How Writing Novels Taught Me I was a Feminist

By Heather Webb

I’m new to the CT NOW blog, and have been looking forward to contributing, but I must admit, I stared at a blank screen every time I sat down to write this piece. How could I contribute to such a dynamic, inspiring group in an original way? At last, I got my answer. I need to start at the beginning.

I have to talk about the word feminism.

Feminism was a dirty word when I was growing up. It was synonymous with those women who didn’t believe those “girlie” things like makeup, dresses, or staying home with their kids held value. Being a feminist meant you didn’t participate in any sort of activity that perpetuated classic gender roles. It meant you hated men and saw little value in what men contributed to the world, at least not on an emotional or spiritual level. It meant you couldn’t fawn over ball gowns or take care with your appearance. This is what I thought it meant to be a feminist growing up. As it turns out, I was wrong.

My parents were very supportive and pushed me to achieve, so when I look back at my ideas surrounding feminism, I wonder where I picked up this meaning. It certainly wasn’t from them. Was it through television or radio? Ads and magazines? Society at large? I suspect, like all great movements, there is progress—and there is backlash. When progress for the feminist movement was made in the 1920s and 30s, there was backlash to contain it in the 1950s. The same thing happened in the 1960s and 1970s—major progress. Yet by the time I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, the message had clearly changed. I had become a victim of the next wave of backlash.

I continued to follow my own path, discover my voice, and help other women around me do the same in any way I could as a young teacher and coach, friend and mother, but I never uttered the words:  I am a feminist. I didn’t want to be ridiculed or categorized with those “feminazis,” as I’d heard were particularly distasteful all those years.

Then one day I awoke from a rough night’s sleep. I’d had this dream several nights in a row and though it wasn’t a bad one, I couldn’t seem to shake it. Oddly enough, it was about Josephine Bonaparte, daughter of a struggling sugar plantation owner turned empress of France. (Strange, yes?) Needless to say, I began reading about her and fell in love with her bravery and sacrifice and suddenly knew to my very core that I had to write a novel.

When reviews poured in for this first book, or I chatted with readers, I kept hearing things like: “I really like the way your characters are interesting women who struggle to find their strength.” This made me happy, of course, because struggle and growth are key to a good character story. But I left it there, in my mind. I write for women, primarily, yet I still hadn’t assigned that word to my books—or to myself.

The revelation came, as revelations often do, like a clap of thunder during an ordinary moment. I was working on a new idea for a novel, so I picked up the phone to discuss it with my agent. We got to talking and at one point she said these words: “I think this is an excellent idea, especially since your books have a feminist slant. You should write what speaks to your heart.”

That was it. That moment. I paused, struck by her words. Did my books have a feminist slant? I chose stories that spoke to me, about extraordinary women doing extraordinary things to surmount their circumstances. That was all. They weren’t feminist, were they?

In that moment, I looked back at my life and realized how hard I had strived to help girls and women speak up for themselves and be confident. How often I lent a hand, offered a word of praise, bolstered spirits because I truly love people, and truly love to help them feel good about themselves. I had done this because I believe we are all equals, striving for the same things. And that somehow, my womanhood was tied to this very strong need inside me to help others become their greatest selves.

In that moment, I realized I was very much a feminist and always had been.

The idea that I had once been afraid to call myself a feminist, that I was afraid to be called a “feminazi” enraged me. I realized then, the deep level of shame associated with calling yourself an activist, a feminist, and that “feminazi” was a word used to control us, to stamp out our voices. I became enraged by this horrible shame perpetuated in the media—and the world at large. I knew then, we must continue to fight to eradicate it, and to speak our truths out loud, with open hearts.

The word feminist signifies strength, and hope, and power. It is synonymous with self-love. It is a textured word that encompasses a long history of every hard-fought win, every struggle women have endured through the centuries to be respected and admired. It’s a word I love.

Now I am a writer, a stay-home mom, a baker, a wearer of red lipstick and heels and nail polish, and I am an ass-kicking feminist who fights for what she believes in. I am all of these things, and I am proud.

CT NOW member Heather Webb is the author of historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE and RODIN’S LOVER, which have sold in six countries and have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, Elle, France Magazine, and more, as well as received national starred reviews. RODIN’S LOVER was a Goodreads Top Pick in 2015. Up and coming, LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS, an epistolary love story set during WWI will release October 3, 2017 from HarperCollins. Heather is also a professional freelance editor, foodie, and travel fiend. Find her on Twitter at @msheatherwebb and on Facebook by clicking here.

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