I have a degree in “Gender & Women’s Studies.” When I first entered the program, it was simply called Women’s Studies; however, during my time there the students and professors agreed that although we were talking about women, we were not talking about women only. Our discussions went much further than that. And so the word Gender was added to attest to the depth of the coursework. Gender is clearly an encompassing term; you might conclude that the word Women’s would be erased. But Women’s couldn’t be crossed out: it contained far too much power and memory. After all, it had been no picnic to get academia to acknowledge the field of Women’s Studies in the first place. She wasn’t leaving the party already, after having just set the table.
I graduated six years ago and I still love women’s studies. Of course, my feminism plays out very differently now that I am a 29-year-old mother of three. These days feminism looks like: giving birth on my own terms, normalizing breastfeeding, refusing to shame the mother at the grocery store whose kid is flipping out, temping and charting my cycle, taking responsibility for my health, tending to female friendships, speaking assertively, living assertively and intentionally, giving bold and colorful responses to my daughters, teaching them body autonomy, sharing household chores and parenting with my husband, making cooperative decisions for our business, seeking out strong female leads in all art forms. And so on. It’s all a bit mundane but it’s meaningful, too.
Lately I feel like a walking venn diagram with too many bubbles. Sometimes I meet a careworn mother and our venn bubbles slide together, overlapping. I meet her gaze in solidarity: this shit is hard. She knows. But maybe that same woman loudly abhors feminism and so I float away, towards a fellow feminist, seeking that commonality and comfort. But perhaps this dear feminist sleeps her weekends away, cooks for pleasure and wanders in bookshops slowly,silently. And thus the overlap ends: we don’t make much sense to each other. I secretly (cough: enviously) see her as spoiled and self-involved, she sees me as a maidservant to patriarchal norms.
What makes a feminist? I can fancy my feminism to be more important than hers because I am modeling it to my three daughters. I can roll my eyes at my unfettered friend and tell myself that she spends her whole day choosing her Instagram filter. Meanwhile, she might imagine me stuck at home all day long, nodding yes to my husband and my invisible Sky King. And what about that careworn mother I mentioned, the one who rejects feminism altogether? Lets shred her to pieces: after all, she stands on her foremother’s shoulders and runs her mouth into a microphone that feminism handed to her! She’s clearly a damn fool.
Assuming, it makes an ass out of u and me, as the saying goes.
Still, there is always a shimmer of truth in caricatures like these. I mean, I do stand in the kitchen nodding yes to my husband (YES MORE COLLARDS PLZ). And I have been practicing surrender, saying yes to what is, which for me means saying yes to God. But I’m a feminist, through and through. In fact, I am a Stay At Home Feminist (SAHF), thank you very much, and I am pleased to report that there is no omniscient being that can convey/deny me (or you) that title.
However, it does bereave me to report that there are a great many people, men and women alike, who won’t touch the word feminism with a 10 foot pole. It really bums me out. Amy Poehler offered a hysterical commentary on these folks when she swapped the “f-word” with the word cars: “I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.”
Feminism is sorely stigmatized. (Incidentally, many of the things I am personally drawn to are stigmatized, but thats another story.)
So anyway, I’m a feminist. And here’s a short list of things that feminism has taught me.
- I am worthy and so are you. We all know that feminism is the ongoing fight for the social, political and economic rights of women. But in proclaiming full personhood for women, feminism is also an assertion of basic human equality for all people. There is a reason that bell hooks wrote the aptly-titled book Feminism is For Everybody. In her own words: “Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other.” This simple, yet hard-won notion has given men and women alike a greater sense of their intrinsic worthiness.
- I can define myself by myself, thank you. All of us have inherited certain cultural mantles. A few of these mantles we will wear gladly and with authority. The bossomy, nurturing mother is one cultural mold that I have embraced (and thanks to feminism, I am able to acknowledge the comfort and privilege this convention allows me). But not all of the mantles laid upon us have been useful or comfortable. For women, many of these shrouds are either constricting or leaden, and so over time they have been dropped. Which means that women had to look plainly at what is underneath. And if she finds nothing, she may take to the loom to create something for herself. Feminism knows (and teaches) that she can do exactly that. Feminism encourages all people to acknowledge their personal identity and proclaim their capacity for self-determination.
- I’m a challenge to your balance. This is actually a lyric written by Natalie Merchant. It’s one of my favorites. It reflects something I know to be true: feminism loves a good challenge. Feminist theory is always urging us forward, asking us to examine our assumptions, to test, to question, and to transgress. Feminism allows for tremendous self-expression and diversity; I can tell you from personal experience that women’s studies conferences are rarely homogenous and they are rarely a bore. Feminism allows for many manifestations, and some of these manifestations are at odds with each other, and indeed challenging. So what? Any healthy organism has that going on. Feminism gets that and welcomes it.