A few days ago a woman tried to tell me that I wasn’t a feminist because I chose to stay home with my kids. She obviously took pride in the word, and was either putting down my life choices or excluding me from her club. I didn’t make the cut.
I’ve always thought that I was a feminist, according to my understanding. When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, feminism to me meant that women wanted equal rights to men. They wanted the same pay for doing the same job, they wanted an equal playing field. That made sense to my young brain. Of course women should have the right to make their own choices, the right to equal respect, opportunity, and the ability to make decisions that concern their bodies. To me, this was feminism, and I guess I never questioned it in the subsequent years.
When I finally started to ask around and question my own understanding of the word, I found that there doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted definition. The word itself seems to evoke incredible emotion from right, left, and center. Ask the younger generation, and their understanding of the word is vastly different than women in their 70’s and 80’s, yet both have strong reactions.
Can I be a feminist and a stay at home mom? What if I think that men should open doors and pay on the first date? I also don’t want to be the one dealing with the dead mouse in the garage, and I’m more than happy to trade that responsibility for making dinner most nights and doing the laundry when I have the time. I think that there should be a parent home with children while they are growing up. Of course it can be the father, and I KNOW that it’s not always financially feasible, but it’s what I believe. In my world feminists, by definition, should also have tolerance for other views. All of this might get me kicked out of most feminist clubs, but I would still argue that it’s what I am, according the definition I’ve believed my whole life.
My friends who adamantly do not want to be called feminist, believe that it has taken on the negative connotation of, as my friend Christine would say, “crazy, topless women screaming obscenities in the street.” One male friend is turned off by the term because, he says, it’s since morphed into not only disrespecting men, but thinking they are evil. Another said she feels that anyone who doesn’t agree with a self proclaimed “feminist” is immediately labeled racist and bigoted. How did this happen? The feminist that I think I am, and the self identified feminists that I know, have the most tolerance.
Beautifully put by another friend: “I think all men and boys deserve the same rights as women and girls. Transgender people also. If there are ways in which their rights or identity are being disrespected, particularly in situations where I have some power, I step in and step up. That's feminism.”
Interestingly, many of my conservative female friends are thriving in male dominated careers. All of those with whom I’ve spoken about this topic believe categorically in equal rights for women, but refuse to call themselves feminist. These are true feminists, as far as I’m concerned, whether they like the moniker or not.
So what about dating as a feminist? Can a woman still want doors opened, a man’s jacket draped over her shoulders if it’s a bit chilly, her order taken first at a restaurant and call herself a feminist? And though I would always offer to pay on a first date, I have to say, I would be turned off if the man didn’t refuse.
Soon after my divorce, I went out for drinks with a single friend. When a man at the bar offered to buy her a drink, she quickly declined. She didn’t want to “owe him anything.” I was a little surprised since he seemed nice, she was single and looking, and she wasn’t necessarily NOT interested. Is it anti-feminist to let a man buy you a drink? I believe firmly that men and women have different roles, especially in dating. I still call myself a feminist.
Some women using dating apps feel demeaned and uncomfortable by men calling them pet names and sending cutesy emojis during the first few interactions. Others like this and feel that outside of a work environment it should be ok to let their guard down and flirt a bit. Are these women not feminist? Is it ok to flirt, play the role of the traditional female and still call yourself a feminist? Is that wanting your cake and eating it too? Of course I would argue that these are not mutually exclusive.
The problem with defining equal rights in this case, as well as the term for those who believe in them, is that men and women are far more different than two people of the same gender but different race, religion or sexual orientation. The inherent differences between men and women make this a much more nuanced, and possibly harder, fight for equality. And with the current political environment and focus on sexual harassment, this may be the most important fight out there right now.
I can only really speak for myself, but I’d like to think that I speak for many women. I don’t want to BE a man, I certainly don’t stereotype or disrespect men, in fact I love men, and the differences between us. I just want access to the same opportunities, and whatever label you want to give that, that’s what you can call me.