signed us up for science camps and ballet lessons. She took us on long hikes through the woods and set up dainty tea parties in our dining room. She encouraged us to pursue our musical and artistic talents, to try out for sports teams, to ace our math tests, to be a little kinder to one another.

Reflected in all of her parenting is the fact that my mother raised my sisters and me to think that we were just as capable, strong, smart, worthy and funny as any boy or man.

Years later, she never pleaded with me to "look prettier" in high school when, adopting the admittedly terrible fashions of the mid-'90s, I wore baggy pants and ill-fitting flannels every day to school. (She did often plead with me to brush my hair better. I have the pictures to prove that she was right.) On my wedding day, when I wore—and loved—my big, poofy princess dress, she revealed to me that as beautiful as she thought I was, she was far prouder of the person I was—my accomplishments, my values and my choices. In each instance, she taught me that my worth reached far deeper than my appearance.

Reflected in all of her parenting is the fact that my mother raised my sisters and me to think that we were just as capable, strong, smart, worthy and funny as any boy or man. She raised us to think that we could (and should) speak up for ourselves. That we could (and should) pursue whatever inspired and challenged us. That we could (and should) fight injustice and try to leave the world better than how we found it.

RELATED: An Open Letter to My Future Self

She might not have called herself a feminist. She might not ever call herself a feminist.

But I don't think it's any surprise that she ended up with at least one self-avowed feminist daughter.

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Photograph by: Karen Oganowski

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