Clarifying The Language Of Feminism
I was born in 1956. In 1968, I heard about what was then called “Women’s Liberation” for the first time. I was twelve. Since you like math—despite what Barbie said—you already figured that out.
I remember, we sat under a California pepper tree at my little hippie school, surrounded by the tar scent of field weeds. Our teacher spoke just to the girls. Her voice was hard to hear over the blood pounding in our wrists. I said to myself even then, “This is big.”
However, being twelve in 1968 also meant the era of academic feminism passed me by. What with working, raising children, reading escapist literature before bed, and drinking too much red wine, I never participated in the theoretical discussions apparently common to later generations.
But hit you where you live, shove-the-rock-up-the-hill feminism? That passed no one by. When I hear young women say they “aren’t feminists” I want to curl up and cry. Except girls don’t cry. Kidding. Feminism is not just for smarty-pants, or leftists, or people who cut their hair asymmetrically. It’s required if humans are to merit our privilege at the top of the food chain.
And right now the language of feminism is confused. We need to clarify. Here’s my take.
What Feminism Isn’t
Back in the 90s I used to say, “I don’t hate men. I married one, I gave birth to a baby one. How could I hate them?” I’ve worked in male-abundant industries on and off since 1983, my happiness in my job independent of gender percentages. In all this time, I have seen no evidence of a unified patriarchal conspiracy. Some men like women, some do not. Some want equality, others do not.
We don’t have to assume conspiracy by the dominant to liberate the oppressed.
Being Treated Equally
Men and women aren’t “equal,” as in “the same.” Any attempt to parse out “equal” leads to infinite angels dancing on the heads of infinite pins. Men and women are biologically different, and we can’t disappear that fact unless we develop an infrastructure that allows babies to grow as well in aquarium tubes as they do in women.
Celebrating The Female, Per Se
We can Celebrate The Female, or not, independent of feminism. Cultures celebrate the same women they oppress. Think about it.
What Feminism Is: An Immodest Proposal
Equal Access To Power—Taking Down The Barriers
Let’s clarify. We don’t have the right that power be awarded us just because we’re women. We do have the right to equal access to power. And, if we want to realize that right, we have to take down barriers.
And they’re everywhere, barriers, from institutions—both formal and informal—through public and private spaces, all the way into our deepest feelings.
Institutional & Formal: At the very least, all institutional barriers to power should be eradicated. No public laws or private bylaws should prevent women from access to power. I think we are mostly there in the American legal framework. However, we see immediately that some churches remain the final bastions of denial. They are protected, and any changes will be hard fought.
Private clubs that are secret enclaves of decision-making, watch your backs.
Institutional & Informal: Informal barriers to participation in institutional power should also be blown up. This is much harder.
- We need accessible high-quality childcare. Twenty-five years ago, when I announced my pregnancy to my sales colleagues, my boss’s boss said to me, “Lisa, I thought you were a career girl.” Um, right. Childcare needs to get better, parental leave needs to be understood as both maternal and paternal options.
- Eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite the jokes those required online courses inspire, harassment is a real thing.
- Communication styles, stereotyping, and relationship to expressed emotion. Also known as Don’t Cry At Work. This last is where feminism, and the evolution of consciousness around emotion and authenticity, converge.
What do I mean by that last point? While Brené Brown researches the value of vulnerability, Sandberg encourages Leaning In. We wonder, must we channel square-jawed John Wayne for true access to power? Or is the Healing Goddess a workable role model? In reality, much of the developed economy functions through fighting. Work is a battle against competitors or peers, and in a fight, no one is allowed to show weakness. The degree to which we can change the culture of economic and political institutions—for women—will depend on the rate at which those cultures evolve for everyone.
Individual & Public: What about power experienced in the broader society? Not institutional, but the web of values and behaviors. Here we deal with some bloody social and psychological strongholds.
- Rape. Until the threat of rape disappears, since it’s much more frequent against women than men, we will be without equal power to walk alone.
- The appeal of our bodies and their role as sales tools. Nobody should use any breasts but their own as marketing Calls To Action.
Individual & Private: And access to personal power in the private realm? To power in our homes, in our hearts, in our dreams at night? Some of what we face men do too.
- All humans want recognition. Real personal power comes from supporting the dreams of those you love, vs. grabbing at your share.
- Definitions of attractiveness. Is makeup a feminist issue? Is weight? Here’s the thing. Men have physical appearance requirements for access to power too. So I’m going to say no. It’d be utopian if humans didn’t care how everybody looked, didn’t make snap judgments, but utopia is highly unlikely in our lifetime.
However, some of women’s issues with private power are rooted in historical patterns of fertility and child sustenance.
- Our culture doesn’t correctly value the work of raising children. This is also known as Freedom To Get A Haircut whenever you like. My most consuming and irrational moment of rage as a young stay-at-home mother came when my then-husband said on a Saturday, “I think I’ll go get a haircut.” Child raising cannot be defaulted to the mom, and assumed to be free or low-cost.
- Housework, see also, Who Does It? Answer should be, it depends on skills and bandwidth.
- Abortion. Ah, so difficult. At least in America. More complicated, beyond the obvious possible sorrows, because it’s both public and private. There’s no pure theoretical model that gives us a good answer, so I answer the question, myself, without reference to feminism per se. I answer pragmatically, looking for the most good for the most people. And if you want my opinion, let’s talk in the comments so as not to blow this post up. It was a lot of work.
So are you a feminist? I don’t know. Let’s see. Do you believe in Equal Access To Power? Yes? Do you then act in accordance with your beliefs? Beliefs you sit on might not count. Acting demands bravery, to face down your father who said you couldn’t be that smart, your minister who counseled you to obey, your boss who told you not to be such a girl about it, and your husband who silenced you at the dinner table. And yes, it takes a deep breath and resolution to have it out with your teenage daughter for disdaining your work as home-sustainer.
So are you a feminist? Let’s not ask that question any more if the answer involves checkboxes. If we treat feminism as a long rolling struggle, rather than dogma, we’re going to have more useful discussions. Useful discussions defined, of course, as those that lead to progress.
First you break the problem down, then you take it on. Bit by bit.
Here’s what I want, after fifty-seven years of being female. Logic, not hatred. Equal access, not guaranteed outcomes. Strength, not succor. We can’t ignore our biology, but civilization’s evolution depends on rising above the biological in so many areas. Feminism isn’t unique.
And if anyone, anywhere, believes that women shouldn’t have equal access to power, they are denying an awful lot of people baseline humanity.
Which brings us to lipstick. I wear this one. It’s the color of my lips, only more saturated. Feel free to derive multiple metaphors. It’s a privilege to talk to you.