As usual it is Sunday night in Harrisonburg and Rachelle Rucker and I are at the Blue Nile sopping up unpronounceable Ethiopian dishes with injera bread and talking about abortion laws, and, as usual, the table next to us has started staring. It must be an unusual sight – two young women engaging in feminist conversation over dinner, but it is a common factor that has kept our friendship alive for the past two years.
When I met Rachelle I never thought I would be writing a blog about her. She was that shy girl in class, the one you know has great things to say but denies the world by keeping them to herself. As a JMU student and Harrisonburg native, Rachelle inhabits the cross-section of the cities demographic, providing her with a unique view of feminism in this area. Not only does she have feminist roots of her own to share, but she has helped me develop and keep mine alive, watering them through daily conversation.
Rachelle’s “click” moment, when she knew she was a feminist, happened in the unlikely location of the Baptist church where she grew up.
“The pastor came into the youth room and opened a huge folder,” she explains. “He asked us, ‘What do you know about women’s liberation?’ I really didn’t know anything, but he proceeded to tell us that it was a movement that encouraged women to focus on individualism rather than family, community, and church, which in turn drives them further from God. I knew I was mad, but I didn’t know how to articulate why, and that made me even more mad. I didn’t know what a feminist was, but I started noticing and thinking about the ways things affected women.”
The years that followed were hard, as Rachelle’s ideologies constantly clashed with those of her family.
“I would hear Pat Robertson coming from the living room and try to think of ways I could explain to my grandparents that what they thought was wrong without making them feel bad. It never worked, so I drew away. That definitely didn’t help their view of feminism! It was an important lesson to learn as a feminist, to not let failure weigh you down and make you feel hopeless.”
Rachelle said a moment of relief came when she was 17 and heard Ani DiFranco for the first time, who articulated what she had been feeling about equality and having an open mind. Through DiFranco’s music and author’s like Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, and Jeanette Winterson Rachelle began to learn about that there were many aspects of identity, a fact that she found “hopeful.” She realized that although she hadn’t known it at the time, her grandfather had been right when he said she was gay. This realization, like feminism, was a growing process.
“I had some bad dating experiences with men. I finally took a year off from dating anyone and when I decided to again I was true to myself and dated a woman. I felt like a bad feminist because I had allowed myself to be in situations with guys I didn’t want to be in and I felt I should have been more aggressive about not wanting to be a part of. I realized that there is no action that erases feminism, but that you have to analyze and learn from where you have been.”
This year Rachelle has stepped into the position of c0-President for Dukes for Choice, a feminist organization on campus that encourages open discussion and activism in the areas of sexual justice and reproduction. Her duties include helping other executive members facilitate meetings, planning events such as an upcoming documentary series (check back for dates!), and providing a sex-positive approach to contraception.
“We do not shame anyone who comes to us and needs or has questions about contraception. We want to make our group a certified “safezone” for LGBTQ students and we have a member who is going through the channels necessary to sanction that. This semester we are talking a lot about the intersectionality of sexual justice and how it affects differently women of color, queer women, etc. We are also planning to have a speaker from the Harrisonburg pregnancy crisis center come to campus and talk to us about what they do and why.”
Although Rachelle admits that as a lesbian she will probably never have to have a abortion, it is among the issues that are most important to her.
“You can’t be a feminist without promoting women’s choice. There are so many attacks on reproductive rights that it is terrifying. If I found myself in that situation and didn’t have a choice, I would feel a complete lack of control over my life.”
As I mentioned before, a huge part of Rachelle and I’s friendship has been in our shared beliefs, a common interest we found off-campus while working at Pennybackers. The staff was largely female (and awesomely open-minded) and Rachelle often shared what she was reading and studying. It was a normal occurrence to find a copy of Bitch magazine at the employee table or Jezebel.com pulled up on the laptop we used to update our specials. These small details promoted constant conversation that helped us become a closer group of women, as we considered and questioned societal structures in our community and beyond.
What has inspired me most about Rachelle and what I hope has inspired you is that she doesn’t just have feminist roots, but a feminist bouquet that she carries proudly and uses to brighten any corner of patriarchy she finds. As we will both be graduating in May and leaving the academic bubble where feminism comes so easily, I am glad that my friend has taught me such an important lesson about keeping the movement accessible. We have both heard many times that as English/Women Studies majors we will never find a job, but whether we are slinging latte in a year or working the jobs of our dreams, we know our feminism is going to be right there with us.
If you would like to be a part of Dukes for Choice, just show up! Wednesday nights, 7 pm, Keezel G003.