I had just come back from a gathering of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the DNC in an exuberant mood. Nothing gets me more charged up than a gathering of women demanding power, insisting that their voices be heard. I was sharing my experience with a group when all of a sudden, like birds chirping one after another, they repeated the refrain ” I’m not a feminist. “. I’m not a feminist” I’m not a feminist”. For a change, I was speechless. Shock can do that to you.
Which one of you isn’t a feminist? Is it the one who is newly married and pregnant for the first time at 36, regretting that she doesn’t live in a time when she would have been called an old maid if she didn’t get married by 23? Is it the one who is a successful entrepreneur, who doesn’t remember that a generation ago a woman could not borrow money without a man’s co-signature? Or is it the defiant lesbian, an influential voice for gay rights, who doesn’t make the connection between the civil rights struggles of women a hundred years ago and the civil rights struggle for gay people today?
Stop telling me you are not a feminist. Of course you are a feminist, if you believe in the guiding principle that women should be able to chart their own course with the same freedom as men, that they are entitled to the same freedoms and opportunities as men, that their voices and their choices are as deserving of respect as those of men. I know you believe that. I know you live that.
What is it that you fear, you women who denounce the word “feminist”? Are you afraid you will be lumped in with bra burners, the pioneers and radicals who dared to dream of equal opportunity? Are you afraid you will be considered a hater of men, as if real women don’t love men? Or have you been influenced by people like Rush Limbaugh, who took a beautiful word and distorted it beyond recognition- equating the struggle for human rights with the Nazi party. If Rush Limbaugh is your barometer for self-worth, shame on you.
When I asked why you dissociate yourself with feminism, one of you told me that you blame the movement for the fact that your dates no longer open your car doors nor offer to pay the dinner bill. One boor actually divided the check based upon his estimate of the ratio between what he earned vs. you. Apparently he earned less. It would be too easy for me to dismiss this with a flip “then you’re going out with the wrong guys”, which you clearly are. I’m comfortably ensconced in a marriage, light years away from today’s dating world, where the sexual and economic mores have decidedly changed for women, not necessarily for the better. But opening a car door for a woman isn’t laden with a political agenda- it’s a matter of common courtesy and decent manners. If a guy doesn’t have those, dump him. So what to do about this dilemma of wanting equality but also wanting to be treated special, of wanting to be able to earn the same dollar but also wanting the guy to pick up the check? What do you say to the guy who thinks that feminism entitles him to be a cheapskate?
You might remind the guy that women do the lion’s share of the work in this world, the work of devotion to our careers, our families and our communities. We go to school in greater numbers than men. Nowadays we often out-earn our men, but only because we’ve chosen careers in lower paying fields like education and health which continue to be in great demand. Men still overwhelmingly hog the top of the one percent. And while some men are increasing their child-rearing commitment, a whopping 40 percent of American women last year gave birth without being married at all, statistically forecasting a family life in which the dad will be all but absent in everyday life. As we get older, we do the lion’s share of caring for our parents too, forgoing our earnings in order to spend quality time with our loved ones. If your guy is both honest and bright, he knows that chances are, long-term, he’ll end up with a lot more money in his bank account than you will. But you, too, should be kind. If you can really afford to split the bill, you should at least offer to do so. Feminism is about enabling women to have choices; it is not about turning a blind eye to reality.
The next time you brag about not being a feminist, remember who you stand with in your cause. The Taliban is right beside you, telling the female representative of the US State Department to go back to her husband when she tried to do her job. The Hasidim are right beside you, insisting that their women shave their head when they marry, in obedience to God. Millions of Indians and Pakistanis stand with you, marrying their daughters off at 12 to strange, older and often abusive men.
You want to know why we haven’t achieved equality in the workplace and the home? Just look in the mirror. We are our own worst enemy.