So this post has been stewing in my brain since I wrote my post about high heels a few weeks ago. About a lot of issues that I’ve encountered from time to time which have led me to one conclusion: sometimes, I think we’re doing feminism wrong.
Let me contextualize all of this by stating that I realize I’m coming from a privileged place here. I grew up in a time period when feminists had already done a lot for all of us. I never had to fight for my right to vote, to go to college, to get a job, etc. I was raised by a college educated mother whose biological mother also went to college. A mother who taught me from a very early age that I should never depend on a man for anything and that I could be anything I wanted to. I’m not saying my parents are in no way influenced by older gender models, my father can at times be incredibly sexist, but as a woman, I haven’t had to fight particularly hard to get where I am. Add to that I’m in a field which is accepting of women, where the gender ratio is actually about equal.
That said, I feel like women the world over, and even in the US (where we have it better than many places) have a long way to go. I still feel like feminism is relevant and important. That’s why doing it “wrong” is such a big problem.
As I understand it, at its core, feminism is about choice and self-determination. It’s about a woman’s right to choose to be whoever and whatever she wants. To live her life how she wants. To do what she wants, unless it interferes with someone else’s rights. (Obviously, I believe that men have all these rights as well, but I think they are often granted them more easily.) The problem is, we often fail to respect each others’ choices, when another woman makes a choice we don’t approve of, and we often critique it using feminist rhetoric.
There is a moment still etched in my brain even though it happened fifteen years ago. A friend and I were talking about the nature of feminism and she said, in a voice that sounded snide (though it probably wasn’t), “To me, a real feminist is someone who does science.” Now, fifteen years later, rational me realizes that this friend, wasn’t directing that statement at me. As a woman, involved in science, she was directing that statement at a world that provides so few role models for women in her field. At a world that doesn’t recognize that this is a problem. But the reason I still remember it so vividly after all these years is that what I heard, all those years ago, was, “You have betrayed the sisterhood by not pursuing a career in the sciences. You are a throwback. You are bringing us all down. Thanks a lot, Kristy.” Again, I don’t think that’s what she meant; I think she’d be horrified to learn she hurt me the way she did. But I do think this is a message girls get. And it was a message I’ve gotten over and over again. To such a degree that I still feel guilty from time to time that I don’t have the “right” aptitudes to be a feminist.
The reality is, if I had gone into a hard science I would have done nothing to advance the position of women—due to my lack of aptitude and interest I would have instead confirmed other people’s stereotypes about women. And I didn’t go into my field because someone told me it was socially acceptable for women. Quite the reverse actually. You should have seen my mother’s face when I got a better score on the verbal section of my SAT than I did on the math. (Let’s be clear, I scored way above average on both. Geometry is the only kind of math I’ve ever been good at.) While I might be far from the first woman in my family to go to college, I’m the first to get a BA. I was preceded by a long line of BSs and BBAs. I can tell you that in my family my career choice has actually made me something of a black sheep whereas a science driven career would have been greeted with joy. The point is, I chose the career I did because it makes me happy and fulfilled as a person—how is that counter feminist?
And if this is how I feel as a social scientist, I can’t imagine how stay-at-home moms feel. And at some point, I’ve probably been the problem in this regard, because admittedly, I don’t understand how anyone would want to be a stay-at-home mom. Honest truth, I don’t get why anyone would want to be a mom (blog post on this to come later). But if a woman chooses to be a stay-at-home mom, what’s wrong with that (assuming she can afford to)? We praise stay-at-home dads for breaking traditional gender roles, but how often do we accord the same respect to their female counterparts? Equality in the workplace cannot be limited by where that workplace is.
I’m a girly girl, I admit it. I’m a former ballerina who loves make up and clothes and crocheting. (I also love science fiction, comic books, and can replace my own hard drives, but these things are not the point.) What drives me nuts is the number of my enlightened peers who feel the need to pity me for all this. Yes, clearly I was forced into ballet by a patriarchal system that taught me my entire self-worth was tied up in having a flawless complexion and no body fat. Clearly, if my mother had wanted to raise me as a good feminist she would have put me in soccer or basketball instead. Never mind the fact that ballet helped slow the progression of the autoimmune disease which is destroying my joints in a way the other sports would not have, it’s girly and therefore worthless. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with soccer or basketball and if girls want to do them, I think that’s great. But I loved ballet. Ballet gave me skills that go way beyond how to do a tour jeté. Skills that have helped me out a lot in life. And I still have more muscular calves than most soccer players, so suck it!
We’ve had the makeup discussion before on this blog, so I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on it, but I will assert, one more time, that wearing lipstick and high heels does not make me any less of a strong, independent, intelligent woman. A friend (not the one mentioned above) once said about a mutual friend of ours, who was equally girly, “It’s a shame she can’t see how she’s being taken advantage of.” Her point was that she was lessening herself in some way by conforming to male desires. Here’s the problem—you’re not being taken advantage of if you like what you’re doing. I don’t wear foundation and skirts for guys—it’s been my experience they don’t notice anyway. I dress like this because I like the way I feel. Because it makes me who I want to be. Once again, isn’t that what feminism is all about?
One more quick argument: Barbie. I played with Barbie a lot. I loved Barbie. I had tons of them. Not so many Kens, so I like to think that my Barbies all lived in some sort of girl power commune. One of the Kens I did have always dressed in women’s lingerie. To this day, I’m confused as to why I had so much Barbie lingerie in the first place, but this is all beside the point. Too many well meaning friends have lectured me on how I was traumatized by Barbie. Even if I didn’t know it, I internalized the desire to look like her, and it ruined my body image forever. Except… who wanted to look like Barbie? Her elbows didn’t bend and she had no hoohaa. She was just a vehicle through which I did some of my earliest creative writing. Now I’ll be honest, I wish Barbie looked a little more “normal” and I don’t think it’s a bad idea for parents to have a talk with their children and say, “So… you know real women don’t look like that, right?” But I don’t think Barbie is inherently harmful.
I guess at the end of the day, what I’m saying is this: If we want men to get out of our way and let us be who we want, we need to do that for each other as well. We need to accept that opening doors doesn’t mean everyone wants to walk through them. Sometimes we label women “counterfeminist” when they’re really just being themselves. And unless they’re trying to force that on the rest of us, what’s the harm? I have two amazing nieces. I want them to know that they are beautiful and powerful and that they can grow up to be exactly who they want to be, no matter who that is. And that’s why we have to get this right.