Activist, writer and Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin recently said to me, "Feminism makes for the happiest of marriages."
I heartily agree.
When I was 25 years old, I relocated to the UK for a fellowship to study feminism at Oxford's International Gender Studies Center (IGS). Only a few months prior, I had become engaged to a man that suited me beyond my wildest dreams: a Chinese-Australian dynamo named David whose intelligence, creativity and soulfulness rocked me to the core (and still does). I anticipated that seven months apart from my beloved would be profoundly difficult to endure. I knew, however, that this fellowship offered a tremendous opportunity for me to nurture my career as a visual and performance artist: a unique chance to deeply investigate the historic representation of my primary artistic medium -- the body. Quite unexpectedly, the fellowship also gave me some of the best imaginable preparation for a vibrant marriage.
David and I agreed that the success of the undertaking would be greatly assisted by total focus, so we ruled against visiting each other during the seven months I was to be at Oxford. He travelled with me to help me settle in. With one look at the drab room to which I had been assigned in the international student housing unit, David snapped his fingers and with his typical savvy, announced that we would raid the local home design store. Following an afternoon of transforming that dank cell into a bright and warm sanctuary, we spent the night holding each other in sleepless anticipation of the marathon ahead. That next day as he prepared to leave, David made me promise not to watch him drive away. As I heard the crunch of wheels pull away from the gravel drive, I lost my cool and ran after him waving my arms and yelling, "David, David, I love you!" He turned his head, revealing a face full of tears as he mouthed my name before speeding away. Seeing him weep broke me, but I quickly had to toughen up to face the task at hand.
At IGS, I was welcomed by a collective of sophisticated feminist scholars -- fierce, modern-day explorers who had forged legendary careers through the unearthing of women's invaluable contributions to societies across the globe. They gave me a room perched at the top of the University's Queen Elizabeth House in which to dream, study and write -- a quintessential "room of one's own." For the first time in my life, I had a taste of the true solitude and spaciousness required to access the deepest wells of my own creativity. There, something in me came alive that has made everything I have since created possible.
I felt constantly challenged, stimulated and nurtured at IGS. Certainly, there were those inevitable moments of tough love, such as when my tutor Dr. Paula Heinonen -- a shrewd Ethiopian/Italian fireball -- threw the first paper I wrote right back in my face. Granted, it was an insubordinate 3,000 word essay composed entirely of questions, and she rightly demanded that I take the risk of making claims of my own. For much of that early period, I felt gobsmacked and starstruck in the presence of such brilliant, ground-breaking feminists; I vividly recall experiencing unbearable self-consciousness about my own lavishly feminine expressions and worrying if I was perceived as dizzy for my fondness of high heels, body-con dresses and hot pink Chanel lipstick. Only years later, when I was invited back to Oxford as a visiting lecturer, did I come to discover that the ladies had affectionately nicknamed me "Hollywood."
It was Dr. Maria Jaschok -- the tall, elegant redhead at the helm of IGS -- who encouraged me to give my first ever lecture at Oxford's International Women's Day Festival. The prospect of giving my first public speech to a group of cultivated intellectuals was unnerving. What did I have to teach these incredible women? To this, Jaschok gave me the stellar piece of advice: "No one knows your experience except for you. It is utterly unique and everyone will come for the opportunity to learn something that only you can share." Thanks to that initial push, what felt like a baptism by fire at the time has since emboldened me to lecture confidently at numerous institutions internationally. All those initial feelings of disorientation eventually opened up to a wondrous sense of what is possible when one journeys into the unknown regions of herself and listens.
Throughout this adventure, David and I regularly conversed on the phone. He was ever forthcoming with encouragement and perspective when I needed to decompress from the pressures of my bewildering new habitat. Spending that long stretch apart was agonizing at times, but we developed an intense correspondence of emails and hand-written letters which stoked profound and unfamiliar dimensions of our love and friendship. David sent me tender, handmade gifts that served as constant reminders that his heart was never far; perhaps the most memorable of these was a pillowcase he created that featured a screen printed picture of his head sleeping on it. By the time of our cathartic reunion, our relationship had developed a character of combined grit, liberty and reciprocity which, with time, has come to define the empowering core of our love.
The marvel of immersion in an intellectually rigorous community in which women's contributions to the world are studied, analyzed and celebrated with all the seriousness that generally accompanies fields like theoretical physics has inspired me to create the art that only I can make. What has developed into a personal vision of trusting the intelligence of my creative instincts, fearlessly sculpting culture in the face of a (still largely) male-dominated art world and pursuing a career in which my work and life are symbiotically integrated, rather than compartmentalized, began during my time with the Oxford feminists. I am forever grateful to them for embodying the ethics of the Women's Movement in a way that is authentic, compelling, and instructive for the next generation.
The intensity of spending that stretch of time in geographic separateness and increasing intimacy prepared David and I for a life of passionately pursuing our dreams and one another. These days, he travels even more than I do, but the joy of seeing each other shine eclipses the (always palpable) sting of being apart. When we reunite, it is always with a shared reverence and gratitude for finding this person in this life, on this earth. Bringing a feminist consciousness to our marriage boils down to living with the intention of catalyzing the fullest flourishing of the other... Our shared vision affirms that love becomes fully formed when both people are fully formed -- a concept which necessitates giving the other the retreat needed to cultivate their most excellent gifts and purposes.
Nowadays, I still put on my favorite hot pink lipstick when I sit down to write as a conscious reminder to claim the passion, the abundance and the vivacity of the life before me. The color is called "L'Exubérante," or "exuberance" in English. A coincidence? I think not.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.