It used to be so easy for me to self identify as a feminist. Ten years ago I knew nothing about feminist theory, exhibited no form of activism, and knew nothing about the contemporary or historical feminist movements, but I was determined that my feminist stripes could not be questioned. I lived alone and I liked living alone. I didn’t need a man to hammer things into the wall or to assemble Ikea furniture, and I had my own extensive tool kit, including an electric drill. I dated only for fun and only on my own terms, never to find a husband or to elicit emotional commitment – I had even bested my biological clock! I refused to follow fad diets or celebrity fandom, and generally refused to wear makeup, paint my fingernails, wear high heeled shoes, or in any way appear to be giving in to the unfair cultural demands that society has placed upon women for centuries (I essentially believed that floral print dresses were tantamount to foot binding). I was a feminist because I didn’t need men, and I didn’t need men because I was unfeminine.
Clearly, some things have changed since my more militant days. I have a child and a husband. I wear skirts, dresses, and mascara (though in my defense, the mascara is because I don’t sleep and I look like I don’t sleep, and the mascara helps me to look at least vaguely alive). I am no longer mistaken for a butch lesbian despite my still closely cropped haircut, and sometimes I let my husband do things that are supposed to be “man” things even though I know that I would do them better than he would (like putting together Ikea furniture).
Does this all mean that I can’t be a feminist anymore? I now recognize that on a purely intellectual level, there were some serious logical fallacies in my previous approach to feminism. I also now recognize that on a personal/emotional level there were some damaging and even dangerous tendencies that I chalked up to my “feminist” perspective on life.
Let’s start with the intellectual issues: I can find no line of logic that would support the notion that consciously making myself less feminine makes me more feminist. If feminism is a movement in support of women, then a more logical assumption would be that my support of feminism would necessitate my becoming more feminine, not less. My rejection of all things female stinks more of misogyny than of sexual liberation, and it results not from an attempt to empower women, but from an attempt to make women more acceptable to men by encouraging them to ape male characteristics. In order to earn the respect of men, and by extension equality, I believed that women needed to do away with all those silly stereotypical female behaviors (floral prints, pop music, crying easily, dreaming of the dream wedding and desperately seeking a husband) and replace them with stereotypically male characteristics (independence, physical strength, disregard for other people’s feelings and fear of commitment).
Wrong on all counts, except maybe the floral prints.
And now for the personal. My attempts to be one of the guys led me to behavior that was self-destructive, isolating, and while often a lot of fun, also pretty unhealthy. In my quest to be equal, I believed that it was important for me to do anything the men in my scene were doing – this meant I learned to hold my own in drinking contests, all night partying, and reckless behavior in general. At the time, I saw the girls who abstained from these activities as a bunch of un-liberated wet blankets. Didn’t they know that women’s lib meant all those old prep school mores of being ladylike and dressing up to go out didn’t apply anymore? Women had marched on Washington and committed acts of social disobedience so that we could have the right to screw up our lives just as badly as the men did!
I was wrong about this too. Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I realized that I was wrong, I do know that giving birth to a daughter picked me up and threw me to the other side of the road I had already been slowly shuffling across. Suddenly questions about what I wanted to teach her, what kind of example I wanted to set, and how the world would treat the women of her generation became the frame of my worldview.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Gerda Lerner described what drove her to pioneer the field of Women’s History by saying, “In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist. I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”
While much has changed (thanks in part to women like Dr. Lerner), the world in which my daughter is growing up has still not reached anything even resembling gender equality. Men continue to hold the vast majority of economic, political, and cultural power, as evidenced by a range of statistics reflecting pay inequality and the percentage of female political representatives and business leaders. Men also dominate in the arts as museum directors, music conductors and composers, and winners of literary accolades. Even in my very female friendly world of education, less than a quarter of colleges and universities have female presidents, and the percentage of female professors is not much better.
I would very much like to believe that by the time my daughter reaches adulthood, women will have finished catching up. But that’s what I believed when I was growing up, and not only does the race continue, but the finish line seems to be getting blurrier the closer we get. Is equal representation across the professional and political spectrum really our goal? I wish the answer to this question were a resounding yes, but I just don’t know. Right now it seems that the more equality we achieve, the harder our lives become (Yeah! I get to pursue a fulfilling career! Umm… as long as I also continue to do the housework and child-rearing and don’t take too long of a maternity leave? Raise your hand if this sounds familiar.).
So how am I going to prepare my daughter for a world that is both more welcoming and more challenging for women by the day? I HAVE NO IDEA.
For now, all I know to tell her is that men and women are different, and this is okay. Hopefully that’s a good enough place to start.