fem•i•nist [fem-uh-nist] noun 1. an advocate of social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.
I don’t call myself a feminist, frankly because I find the term to be rather tautologous. As a young female professional, saying I am pro-women’s rights is like a botanist saying they are pro-plants… well, no kidding, where would you be without them? Certainly, there are more organized sociopolitical movements that may warrant the designation but, in general, I’m content to call myself a woman and have the rest implied.
I don’t say this to demean those advocates who wear the title with honor; I say it because I see this as perhaps the greatest enablers of gender inequity: the labels that we voluntarily assume.
I’ll start my explanation with context: recently, this age-old argument was rekindled by a feature article in the latest edition of The Atlantic, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (read: “How to Incite a Heated Feminist Debate”). The piece was penned by Ann-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor, former director of policy planning at the State Department and mother to two teenage boys. I already sympathized with her for that inevitable burden of laundry and testosterone; but more harsh was the inevitable backlash she spurred by insinuating that women were somehow incapable of being everything to everyone at any one time. To me, it seems like a logical observation. To others, it seemed like an affront to years of libber progress.
Many writers and advocates have since chewed over this concept of “having it all” and the various interpretations of motherhood as it pertains to the professional world. They’ve discussed Slaughter’s decision to leave the State Department to be more present for her sons. They’ve questioned chief of Yahoo Marissa Mayer’s decision to work through a brief maternity leave following the birth of her first child. They’ve debated whether maternal instinct should supersede business savvy or whether, in an effort to protect equality, women’s professional power should be held above traditional female roles.
In fact, there was only one question that wasn’t asked amidst this debate: who cares? The question may come across as apathy, but it’s actually a liberating declaration of disregard for popular opinion. It seems we’ve come to a point in the equal rights movement where we’ve replaced our appetite for justice with a hunger for validation. Someone tell me that I’m doing this woman thing right! We condemn those institutions that oppress, objectify or degrade women, and yet we do the same with our criticisms of other women for not being Mom-enough, Professional-enough, Wife-enough. Yes, you might be liberated enough to say that you don’t conform to society’s pressures to be thin, beautiful, well-dressed or married; but many of us are still trapped within the confines of our own feminist ideals under the pretense that we’re bucking convention.
Media and social networking play a large role in nurturing this culture of validation.Instant feedback from the masses makes us all-the-more aware of what we’re (allegedly) doing right and wrong, and how we’re fitting into macro- and microcosms of society. It also makes us more conscious of the image that we present to the public, and more apt to identify with specific labels or subcultures so that we have some sort of template from which to craft our own public persona. The labels feel safe, but they are dangerously limiting.
Mothers are the most prevalent example of this. Rarely does one fall under the designation of just a “mom”; they are a “working mom” or a “stay-at-home mom” or a “single mom,” and there are respective standards for each. The working mom strives to appease the professional community while defending her career to critics of her parenting skills. The stay-at-home mom strives to meet the potty-training and alphabet-reciting expectations of her playgroup colleagues while defending her “career choice” to other women in the workforce. The single mom is played up as either a success story or a victim of unfortunate circumstances. Some would say they are pigeonholed. I say they dug that pigeonhole themselves.
Ultimately, we don’t do ourselves any favors by blaming society for these strict standards when we are the ones adhering to them. They are not laws or physical boundaries, so the only thing binding us to them are our own insecurities about whether we are worthy of the roles we have assumed. Eleanor Roosevelt reminded us that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and we have to take some accountability for that emotion. Entertaining this debate over whether or not we sufficiently fill our ‘womanly roles’ is like giving society a green light to pass judgment, while giving the impression that we have yet to establish a comfortable footing in society. We have had rights for decades, been mothers for longer, and been women since before that; so it’s high time we stop analyzing and categorizing everything we do as some gross generalization of our gender.
Coincidentally, Eleanor Roosevelt also said “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” So whether I choose to call myself a feminist, or stay home with my children, or hold a conference call in my delivery room, that’s a decision that I make in accordance with my rights– not as a woman, but as an individual. And if the critics want to revoke my womancard, at least then I will be seen only as a person and not an open forum.
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