“I’m not a feminist, but…”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that statement, its variations, and the numerous qualifiers that people finish that statement with. The general desire to distance oneself from a universally frowned-upon ideology, even if there are certain things about that ideology that appeal to you. The need to clarify that, while thank you very much I appreciate what you’ve done for me, I would rather not throw my lot in with that kind of people.
It will be a long time before I forget the first time I heard someone say something to that effect. It made a pretty big impression on me, because up until that point, I had naively believed that almost every woman I knew, and a good number of men, were feminist, just by virtue of what it means to be a feminist. And yet, there I found myself, sitting in the car with an old friend, silent and stunned as she laughed derisively at the feminist movement and the women who supported it. It would take a few more incidents like that one to make me realize that there is a large disconnect between the image of the feminist movement, which for some reason has repelled a significant number of people, and the the ideals of the feminist movement, which you would not be hard pressed to find supporters of. (I was actually able to have a really enlightening conversation with a sociologist who is doing research on this very disconnect, so apparently it’s not something only I’ve noticed.)
As International Women’s Day has been approaching, I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a feminist in a culture of “I’m not a feminist but”. Call me naive, but I truly do believe that ignorance is a big reason that many women and men distance themselves from the movement. And call me cynical, but I feel like a big reason for that ignorance is that the image of feminism perpetuated by many people in the Church, in media, and in politics (who may or may not have a vested interest in fighting gender equality) has been a decidedly negative one. I mean, when you have images of the feminazi (because wanting gender equality is totally the same thing as invading Poland), and the bra-burning, man-hating, sexually-frigid stick-in-the-mud ingrained into the social consciousness… well it’s not hard to see why many self-respecting women would want to distance themselves from that.
So I thought I’d take International Women’s Day to officially declare that I am a feminist, and then to explain what that means to me. It should be noted that feminism, like almost any other ideology, means different things to different people. I can lay out the basic general beliefs that feminists have, and then I will explain how that relates to my life and my ideology as an individual. Just like every other ideology or worldview, feminism has its extremists, and it has its moderates. AND, just like every other ideology, the extremists tend to get all of the attention, which has the annoying effect of making the extremists look like the norm. I’d like to be that moderate voice, stepping up and saying “here I am, look at me!”, and what better place than to do it right here?
First of all, feminism is inherently about equality in opportunity for all people, regardless of gender. Feminists see a social structure (in America, and pretty much everywhere else in the world) in which opportunities are denied to men and women because of socially-arbitrated ideas about what men and women should do, regardless of the scientific or factual validity of those ideas.
This social structure is very difficult to explain to people who don’t see it already, mostly because there is no one thing you can point to to definitively prove that such a structure exists. If you were to ask me to prove to you that gender inequality is a rampant problem in America, I could point to the wage gap, or to statistics on violence against women, or the inability of women to break into top positions in any field in our society, etc, etc, etc, but to really understand this power dynamic, you’d have to be able to step back and see how all of these things fit together, like individual threads creating a tapestry of discrimination. This is made even more difficult by the fact that privilege (be it male, cis-gender, heterosexual, white, Christian, what have you) is generally invisible to those who have it. I, as a white, straight, middle-class Christian woman, have spent a lot of time trying to understand the privilege I was born into, and I still feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface.
So to ask someone who has never had to think about these things to suddenly understand gender inequality, or (even worse, and equally important to modern feminism) the intersectionality of gender, race, class, religious, and sexual inequality, is a lot to ask. And I understand that. (Although, for a FANTASTIC place to start understanding privilege, I’d highly recommend reading Peggy McIntosh’s writings on white privilege. She does a great job of breaking down privilege in such a practical way that you can’t help but start to understand how invisible and pervasive it is. )
I only ask that that you listen to what I have to say with an open mind.
First of all, I’d like to say that, as a feminist, I do not hate men. Some of my absolute favorite people are men, and I married one, so clearly I like them at least a little bit ;). And, obviously, I don’t hate the institution of marriage, or sex. I don’t believe women are superior to men, just like I don’t believe men should be superior to women. I don’t want to overthrow our government and start some Amazonian society where women rule and men are our underlings. I also am a passionate Christian, and while I have some major problems with the way that many denominations throughout history have used their social capital to perpetuate a social structure of gender and racial inequality, I don’t hold that against Jesus. I also think motherhood is a wonderful calling, and I have absolutely nothing against women who choose to stay at home with their children rather than pursue an out-of-home career. Some of the strongest, smartest, loveliest women I know are stay-at-home moms, and I fully respect their decision to choose that lifestyle. I don’t think I can stress that last point enough.
So now that I’ve probably shown that roughly EVERY negative stereotype about feminists does not apply to every feminist (and trust me when I say I’m not the only feminist who would self-describe the way I just did), let me talk about what I actually support.
I support every man and woman being able to make choices about their life without feeling inadequate or wrong because those choices don’t fit into someone else’s pre-conceived notion of how one should behave. Or, in the words of Liz Stanley and Sue Wise, “feminism directly confronts the idea that one person or set of people [has] the right to impose definitions of reality on others”.This gets very personal for me, because Chad and I have every intention of sending me into the workforce while he stays at home with our children (if I should fail to make enough money to do that, we’d both work, but the point is that I am not expecting to be the primary caregiver for our children, and he not expecting to be the primary breadwinner). Admittedly, many earlier feminists judged women who choose to forgo careers for a life at home, but the general consensus among modern feminists seems to be that, if a woman chooses to stay at home (or a man, for that matter), there is nothing less honorable about that than if she (or he) decided to pursue a career. Every family has individual needs, and feminism in general supports the idea that families should feel free to address those needs in whatever way they see fit. And I agree with that wholeheartedly.
As a corollary to the above point, I think that, if a woman should choose to participate in society outside of the home, she should not be barred from doing so to the best of her ability. This started with the first-wave feminist push for the vote, and it continues to this day with the push for equal access to high-paying jobs, education, and adequate health care. It means that women who choose to participate in business or politics shouldn’t be derided as “sluts”, “ball-busters”, or “bitches”, or assessed on their looks, rather than their qualifications. It means that, if men get a “fatherhood bonus” in their careers, that women shouldn’t get a “motherhood penalty”. Basic stuff.
I believe that women (and men) should be allowed to feel beautiful/handsome without having to change themselves. We live in a society where women are expected to wear makeup every day, to buy the newest and most expensive clothes, and to have just the right amount of weight carried in just the right places on their bodies. I wear makeup and well-fitting clothes just like any other woman, but I don’t believe that my ability to be beautiful or worthy is in any way dependent on my doing those things. I also don’t like the idea that the American standard of beauty has been set by airbrushing and Photoshop, rather than beauty that occurs naturally in the world.
I also believe, wholeheartedly, that violence against women is a rampant, rampant problem in this country (and around the world), and it is absolutely inexcusable. Rape, sexual assault, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and acid attacks aren’t female problems, they’re human problems. Men certainly are victimized by these crimes (although maybe not FGM), but women are disproportionately affected by these crimes. Their prevalence, and the low rate of prosecution, of these atrocities are symptoms of a society in which violence against women is joked about, used to sell clothes, or otherwise ignored. Rape is also one of the few crimes in which the victim is held to be as responsible as the attacker, for some stupid reason (can you imagine holding the victim of a home robbery responsible because they lived in too nice of a neighborhood?) That is not okay with me, and it shouldn’t be okay with any self-respecting person out there. I could write a whole post on this, but for the sake of brevity (as this is already one of my longer posts as it is), I’ll stop there. If you want to talk to me more about this topic, please do so. I could talk all day about this.
And I know, I know, I know, that doesn’t fit in with what you’ve probably heard about feminism, or how you see feminists portrayed on TV or in movies. But please just trust me on this one? Or, if you don’t trust me on this one, at least do me the honor of doing some research on the subject yourself. Talk to some feminists, read some feminist blogs. I promise, no one is going to bite you, and if you don’t like what you see, then at least you can say you made an informed decision on the matter. Because listening to Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson does not an informed decision make.
I also know that there are men and women out there who just do not like feminism, even at its most basic core of gender equality. That’s fine. While I might 100% disagree with you, we all have the prerogative to believe and live how we choose, and I will not fight that.
BUT, if you are a woman, and you have gone to college, worked for a paycheck, VOTED, used birth control, married the person you fell in love with rather than the person your parents picked for you, been able to divorce or leave an abusive partner, or even if you’ve just worn pants at some time in your life, then you owe at least part of your lifestyle to feminism. Men and women have gone before you, defied social conventions, and in many cases been harassed and attacked by their peers and the police, so that you could do many of the things you don’t give a second thought to today.
International Women’s Day isn’t about celebrating women at the expense of men, and feminism isn’t either. Feminism isn’t anti-family, anti-religion, anti-child, anti-man, or anti-femininity. Feminism does not, in the words of Pat Robertson, “encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians”. If it did, I would be the world’s WORST feminist, and I don’t think that’s the case. At its core, feminism is about men and women coming together to address serious issues of inequality in our society.
And that’s why I’m not embarrassed to call myself a feminist.
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It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union…. Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less. ~Susan B. Anthony
The only jobs for which no man is qualified are human incubators and wet nurse. Likewise, the only job for which no woman is or can be qualified is sperm donor. ~Wilma Scott Heide
I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman. ~Anaïs Nin