What Does Feminism Mean To Me?

Someone posed this question on a blog, and many answers followed, many from women who seem eager to disavow feminism and detach themselves from the word.

Not surprisingly.  The word feminism does have some ugly connotations, though I suspect that many of the ugliness originated in false accusations hurled by people who feel threatened by change.

I have never considered myself a “feminist” because as someone who works in academia, the term to me has scholarly associations to movements that are quite complex in their philosophy and vision, and I honestly do not know enough about these movements to count myself among the feminists.

I have never considered myself “not a feminist,” however, because saying so would suggest that I agree that feminists are strident men-haters without a cause, or that, as one blogger ironically posted without any self-awareness of irony what-so-ever, the only difference is that men get paid more than women but otherwise we are all the same.  I am not asinine.  I have been a woman all my life (gasp!) and while usually I don’t complain about it, you’d have to be one thick-skulled, popularity-focused, threatened woman to assert with righteousness that you are not feeling the consequence of discrimination.  Your definition of discrimination must be a very narrow one if gender has never played a role for you in whether or not a teacher liked you or disliked you, whether or not your ideas were taken seriously or not, whether or not you got ripped off at the mechanics, or a salesman tried to sell you a $10,000 window and told you to pray on it, then halved the price when your husband walked into the room.

I cannot speak for others, of course, but I suspect that when women say they are not feminists, what they say is that they like a certain degree of chivalry in the treatment they receive from men.  They want to be taken out to dinner, be bought jewelry and complimented on their beauty.  They want the right to choose to take care of family and children without participating in the corporate rat race. They want their freedom to enjoy a life of baking cookies for children’s parties and diamond-ring anniversaries — and there is nothing wrong with any of this in my opinion.  Some women simply don’t want to feel guilty about their husbands, fathers and brothers taking over decisions affecting their finances.  They also resent being made to feel guilty for loving children.  These, I think, are questions of personal choices.  I think it’s thanks to feminism that we can even have a discussion about whether or not you do have a personal choice to stay home and raise a family or go to work and build your ambition.

This idea of the raging feminist who spits on the housewife and ridicules her for making cookies I think is a bit of a caricature, one of the usual icons that as a culture we have bought into hook line and sinker, without bothering to ever look into the real details of what we talk about when we talk about gender inequality.

One of the byproducts of feminism, is, after all, that men, too, now have a choice to stay home and be dads and house takers, something that would have been impossible in another age.  I don’t really see that as hating men: I see this as giving an opportunity to both genders to bond with their child and to be a nurturing figure to him or her.  I don’t see why home-caring should be the exclusive territory of women anymore than I see the corporate rat race as being the exclusive territory of men.  Feminism, to me, at least, implies that we can make a choice about the kind of life we want to lead, without being forced into traditional roles that may or may not suit our personal talents and ambitions.

Feminism to me means that we can be as outraged about a man in his thirties trying to pick up a teenage girl on a bycicle as we we already are when we think of a man in his thirties trying to seduce an underage boy.  The way I view feminism is that we can look at sexual bullying towards young men and women with equal outrage, whether the bullying comes from an older man or an older woman, and whether or not it’s directed at the opposite sex or the same sex — particularly if the person it is directed to is a child.

Not being a feminist, on the other hand may mean buying into the “tradition” that rape and underage seduction are the fault of the woman or girl, that sexual charm is a sin that we must eradicate by any means necessary from a girl, and we must not hold accountable boys and men if they fall under the spell of sexual charm because woman is inherently evil and men just can’t help themselves: they are like animals and they act like animals in heat when they see a sexually attractive woman.  Not being a feminist seems to me to degrade men at large, by reducing them to animals that think with their penises, who only want one base thing.  When you say you’re not a feminist, is that what you mean?  Do you feel that your breasts and vagina are evil? Do you find the necessity to cover them up, hide them, hide yourself from view last you should inspire a rape?  Do you believe that a five year old girl can be seductive and deserve to be raped? Can you look at your son and your daughter and tell them that?

To me, feminism means that as a teacher, I wonder why girls have so much less confidence, so much less self-assurance then boys.  I wonder why they are less likely to speak up in class, and more likely to show their brilliance covertly, in writing that is meant for my eyes only.  As someone who cannot say that she is not a feminist, I would like to see a class where both girls and boys are active in class participation, where girls, like boys, are not so afraid of failing, because failure is the best of teachers, and failing teaches you to do things right.  I would like to see the feminism that enables girls to fail with confidence and know that there is always another opportunity, to know this with certainty, like so many boys already do, and bless them for thinking so.

Feminism to me means acknowledging that something goes terribly wrong in the psyche of a girl during her growing years, and this sense of inadequacy that is inherited by them must be investigated because we love our children, the girls as much as the boys, and we want all of them to be happy.  Are men happy in relationship with women who are so insecure that they need constant reassurance? When we say we are not feminists, do we mean that we want to usher in an age again when women are unable to form their own opinions, when they must ask permission to think, when they need reassurance from their partners on a moment to moment basis because they have always been taught to think of themselves as less than [you fill in the blank]?  Even in this age of so-called gender equality, many opinionated and brilliant women find themselves at odds with their mothers and fathers, who cannot accept the simple fact of their having opinions.  This is not a dream: this is so.  If you have a perfect and loving relationship with your father and mother, and they both accept you exactly as you are, you probably owe this to feminism.

Yet, most women who rant against feminism are in fact actually filling in the caricature role of the angry feminist: they are so full of outrage, and full of opinion.  They are products of what feminism brought to them: the right to voice an opinion without fear.  The irony of this!

And those who hate feminism continue to claim that things were better when we could not inherit land, when we had to be married off to men we didn’t know, when we couldn’t work to support ourselves and if our husbands lost their jobs our only option was to watch our children starve.  They seem blithely unawares that in some countries, like Brazil, when men tire of their wives, they burn or scar them first before they divorce them because that way they are sure those women won’t find other sexual partners, and the law protects these men.

Women still do not have a constitutional amendment that guarantees their vote.  While racial minorities have these, women still must rely on the good will of men to continue to participate in the process of democracy.  Although women today are landowners and productive forces of society, their participation in democracy is balanced nonetheless merely on perception and good will.  To me, not being not a feminist means that I would like to see women’s constitutional rights guaranteed in our democracy.  It would also be nice if I could go to another country, like India for example, and not have to be afraid of being gang raped if I get on the wrong bus.  Actually, I would like this to be true of America as well.

Beyond the policial obviousness of all this articles, I will present another right that I believe feminism has given women: the right to be ugly.

Many people, both men and women, see ugliness as a personal offense.  Although I consider myself these days moderately attractive for my age, I cannot say that I could ever call myself beautiful in the traditional sense.  For many years of my life, I have been so awkward and physically “uncured” that many people, complete strangers, felt compelled to walk up to me and tell me, as though this were news to me, that I am ugly.  Thanks, Sherlock. What a genius you are.  Now that you told me, my world is revealed.

There are ugly guys everywhere you turn around. By my standards anyway, most guys are really, really quite homely.  Not that they don’t possess their charms.  Most of the men I’ve been attracted to have not necessarily been paradigms of beauty: they had self confidence, intelligence, humor and other things that made them attractive. Of course, ugly women have these, too, but if we buy into a non-feminist way of thinking, being ugly is a sin, and women who do not reflect the traditional paradigm of beauty are necessarily divorced from anything that is good in society.  They must be told of their flaws from their mothers, sisters, friends and husbands.  In India, girls who are of marriage age must sit before their potential fiance and be subjected to a detailed listing of their physical and character flaw.  Lest we should exile these antiquated practices to other countries, my students have confessed to me that part of their sorority initiation involved their standing naked before their fraternity brothers, who marked their physical flaws with a felt pen, circling fat and bumps etc that these boys considered unattractive.

Of course, if your only standard in a bride is her level of attractiveness, you’re bound to get bored sooner or later, and disappointed, as aging spares no one.  Then without feminism we are back at the time when men sought their freedom through murder of their wives or abandonment. Divorce, lest we forget, is another happy bi-product of feminism.  The option is not a happy family, as the popular media would have you believe. The true alternative to divorce in a world without divorce is murder and abandonment.

Of course beauty and sexual allure works in favor of women as much as physical strength and strategy works in favor of men: but feminism is merely saying that if these are the only powers that enable survival, then most of us will find themselves wanting. It is unfair to pretend that women can do karate chops like men: that is not feminism. Let is not confuse feminism with consumerism.  The Karate-chopping Anjolina Jolies have breasts so large that in real life they probably can barely jog.  You cannot have your cake and eat it too, Katniss Everdeen.  Show me an ugly girl in Hunger Games, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll think we’re reaching an age of gender-equality in the media.  Peeta, after all, is ok, but not all that.

As someone who has sometimes passed for cute and pretty, but never for beautiful, I cannot count the times that opportunities passed by me because I was not beautiful.  Girls who are pretty have a tendency to disavow feminism: they have been treated with kids’ gloves from chivalric men eager to make an impression on them who fix their cars, their plumbing, their electricity for free, buy them drinks, give them promotion and raises all for the hope of a… date.  Ok, no wonder then these type of women/girls see feminism as a threat.  They rightly do not want to give up their power.

Ugly or plain girls, on the other hand, are frequently dismissed as making too much noise if they are trying to right an injustice; they are expected not to bother the rest of the world with their needs.  I am glad that feminism gave ugly girls the means to take care of themselves without the interest of a man, which they have little hope to attract, given the competition.  This opportunity to be self-sufficient in the world in spite of lacking beauty or “normalcy” (according to whatever definition of normalcy our social views impose) has also enabled disabled and challenged minorities from attaining degrees of self-sufficiency that were virtually unknown in previous decades.

This, too is thanks to feminism: or would you rather that we just do as the Spartans, and kill whoever is not perfect, just throw them off a cliff?  The Romans used to kill their ugliest men and women during a festival every year. They’d drive them out of their homes with the whip, strike their genitalia and pelt them with rotten fruit and rocks until their exile or demise.

I am also glad that feminism has empowered many of these young girls to feel all right about using their beauty and sexuality to their advantage, to feel less than disgraceful if they have used their sexuality with more than one person, for reasons other than love. Sleeping your way to the top is looked down upon mostly by women who call themselves not a feminist.  It seems a bit hypocritical from this end: if the only power you want to give women is in their beauty, why punish them for using it to fruitful ends?

Men do it all the time.  This does not mean that love cannot exist in such a world: what it does mean is that when it is more likely to exist, because the screens of sexual drive and superficial attraction will have faded by the time young people make a decision about how they feel about each other. Those who disavow feminism, however, emphasize chastity as if that didn’t immediately create unequal circumstances and elitism, as, by the non-feminist standards, men cannot be virgins: they must find their fodder somewhere, therefore creating an unending cycle of good girl/bad girl, where neither the good girl nor the bad girl can ever claim to entirely have a hold on that elusive ostensible loyalty from man, given that in that paradigm, we each present only half of a whole.

Being a feminist to me means having a right to choose your own ambitions.  It means not having either/or propositions: you can be a career woman, and you can be a mother.  You can be non-sexual or promiscuous. If there are consequences to these, the consequences are our own responsibility. It’s not one way or the other.  And if a man left you and took all your money,  and you are left to your own devices to raise a child, it means having the resources to do it, with hard work, with discipline, with nurture and love.

It doesn’t mean that man are useless or less useful than they were: a child needs his father. This is true. But being a feminist also means that if the birth father — or the birth mother! — doesn’t live up to an appropriate standard as a parent, that the other parent has the option to find another partner who will.  My beautiful step daughter has a beautiful child, whom she has raised mostly alone for the first years of this child’s life, with little financial or emotional support from the birth father.  The birth father is not a bad man: he simply lacks maturity and self motivation, and because of it, he is not a positive father figure, and simply cannot be until something fundamental changes — and we are no longer holding our breath.  With feminism, we can hold such an immature person accountable. It wasn’t possible before then.  My stepdaughter and her child would have been dependent financially on this man for the rest of their lives — shackled to failure with no hope of escape.

Now  my step daughter has found a partner who, for the past few years has been a better father figure to her child then his birth father. This is a fact.  If we did not have feminism, my beautiful, smart, talented grandchild would have a missing father figure, or, if present, an un-inspiring example to emulate, and he would have a mightily unhappy and stressed mother.  Instead, he has a family, a real family, with a father who absolutely adores him and takes care of him, and with a mother who is loving and hard working, and a generous provider of love AND financial stability.  My grandchild can look confidently towards a future, because his mother and his step-father are both working together to bring him that.

That is what feminism is to me.

Published by laura

I'm the author of two short story collections, a story cycle, and a collection of short memoirs. I am an educator, literary translator, journal editor, and writing coach.

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