November 29, 2007

Why I am a feminist


If you asked my mother if she considered herself a feminist, she would probably say no.

"Me? A feminist?" she would say, "I just am who I am."

Whether or not my mother calls herself a feminist, she is the one who planted the seeds of feminism in my upbringing. As a child growing up in Maryland, my mom urged me to perform well in school so one day I could become a doctor or a lawyer or an astronaut. The whole world was ripe in my fingertips. When I told my mom that I wanted to become a pediatrician, she clasped her hands and smiled---a dream come true for a Chinese mother. A daughter with a stethoscope hanging around her neck.

Besides her frequent admonitions for me to "sit like a lady," my mother never pushed gender roles onto me. My brother and I were held to the same standard in our family. We both played piano and violin. We both had to do yard work. We both washed the dishes and vacuumed the floor. We both had to excel in school. I was never told that I couldn't do anything because I was a girl. Indeed, my mother would have balked if I chose anything less than a highly successful, straight-A existence.

In college, my feminism began to show itself in subtle ways. I wrote my history papers on the "It" girls of the Roaring Twenties and the noblewomen of medieval France (women who shook their respective spheres in quiet and raucous ways). Oftentimes I racked my mind over my future career---should I become a college professor or a museum curator? What graduate school should I attend? I had yet to identify myself with feminism, but it was peeking its head into my life in a variety of ways.

In fact, it reared its beautiful head one night during my junior year at BYU. I had been dating a guy for a few weeks when we randomly began to talk about parenting. Casually, my boyfriend remarked, "Well, I want my wife to stay at home." His comment made me blink hard, but I dumbly agreed with him because I was young and naive and this was my first real boyfriend. Not the pretend type that I had back in the sixth grade.

Once I returned to my apartment I told my roommate how much his remark had bothered me. Didn't his future wife have any say in the matter? It was as if he had made the decision for her even though he had yet to meet the girl. Deep inside my heart I knew that our relationship was doomed to fail. If my newfound boyfriend wanted to make career choices for his future wife, then I was certainly the wrong girl for him.

And yet, my feminism remained dormant until I graduated two years later. Ironically, it took a heartbreaking relationship to awaken the feminist dragon inside me. At the age of 22 I stood at a strange crossroads---either change my core beliefs to salvage my relationship or remain heartbroken with my integrity intact. Looking back now, the choice seems ridiculously and frustratingly simple but at the time I thought I was in love. (I was very stupid too.)

In my grief I turned to books for solace. Preferably non-fiction. I wanted tomes that were grounded in reality---in supposed facts---rather than the made-up worlds and characters of the fiction I had always preferred. I didn't want to read about love or people falling in love or people becoming disenchanted by love. Because I had too much of that in my own life.

One day my roommate Alexis, who had just started her Masters degree, lent me her copy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. I carried the book to me to work everyday and fingered its pages every night before heading to bed. It was entrancing. I had always known about the injustices that women have encountered throughout history, but here was a book that provided a real voice to the agonizing plight that women---even modern women---have suffered from.

I was humbled. My mother had raised me in a world where my dreams could become a reality, where I could grow up to be a heart surgeon or a helicoptor pilot or a president of a country. I was raised to be a strong and independent woman yet I was becoming a jiggly pile of goo for my relationship. Billions of women before my birth had been forced to align with the sexist cultures and societies that they lived in---so why was I so willing to give up my very being to suit the tastes of an unremarkable man?

It was then when I finally embraced the word feminism. I embraced the works of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who pushed for women's suffrage. I embraced women like Betty Friedan who tirelessly worked for female advancement in the workplace. I embraced the all the women who opened the doors of education and opportunity for my generation.

I am a feminist today because I believe in equality. I believe in choice too---a woman's choice to dictate life on her own terms rather than on the rules and expectations of sexism and gender roles. I believe that the banner of feminism must be spread around the world to countries still wrapped in misogyny. To places where women cannot vote and cannot pursue an education. To places where women are still treated as property and chattel rather than as human beings.

On the surface, I may not look like our society's characterization of a feminist. I love to wear nice clothes and I have a penchant for high heels. I shave my legs and armpits. Oh, I'm married too. And did I mention I'm Mormon? But feminism isn't about raving lesbians who want to kill the entire male species. Feminism is about equality and it's about choice. Do some feminists take this ideology to the extreme? Of course. But their views shouldn't eclipse what lies at the heart of feminism---the empowering of women so they can stand as equals by their male counterparts.

8 comments:

  1. Love this. Love you! Yet another reason I am proud--and incredibly lucky--to call you my friend!

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  2. Aah, feminism. First off- you are what I think feminsm should mean. However, I think the confusing thing about feminism these days is that, like the term Christianity- it has come to mean so many things to so many people that it doesn't really mean anything, anymore. Does that make sense? "Feminists" are for and against pornography, women staying at home, Victoria Secret, and the list goes on and on. Sometimes I see feminism as just another way for women to fight with, instead of for, each other. Am I babbling?

    I intend to read the Feminine Mystique, but haven't had the chance thus far. I wonder if you heard the hub-bub about a book that recently came out, called the Feminine Mistake? About women who are "mistaken" enough to stay home and trust that their husbands will provide. And how women can never hope to stay home with their small children and then have a meaningful career. All points that I actually agree with. The problem with the book (and her brand of feminism) is that her solution is that women should not stay home with their children. Why, I wondered, could the solution not be to change our entire system in order to accomodate both roles most women wish to fill (think "sweden," again)? I love staying home with my kids and feel fulfilled by it, but I also look forward to having a career once they are in school. Many "feminists" would feel my priorities are backwards. That's what rubs me wrong, I guess.

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  3. I agree with you, Jame. Feminism has indeed become one of those broad ambigious terms. And it has also become a serious point of contention between some women--which I find tragic because I think the underlying foundation of of feminism is to unite women. It should bring us together so we can fight the inequalities we face as women.

    I read a fantastic book recently called "The Price of Motherhood" and I think you would find it extremely thought-provoking. The book basically asks this simple question: if motherhood is the most important job in the world, then why is it so undervalued in our society?

    The writer of the book, Ann Crittenden, was a writer for the NY Times before she decided to stay home with her new baby. Once she became an SAHM, she began to notice that people looked down at her for her choice. And she wondered why.

    The book was an eye-opening one for me. Mothers do indeed pay a high "price" for choosing to stay at home. They are punished in the workplace for taking time off to raise kids. They are often forced out of their busy careers once they start having children. And stay-at-home moms tend to fare very poorly in the aftermath of a divorce. Many of these women live below the poverty line.

    Crittenden argues that our society needs to take a serious turn in how we view mothers. In the book, she pushes for more opportunities for women to have flexible work schedules, for SAHMs to be recognized as employed rather than as dependents by the government, for better divorce laws to take care of SAHMs, etc. She also includes information about how countries like Sweden have created policies to help both mothers (and fathers) to make the transition to parenthood.

    I haven't read The Feminine Mistake, but from what I understand the author is arguing that women need to protect themselves by having a career in case of divorce or just for their own sanity. In essence, this writer is trying to help women within our current socio-economic system. (Whether she is right or wrong is another debate entirely.) Crittenden, on the other hand, wants to change our system. She finds it unfair to women and especially unfair to women who want to stay-at-home with their kids.

    While Crittenden's ideas are idealistic, I find them extremely compelling. In America, we constantly tout how "family values" are central to our beliefs. Yet motherhood is continually overlooked. So, like Crittenden, I have to ask: how do we change this dilemma? How do we help women who opt to stay at home? How do we help women who want to balance career and family?

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  4. Yes! Yes! Yes! I must read it. That is exactly what I was trying to say. We have to reach a point, as a country, where we say that our children really are more important than our GDP. Now, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive, but in the abscence of reasonable work/family policies in US companies most women are forced to choose. And, both sides are suffering. Companies are losing valuable employees who quit to raise children and, worse, children are losing Mamas who face unrealistic pressure to be everything to everyone.

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  5. I have to say that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with feminists like Betty Friedan. Sure they led the way for us to have a choice, but if they had it their way, we wouldn't.

    Anyway, we've talked about this before, but I'm just glad that more young feminists like yourself are starting to realize that unlike generations before us, we DO have a choice. And that totally rocks.

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  6. On a totally unrelated note, I have a book recommendation for you. It is called "House of Leaves," by Mark Z. Danielewski. It is AWESOME. I think you will really like it. I think it is my new favorite book.

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  7. Oh I love you Caroline and am with you 100%! That boyfriend at BYU sounds so lame...who the heck makes those kind of decisions for their future wife? Lame people, I tell you. Anyway, I am all for the feminism you described and so is my hubby! I need to read the Feminine Mystique - thanks for the recommendation.

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  8. Yay for feminists!

    I think the misconception about earlier feminists was that choice had to mean leaving the home. They had to advocate for women who wanted to be outside the home because they were in the minority. But the feminists that wanted to stay at home may have been making a choice and no one knew, because it happened to look like a lot of women's lives.

    Since I work for a feminist organization, and have seen the women's health world, I can say that yes, that choice only goes one way is a total misconception. I have been to board meetings where women brought their babies. I read in an article that Hillary Clinton let one of her staffers bring her mother to work with her to watch her newborn baby so she could keep working on the campaign. These are examples of the true feminist spirit. In the man's world, work and family are separate. In the feminist's world, they never are.

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