It’s International Women’s Day.
It’s also my little sister’s birthday.
I was fourteen years old when she was born. It made no sense, it was crazy: my ma was in her early forties! I was in high school, trying to figure out algebra, boys, girls, and my new love of acting. It was all a bit much, really. I wondered why my parents couldn’t have been more, well, careful.
That red-faced scrunched-up being grew into a charming little blonde-haired girl. I grew into feminism. While Lydia discovered language, learnt how to read and got signed up for ballet lessons, I started writing for the feminist paper in town, haunted alternative bookstores, and took a women’s studies course that rocked my world. I told Mr Turner, my Grade thirteen English teacher I could not possibely participate in his all-male list of authors and said I’d read an equal amount of women authors and write about each one. I created an eclectic, polyglot reading list, cribbed from an obscure anthology, but that’s how I discovered Anais Nin, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf. I read Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own while working at The Hudson’s Bay Department Store in the women’s change room. Politics and women’s liberation and social change were still abstractions to me, glamorous things that only happened downtown, miles from the two-storey, aluminium-sided suburban house we lived in. But I read that book, and it changed all the molecules of my body.
As someone who often writes in autobiographical modes, I’m always amazed at how unevenly memory works among those who know each other well: how family members each remember a different part of their shared story.
My sister recalls that I often took her to the women’s bookstore and let her choose a book that I would then purchase for her. She also tells me that I took her to see I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, a proto-lesbian film from the 1980’s, and then took her for a walk and told her I was a lesbian. (I don’t remember the film part).
I remember that she said, thoughtfully, “Hmmm. Lesbian. I like that word.” (She doesn’t remember that part).
My sister isn’t little anymore. She’s a beautiful woman with a ready laugh and a talent for drawing and painting: the walls of her home are filled with her art. We see each other once or twice a year. We enjoy each other’s company. We gossip about family and swap memories. I sure do love her. But we struggle a lot, too, with tensions and and anger that, I think, have nothing to do with each other really, residues of difficult childhoods that we trigger in each other.
After years of demonstrations, collectives, organizing committees, coalitions, rifts, splinters, failures and victories, I’m still a feminist, though not so much of an activist these days. But that’s not to say there isn’t anything to be active about. Where I work, women make the majority of non-tenured contract faculty, pulling brutal hours for peanuts – no benefits, no security. In that sense, we are a microcosm of the rest of the world.
I’ve always felt it was rather special that my sister was born on International Women’s Day. Whatever I managed to glean about feminism, miraculous messages-in-a-bottle that washed up on my suburban shores, I tried, with great earnestness, to pass on to her. She would alternately blink solemnly or shrug good-naturedly, and go about her business.
Happy Birthday sis!
Happy International Women’s Day!