Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On feminism: How far we have and haven't come

[Originally posted on Friday on my Gather page, where it's been rated 10/10 by 9 different readers and garnered 13 comments]

Sometimes I take care of my husband, and sometimes my husband takes care of me. Usually it is I who takes the cars in to get the oil changed or other maintenance/repairs done. If I left it up to Dennis - as enviably undistractable as he usually is - it wouldn't happen in what I consider to be an appropriate time frame. I want my family to be safe. I want our cars to last. And heck, when I get offered a mystery shop and his is the only car that I could use, why not get it done, when it's ultimately for free? That saves us, as a family, money.

But when I mentioned to my mom that I was getting Dennis's car fixed one day, she was horrified. She had never done that for Dad - ever. If anything, she usually had him do it for her. She worried that I might be getting into the habit of doing for my husband. She worried that I might become a bit of a slave.

Her perspective initially surprised me. Later, I realized, though, that what the conversation demonstrated was the difference between the situation of my mom's generation of women and my own. Let me explain.

There was a huge debate on Feministing a little while back about women changing their names after marriage. I posted some excerpts from it here. One of the points that came out of that debate, though, was the fact that - because feminists cannot choose to take their husbands' names upon marriage without feeling guilty, without feeling compelled to defend their decisions, without wondering whether they're just justifying a preference created in them by their socialization as women - women are not free from the influence of societal expectations on that subject. Until a woman can take her husband's name and it means nothing much different than keeping her own name (or until a woman can choose to NOT have an abortion, or until a mother can choose to NOT go back to work after the birth of her children, etc.), we are not free. We do not have free choice. Those are areas in which we haven't progressed enough.

But I do have some freedoms that my mom didn't: I can "do for" my husband without losing any of my sense of myself as a strong, independent, feminist woman. If anything, it actually shows my strength. Many women avoid taking their cars to repair shops because of the rampant sexism there. But in our house, I am the one who takes the cars in. I have enough of my own that I can afford to give some away.

I have seen men and women put forth the argument that women are privileged because they can play the gender card both ways: They can demand to be treated as strong when it suits them at some times, and they can demand to be treated as weak when it suits them at others. (The so-called Father's Rights movement is evidence that men can do the same, by the way.) I would argue that that's just more evidence of how far we haven't come: If women weren't still expected to be inherently weak and men weren't still expected to be inherently strong, we could all be both at various times - as is natural, after all - without it being so fraught with emotion and political import. And then maybe there wouldn't be women like Ann Coulter and Monica Goodling, who play up men's power to furtively secure their own, meanwhile hurting, through their example, the chances of other women nationwide who are not so willing to set back the clock for their own private gain. They only get away with it because of patriarchy. If men are jealous, they should support feminism in its fight against such problematic gender expectations. If we ever get to a time when people of all genders can choose to be weak or strong without it meaning much either way, then we'll know just how far we've come. But that's hard to imagine, I know.

[A clarification that I posted in response to one of those comments:]

I did not say that feminists are "feeling guilt about not changing your last name after marriage or guilt about killing your unborn babies"; rather, I said that they're feeling guilty about CHANGING their last names and/or KEEPING their babies because society is still so vociferous about those decisions that it's hard to know whether your decision in those directions is still actually your own. I made a decision to keep a baby myself, and as a result for a time I pointed out that one of the valuable things about legal abortion is that it enables keeping a baby to be a free choice rather than a choice between one's own life and death, and that makes it a lot easier to be a good parent during the tough times - such as the 24th month of interrupted sleep as a single student/parent. After all, most people are more likely to put their souls into the career of their choice than they would into work at gunpoint, just as most are more likely to enjoy making love than they would getting raped. But now I'm beginning to wonder whether my decision truly was free or whether I felt that it was the right choice because of all of the media-broadcast anti-abortion harping that I know I'd been exposed to even then. I resent that for clouding my certainty that where I am in my life today is where I chose to be - but really, I can't have that anyway, since I also know that part of why I am where I am today is because of my White heterosexual privilege. That's another way that we'd all benefit from true equality of opportunity: There'd be no reason to think that we'd gotten to where we are today because of anything other than our inherent abilities, our personal choices, and the equal opportunities that we all, as members of society, deserve. Oh, I'm dreaming now....


blue milk said...

Really interesting post. Every heterosexual feminist has to face these questions you've discussed and somehow reconcile their actions with their beliefs. Its interesting to read your own take on these.

Jessica B. Burstrem said...

Relevant quote of the day, from Feministing.com's interview with Mattilda about her latest book, Nobody Passes:

"we all pass [assimilate] in various ways in different scenarios [...] how do we make sure that when we are passing, we are not simultaneously enacting violence, making sure that someone else fails—-or, if no one were required to pass at all, then what possibilities for defiance and celebration and transformation might emerge?"