I heard a discussion between two supposedly learned, progressive women recently about whether a woman was a wife, a mother, or totally free. And I balked at this idea slightly.
It occurred to me (not for the first time) that some people within today’s society make a distinction of a ‘free woman’ as being somebody unencumbered by family and domestic responsibility. Free of a male partner, and most certainly free of children. To achieve and support a feminist ideal, as a woman in an educated society, it is surmised, means to be a single woman succeeding professionally and setting an example for others. I find this idea perplexing, as well as downright insulting.
I’ve always considered myself to be feminist. Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, I witnessed the tail end of the hippie free-love era, and the growth of the ambitious, shoulder-clad, ball-breaker women, all high heels, big earrings and bouffant hair. Although I never wanted to join the ranks of the overly coiffed ‘80s woman – I was more generally dressed in the late punk era Doc Martens and ripped tights. I was ambitious to prove myself as a feisty, card-carrying feminist about to change the world. My plan to do this was to become a journalist and writer, writing about the important issues to women, and to fight sexism wherever I found it. Well.
Let’s just say I took a lot of detours on the journey to becoming a writer and essayist, but the feisty feminist ideals (and the Doc Martens) remained. Initially subscribing to the idea that my ideas and individuality would be crushed by committing myself wholly to a man and producing offspring, I met an interesting, challenging, intelligent male feminist, and fell hopelessly in love. We married. We both decided we wanted children, and we had two wonderfully interesting and intelligent daughters.
This story has a happy ending: we are still married after almost nineteen years; our daughters are still all those things and much more, and are now seventeen and ten years old. But this is the thing: I’ve noticed comments from people lately, some directly, others indirectly, questioning this happy state of affairs. Not specifically aimed at myself, but more generally, questioning what it means to be a feminist at this time in history, a time when it has never been more imperative to rise against the misogyny and hate that has been growing with worrying momentum against women.
First, of these discussions have come into our home from our daughters. They have been encouraged to question all kinds of discrimination, and none more so than sexism. And they do. I just didn’t think they’d be challenging me about my behavior. As an example, I was quizzed a short while ago about my decision to change my name to their fathers when we married all those years ago. To be honest, I didn’t find it that much of a decision: we wanted children, and I felt it was nice to all have the same surnames, but besides that, I was happy and in love, and it didn’t feel like that big of a deal. Perhaps to some women, it does feel a big deal, and I have no issue with that. Next came questioning of why I’d felt the need to marry at all.
Why not just have children and live together, thus, it is surmised, I’d remain a more independent woman. Again, both my husband and I felt that it would be nice to be married, committed to one another, before having children. But even if we hadn’t wanted children, I think we would have wanted to make that commitment to one another. Again, I have no problem with anybody not feeling the need to marry before or after having children. The beauty of living in a free, enlightened society is that we get to make these choices, without the stigma and moral outrage of earlier times.
But my daughters’ questions and discussions forced me to start to consider how feminist ideals are often viewed in the current climate. It’s easy to see an unmarried woman, working in a respected profession, educated and financially independent, as a feminist. It is perhaps understandably harder to recognize a feminist when we encounter a married woman, possibly staying home and taking care of the children and everyday domestics of a smooth running home. It is difficult, perhaps, to see her amongst the woman who chooses to work part-time around her family or caring for elderly parents, or baking cakes.
In short, I think it is perhaps harder for some to recognize the everyday feminists amongst them, who don’t necessarily shout about what they are doing to combat the sexism they see, but who are doing it just the same. I don’t feel I fall on one side of the feminist ‘extreme’ or the other, probably like many feminists don’t. Women, like men, can’t and shouldn’t be checked against tick boxes, their worth or contribution to the cause weighed against how ‘feminist’ they are.
I feel that I support the movements which I believe need tackling; encouraging positive images of women, challenging stereotypes and questions of female morality and sexuality, and like I always planned when I was a stroppy teenager, I tackle sexism by doing what I think I do best; writing about it.
But I also do it by the every day seemingly innocuous things, like discussing the issues with my daughters, encouraging them to tackle unfairness and discrimination. By demonstrating to them what it is to be loved and respected by a man who shares your life and ambitions. By being a good friend and neighbor to other women who might have troubles they need to share. And yes, often by cooking a nice meal for my family, and even sometimes pushing a vacuum around the house. Just the same as my husband does.