Another day, another argument with a conservative friend on social media. The recurring themes of 2017 — outrage and polarization — continue into 2018, and hopefully most of us have learned to pick our battles so we don’t self-immolate on a pyre of righteous indignation. Because you certainly could; there’s more than enough out there to be indignant about.
But there’s one battle I will always fight, and that’s anytime a woman says “I’m not a feminist; I don’t want to be considered a feminist; I don’t respect the feminist movement.” Mind you, if women say that in a private conversation, in their own homes, that’s fine. But if they say it anywhere in a public space, if their words are uttered aloud in public or published in paper or online, then yeah, I’m gonna tangle with them. Because they are standing on a platform that generations of feminists fought for them to have, and using that very platform to deride the movement that made it possible for them to be there.
I’ll try to get a couple of caveats out of the way as quickly as possible: Yes, you can live your life however you want. If you want to reject feminism and live the life of a typical woman in an earlier century — focused on home life, submissive to your husband or father, choosing not to pursue higher education or work outside the home — you certainly have every right to make that choice. Your actions are consistent with your beliefs.
For that matter, if you are a feminist and you want to make home and family your main focus, that’s cool too. I chose to quit work for seven years to stay home with my kids when they were small; I believe feminism is about creating a world where every woman can make the choices that are best for her (and her family if she has one). My issue is specifically with women who enjoy the advantages of feminism while distancing themselves from the movement, or outright repudiating it.
Also, I don’t have to agree with every statement every feminist on the planet has ever made in order to call myself a feminist. Feminists can and do disagree with each other. As with any “ism,” there are real and important debates within feminism. But the fact that I might disagree with other feminists about how to achieve the goal of equality for every woman (which is what feminism is; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) does not mean I am not a feminist, anymore than my intense disagreement with Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr makes me not a Christian.
Feminism is about equality, plain and simple. If you say “I don’t believe in feminism; I believe men and women should be equal,” you’re talking gibberish. To continue the analogy from my last paragraph, it’s like saying, “I don’t believe in Christianity; I just believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the World.” Oooo…kayyyy, you can make up your own names for things if you want, but you’ve just described the exact thing you claim not to believe in.
So, why am I so proud to be a feminist, and why will I always go to battle with any woman who enjoys equal rights but claims not to be a feminist? Because I’m grateful for feminism. I’m grateful for the things it allows me to do. Here are just a few of them — things I’ve been able to do this week, Jan. 28 – Feb. 3, 2018, here in St. John’s, Newfoundland, because of feminism:
1. I went to work. At my job (teaching at an adult-education centre), I’m one of the better paid instructors. Why? Because I have two master’s degrees (one in Education and one in my teachable area, English), and over 20 years of experience. At various times in the past:
- women had to leave the teaching profession after they married
- a man could be paid more than a woman for doing the same job regardless of qualifications, just because “Well, he’s a man and has a family to support.”
- women were not allowed to pursue higher education.
Without feminists, I wouldn’t have gotten my university degrees, or been allowed to continue in my job, or been paid based on my experience and qualifications rather than my gender. I’m grateful for trailblazers like Grace Annie Lockhart, who in 1875 because the first woman in the British Empire to earn a bachelor’s degree (and to Mount Allison University in New Brunswick for giving it to her). I’m grateful to everyone who ever fought for pay equity legislation and anti-discrimination laws that make it illegal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job.
2. I went home. Specifically, I went home to a husband who sees me as his equal in every way. Who doesn’t compare how much money we make or who’s more successful in their career or see our relationship as a competition in any way. Who pitches in and does his share to maintain the home we both live in; who was an equal partner in raising our children.
My dad was this kind of husband, too. He was a hands-on dad who did everything with me and did his share of work around the house. But that kind of egalitarian marriage was unusual in the 1960s and 70s when I grew up. Although my parents joked about the fact that Dad did most of the cooking (“Neither of us knew how to cook when we got married, and I got hungry first” was his reasoning), I, like most kids, thought my family was normal. Only as an adult did I find out how many of my peers had been raised by dads who had never changed a diaper or cooked a meal.
If people prefer a “traditional” marriage where paid work and mowing the lawn is the husband’s role and housework and childcare falls to the wife, that’s their choice. But many of us — growing numbers, among young people — prefer marriages where we at least strive for an equitable division of labor, a partnership between two people who see each other as equals. Thanks to feminism, families like mine are no longer considered odd or exceptional.
3. I spent some time with each of my two young adult children. Why is this significant? Because two was the exact number of children I wanted to have. Nothing wrong with having one or none or five either, but two children were what my husband and I wanted, and thanks to legal and available birth control, that’s what we got. Thank-you to birth control pioneers like Margaret Sanger and many other feminists who made it possible to choose how many kids, if any, a woman wants to have.
Marriage and family have worked out pretty well for me. They don’t work out so well for everyone, a point that was brought home to me this week when …
4. I spent some time chatting to a friend whose marriage is ending. Feminists often get blamed for divorce but the fact is that unhappy marriages long predate the feminist movement and are just as likely to happen to people with conservative, traditional views of marriage as to feminists. Throughout history, there have always been marriages that just didn’t work out. But in earlier times, people often stayed in unhappy, even abusive, marriages, because divorce was difficult to obtain and the economic cost for women was too high to consider leaving. Now, women like my friend whose marriage fails have choices. They can:
- end the marriage on the same grounds their husband can use
- share custody of their children after the divorce
- have a share of the property they jointly owned with their husbands
Thanks to feminists for fighting for those rights!
In between my day job and my family life, this week …
5. I spoke at a public event about a book I wrote. Women have, of course, been writing books for a long time, and there has never been a law that I know of prohibiting them from doing so. But for a long time books by “lady novelists” were treated as a rarity, a curiosity, something not to be taken as seriously as books by men. When novelists as great and influential as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte had to publish their books under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in hopes that those masculine-sounding names would earn their books some respect, writing by women was not treated as a serious endeavour. (Some would argue that women’s writing still gets less respect, which is an interesting and important debate, but nobody doubts that we’ve come a long way).
And as for speaking in public — well, that hasn’t always been a given either. Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” That was in the 1700s. In 1909, here in my hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland, a debating society held a public debate on whether or not women should have the right to vote. The debaters, pro and con, were all men. Women were not even allowed to attend. Some uppity feminists went off and started their own club — the Ladies’ Reading Room — so they could have a forum in which to publicly discuss issues of the day. These same women went on to demand the right to vote — imagine! Which brings me to the last thing I did this week that I owe to feminists …
6. I expressed opinions about political issues. As with speaking and writing, women have rarely been legally banned from holding opinions — though there was a time when politicians campaigned to women in the hopes that they would influence their husbands’ votes, having no vote of their own. I didn’t vote this week, but I would have if an election happened to fall during the week. In between elections, I can hold and express opinions knowing that I get to do more than just have those opinions: I have a voice and a vote in our democracy.
Those are just six things that are possible for me, this week and every week, because of the feminists of the past; six reasons I am proud to call myself a feminist. And hey, the week’s not even over yet!
So if you are a woman who, this week, has worked at a job, perhaps one you went to college to prepare for, and got paid based on your qualifications not your ovaries: feminists did that for you. If you are married to a man who treats you as an equal: feminists created a world where a marriage like yours is normal, not an oddity. If you’ve chosen to plan your family or not to have kids at all right now with the help of birth control: feminists got that for you. If you would like the ability to have access to your children and not be penniless should that husband leave you: thank feminists for the laws that made that possible. If you published an article, wrote a blog, taught a workshop, delivered a speech, or otherwise aired your views in public: feminists cleared the way for you. And if you have an opinion about who should be running your country and how they should do it: thank feminists that you not only have the right to hold that opinion, but to do something about it by voting and maybe even running for office yourself.
If all that is true and you still don’t want to call yourself a feminist because some right-wing propaganda machine has fed you their own made-up definition of what “feminism” is — well, that’s your right. Call yourself whatever you want; make up a word if you want to. But if you stand on that platform that generations of women built and use that space to say, “I hate feminists!”, don’t expect me to shut my mouth.