6 Titles for Your Feminist Journey: An Interview with a Toledo Feminist

Posted on March 22, 2024

by Melissa L

On Monday, March 25 at 6:00 pm, the Library is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Steinem Sisters Collection (and Gloria Steinem’s 90th birthday) at Main Library with A Steinem Celebration: 90 Years of Gloria.

Leading up to this event, we’ll be interviewing local feminists and members of the Steinem Sisters Collective. Our  final interview is with Mechelle Zarou, a local feminist, lawyer, and Chief People and Culture Officer and Deputy General Counsel of the Sisters of St. Francis.

Do you remember your feminist “aha” moment?

Mechelle: I grew up in a Palestinian family that was very traditional. I am part of the first generation born in the US in my family. While we are not Muslim (my dad’s family is Malachite Catholic and my mom’s is Greek Orthodox) my family held many traditional beliefs about men’s and women’s roles. My earliest memory of this is when we would go to my grandparents’ house and the women would all sit in the kitchen and the men would all sit in the basement. I never understood why being female meant you had to do all the work and sit with the women in the kitchen. I used to go down into the basement to hang with the men, and inevitably one of my uncles would tell me to go back into the kitchen where I belonged. I was probably 7 or 8 when I became conscious of this disparity.

I always had a deep sense of justice, and I knew that this divide was just wrong. There was no logic to it. So when I had to do a book report in second grade, I wrote about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to go to medical school. I still remember the drawing I did of all the male students and a smiling Elizabeth Blackwell in the front row! I knew from that time that I was going to break some ground, that I would never accept my “place” as they had assigned for me.

I grew up with a bevy of people telling me “No,” telling me I couldn’t do things because I was a girl, because “ayab” (shame). No to gymnastics, dance classes, cheerleading, most sports (I managed to get into soccer because my dad loved it). No sleepovers, camping trips (and therefore Girl Scouts), or vacations with friends. No to playing the games my male cousins made up, except when I could talk my way into their adventures. Always protected, always prevented. I had to fight my way to every yes. I always had to fight my way in. Because I was a girl.

After my dad died when I was 11, and I got to high school, I started preparing for college. I always knew I would go away and start living my own life. I was admitted to the University of Michigan early admission (it was the only school to which I applied!). My uncles (and some of their wives) fought with my mom to not let me go, to have me go to UM-Dearborn and live at home. My mom, who went back to school at 42 after my dad died and was about to graduate from the University of Michigan as a commuter student, absolutely refused to even consider it. She wanted me to have that full college experience that she never got to have, and she would never have backed down, thankfully. She gave me that yes that I so desperately needed.

From then on I knew I would always have to give myself that yes, that I would have to arrange my life so I could do the things I wanted and that I knew I was entitled to do. My mom had started giving me the books she was reading in her college classes. Probably starting when I was 14 I read them all – Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book of essays By Alice Walker (One Child of One’s Own enlightened me). I read everything she was reading and it helped me from my path and steeled my determination that my place was not just in the kitchen.

How have public libraries influenced your development as a feminist?

Mechelle: I spent so much time in the Northville Public Library growing up in my small town of Northville, Michigan. I used to have my mom drop me off just so I could walk among the books, find a cozy corner, and just read. Reading was the thing that kept me going when I was hearing all those “Nos”. I remember stumbling upon Nikki Giovanni’s book of poetry, Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. I liked contemporary poetry and this was one of the few books the library had in that genre (this was the mid-80s). I savored that book – that book made me realize I could write poems in an entirely different way, that the poems I was writing didn’t have to rhyme. It opened a door to a new way of thinking about poetry.

At the same time, I wondered where were the rest of the women poets? Why was this collection so small? It started my thoughts on who decides what books we read and why. It opened a door that will never close.

What do you hope for the future of the Steinem Sisters Collection?

Mechelle: I would love to see the collection grow to the largest in the world. I would love to spread the word about the collection so no child wanders around the library wondering, “is this it?” Is this all we have to show for our labors? I would love to find a way to ensure every child in this city has a chance to spend an afternoon among these books, with these women.

Can you share some of the books that have impacted you the most throughout your life?

Mechelle: I highlighted many of them above, but here are some deeper thoughts:

Book Jacket: Beloved

beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrison changed everything I understood about writing for me. I read it at 15, and it was the first time I understood that a book could be a poem, could be a mantra, could be a revelation. I didn’t know that you could write this way and it opened up a whole new world to me. It also helped me understand motherhood in a way I never could before. And maybe it is part of why I finally decided not to have kids.

Book Jacket: In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens

in search of our mothers' gardens by Alice Walker

My mom gave me a book of essays by Feminist authors from her women’s studies class, and it included Alice Walker’s, One Child of One’s Own. It answered the very burning question I had about how women could do it all. They could - to a point, and this was one concession. But it made sense to me, in a way some other writings and attitudes had not.

Book Jacket: Beezus and Ramona

beezus and ramona by Beverly Cleary

As a young child, I grew up reading the Ramona books and even though they were squarely set in the time they were written, there was so much to admire in Ramona, who did and said what she wanted. I don’t think I knew I would put this on the list until I really started thinking of it, but she is a character who has stayed with me as a model for me and the friends I have picked over the years.

Book Jacket: Their Eyes Were Watching God

their eyes were watching god by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is another book my mom gave me when I was a teenager and she was taking college courses. Janie Crawford was like the grown-up Ramona to me. She seemed like she could do anything, even though she came from a time and place (and situation) where she was not free at all. Plus, that opening line!

Book Jacket: The Outsiders

the outsiders by S. E. Hinton

I have loved The Outsiders for a very long time. One of its great gifts to me is that it brought me closer to my sister, as we would read it aloud to each other (and then later recite it and see how far we would get). Up to that point we fought more than we did anything else together, and reading the Outsiders together (and watching the movie) was the start of our actual friendship.

Book Jacket: Jane Eyre

jane eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I stayed up all night to finish Jane Eyre. For an anti-classicalist such as myself, that speaks volumes. Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about that story and how to write a story that compelling.

Find your next great read in the Steinem Sisters Collection, located in the Fact and Fiction department of Main Library.

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