My sense of feminism is tied up in wonderful, awesome intangibles: strength, independence, self-sufficiency, self-worth. And this is where capitalism fucked me over. While I’ve been moderately successful at driving from my head misogynist messages about beauty and femininity, I have been far less successful in driving out the capitalist messages that tie my worth to my paycheck. Thanks to living and working and breathing in a capitalist society, I have long been swimming in the notion that all these feminist intangibles were tied to one thing: earning money.
When I connect feminism to strength, I’d like it to be about internal strength and resilience. But money comes into play, along with the idea that strength comes from a bigger income, from working more, from producing more, from deftly shouldering the burden of sixty-plus-hour workweeks and endless job-related demands.
For years I have wondered, despite my loudmouth assertions, despite my unshaven legs, despite my self-uniting wedding and unchanged last name, whether I was actually a bad feminist. Years of underemployment have made me wonder if my pursuit of an equitable partnership was out of reach, undermined and overshadowed by our decidedly unequal incomes.
Over the past two years, this angst subsided. I’d like to say it’s because I became truly enlightened and realized my value as a human being outside of cash money. But in truth, it’s because I had found a job that paid me well, that I excelled in, that gave me purpose and drive and friendships. Our bank account grew, our budget relaxed. I took pride in my work, and I took pride in finally plumping up our household’s financial resources.
However, I lost that job unexpectedly this spring, and I’ve been in a tailspin on many levels. Again, I’m back to wondering whether I’m burdening my partner too much. Knowing that I’m not financially self-sufficient, how can I consider myself a strong, independent woman?
I think often about the financial privileges that comes with my marriage: the ability to be un/under-employed and still eat well in a comfortable home, the generous cash gifts given at our wedding that bolstered our bank account. When my husband’s grad school stipend supported us through my many job changes and lowly pay, I started to wonder if I should be living so well. Was any of this mine? Should I be enjoying the luxuries of brand-new sheets, organic food, and coffee and beer money?
My decision to remain unemployed while I launch my own business further complicates my feelings about spending money that I don’t earn. Everyone who starts a business needs some kind of financial protection, be it savings, loans, or a concurrent full-time job. The fact that mine comes from a hetero marriage to a white male, however, makes me realize how undeserved this cushion is. It certainly puts a spotlight on my partnership and myself. Sure we joke about marrying for the money (health insurance, amiright?), but I have to keep asking the questions: Does this decision put too much stress on my partnership? Or is it normal ebb-and-flow of life stress? Am I a housewife until I make the first dollar? Or until my income matches my old one?
Obviously, I’m not done wrestling with the capitalist demons. My period of underemployment a few years ago was a dark one for me, mentally. And now? Sudden job loss hasn’t helped me instantly recognize my full worth as a partner. How do I value myself, how do I define myself outside of income? What do I bring to my partnership and what does my partnership give back to me?
I do know that being a feminist is not dependent on holding a job. I know that humans are valuable in a way that defies dollar signs. It’s going to take me a little longer to internalize those notions. I know (I hope) I won’t have my feminist card revoked in the meantime, but maybe it’s time to add a socialist card, too.