August 13, 2010

Feminist Mother Goose + AAUW + Bikini Kill + Feminism at Camp= Cleo

Filed under: Featured Feminist — Tags: , , , , , — Melanie @ 5:08 am

After Cleo’s speaking engagement for the AAUW’s panel on girls and education, even though not always supportive of all things feminist, her mother continued to instill “feministy” ideas that broke gender boundaries.  She encouraged Cleo to play on the boy’s basketball team, bought her a Little Tykes Semi-Truck to play with , and watched Xena:Warrior Princess etc. with her daughter.

In addition to her experience in elementary school and her mother’s encouragement to be independent and compete intellectually with her male peers, living in and around the Venice/Mar Vista, progressive and hip urban beach communities, she was introduced to the music of  Bikini Kill and The Runaways from a young age. She was getting the message but not the background.

That all changed when she was 11.

Her mom decided to send Cleo to “nerd camp” because she wasn’t being challenged at school. That’s when she met the first in a string of “loud, brash, ballsy teen feminists” that brought the pieces of Cleo’s feminist puzzle together.

“Betsy” saw Cleo telling some of the older boys where to get off at after teasing her and a friend and she handed Cleo a copy of Steinem‘s classic, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. She said “read it” and that she’d talk to her later. No easing her into it, she just handed her the book with “If Men Could Menstruate” bookmarked.

After that she talked to me  in between classes when I probably should have been hanging out with the campers my own age.  She told me about women not being able to own property at one time in US History and about the age-old, ongoing abortion debate. At the end of the session it was like I had a new brain. For the first time I met a girl like me who hadn’t toned it down and retreated into books. She was nerdy, wild,and smart mouthed and strong and I wanted to be her.

By 15 I could quote Betty Friedan and run down the entire history of women in Rock N Roll.

Over the next few summers I saw Betsy again and met a few of her friends. They gave me my first copy of  The Second Sex (which I still have, despite the fact it’s disintegrating) explained what all those Bikini Kill songs I knew were really about. During the school year(when I was the only feminist I knew) I honed my sarcasm to perfection and never ever backed down from a fight, be it physical or academic,even when the opponent was boy. Needless to say I was branded a bitch quickly. When it became clear to my peers that being forced to choose from the Virgin/Whore dichotomy and I picked whore,  the moniker “slut” soon followed. It wasn’t always fun being as in the know as I was. I didn’t have a whole lot of friends who understood why I refused to give boys BJs in empty classrooms and the back row of movies. And even fewer who understood why I dumped guys as soon as they started making suggestions about my wardrobe. But I knew, from reading and from my nerd camp girls that going with that crowed was giving up my power. And I couldn’t do that.

Now in her early twenties, Cleo teaches workshops at the YWCA in Santa Monica on issues from body image and self esteem to relational aggression (mean girls syndrome). She presents annually at the Girls Central Conference. She spreads messages of empowerment to the girls at the Y and the girls she encounters at her other job at a theater.

I am always telling the girls about woman who have done amazing things and explaining to them why some of the things (songs,books,movies) they like are not good for them.I had a blog in high school and still occasionally write when something really offensive or ridiculous takes place. I like going to the roots of who needs to hear the message. It was brought to me, so in turn I take it to others.

Cleo’s evolving feminist consciousness, her encouragement and mentorship to other girls is not without resistance or backlash. Her no nonsense attitude and challenges to traditional gender norms continues to be a point of contention in her own family and with the mothers of daughters at the Y.

Through out it all my mom hasn’t always been supportive. She likes the feminist ideas of independence, but her views are shaped by her experience as a woman of color. She still feels I need to adhere to gender norms when it comes to dress and behavior. My dislike of cooking, sewing and cleaning are all major flash points in my house. As a result, in my family, I’m the “bad one.” I don’t cook with the rest of the women,I don’t clean, sew or shop like it’s going outta style. All I hear from my family is “Dress your age. Who would want a woman like you,” “You think you’re better than us,” ”Who wants a woman who doesn’t cook,” ”That’s them White people, you’re Black,” “You’re not White, you’re the poorest, blackest person I know.”

They see my personal endeavors to be happy with myself as an assault on their way of life. They try to shame me into being dishonest with myself, into devaluing myself in order to make them more comfortable. My mother often swears that segregating schools should come back because then Black kids like me wouldn’t act “White.” This is usually uttered after I say something that is liberal, sex positive or LGBT friendly and can be backed up with facts. She wants me to be able to compete intellectually with my male peers, but hates the side effect of my changed perspectives. I can’t be both the daughter she wanted to raise and the one she actually raised and it’s an awkward,volatile situation.

[At the YWCA] The idea that mothers find the inner growth and self-actualization of their daughters a threat wasn’t so much new to me as weird to see tangibly. I’ve had mothers, including my own, call me racist and arrogant and tell me that I think I’m better than everyone. So have so many other women in my community. The idea that things I teach the girls at the YWCA are being undermined by their own mothers is frightening and eye opening.

Despite resistance, Cleo is committed to feminist ideals and goals in an effort to allow girls to develop to their fullest potential, a gift she was given early on.

Cleo is the latest in a diverse array of feminists we’ve featured in “an effort to bring the names, faces and lives of in-the-world feminists to light,” “raise consciousness and banish the collective amnesia that trades real effort and change for lap dogs in pink sweaters and diet secrets.” (See previous post here).


  1. You found the book!I never could remember the name,but always wanted a copy!Yay!

    Comment by Cleo — August 13, 2010 @ 12:05 am

  2. Cleo! ….<3

    Comment by Liz — August 13, 2010 @ 9:59 am

  3. Wow, I have known you for so long, Cleo and experienced first hand your strength and pride in being an individual, but I had no idea you were leading the way for the next generation of women. Thank you.

    Comment by Goreti — August 13, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

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