Saturday, October 15, 2011

The (Other) F- Word

I had a lunch meeting with an undergraduate student who was considering graduate school the other day. We were chatting, sharing stories, having a good time. At some point, I mentioned this blog and, in doing so, labeled myself a feminist: "I write a blog about feminist mothering."

She immediately responded. "Yeah. I don't really consider myself a feminst feminist." She went on to talk about how much she enjoys the things her grandmother has taught her--things like cooking and sewing--and how her feminist friends say you can't do those things and be feminist.
It was sad to see this young woman--bright, ambitious, educated--so deliberately deny the label "feminist," but I couldn't argue with her logic. You shouldn't accept a label that asks you to reject other parts of yourself, and if that's what she feels like identifying as a feminist does, how can I ask her act otherwise?

It reminded me of this May NPR interview with Meghan Daum on Talk of the Nation in which Daum discusses Sarah Palin's self-identification as a feminist. Daum also tackled the issue in a LA Times article. In both, she gives the following definition of a feminist:
View men and women as equals; see your gender as neither an obstacle to success nor an excuse for failure; laugh at yourself occasionally; get out of bed in the morning; don't forget to vote.
The beauty of this definition is that it can apply to men and women, liberals and conservatives, rural and urban-dwellers, and a host of other opposing ends of different spectrums. This definition focuses on gender equality without attaching that equality to other, tangential, values.

In the NPR article, Daum explains that the word feminist "has become associated with almost aesthetics more than actual ideas."  

While that's certainly not true of everyone who promotes feminist ideals, I see her point. And it seems a conflict of aesthetics (and not ideals) that led my student to reject feminism. After all, what part of gender equality says it's not okay to sew? Not any part based in logic and certainly not any part that recognizes people as the multi-faceted and complex individuals they are. 

If we start defining feminism by picking out the qualities of its most vocal supporters, the word loses a lot of its meaning.

So, while I may disagree with Sarah Plain on. . . well, on pretty much everything, I can't use that disagreement to deny her access to the term "feminist" because "feminist" doesn't mean "women (or men) who agree with me." While, yes, labels need limits in order to have meaning, we need to make sure that we are setting those limits based on the ideas the label is actually meant to encompass and not just trying to keep people out of the clubhouse.

Also, I'm a little jealous of people who can sew.

Photo credit: tsuacctnt

1 comment:

  1. That's funny, in a sad way. For me, feminism means teaching my son basic life skills like cooking, sewing, and cleaning (and hammering nails, fixing stuff, balancing a checkbook, etc.)--not just any daughters I might have. I don't know a single feminist who hopes for a world in which no one knows how to sew or bake and we must make our way through life without clothes or brownies.

    Especially when I taught in North Carolina (gender stuff amongst undergrads seems way stronger in the US south than in the midwest), I had so many young women begin comments with "I'm not, like, a FEMINIST, but ..." Sucks. They often seemed to identify feminism with a movement designed to make them pay for their own meals on dates.

    I wonder how those women will identify in ten or fifteen years. I'd be genuinely curious to know whether the pressures and shifts of leaving college, entering the workforce, moving away from dating-as-central-to-social life, and maybe having children (among other life events) push these women further away from the word feminism or change how they see the movement.

    I do know that some students have a hard time reconciling my obvious joyful love of my young child and husband and our family life (not to mention the fact that I wear skirts) with the idea of me being "a feminist." Funny, as my more radical and committed feminism sprang directly from my experiences of pregnancy/birth/parenting.