I’m not talking about the suffragette struggle or Roe v. Wade or the ERA. Those battles were hard-fought. They paved the way for the more nuanced battles taking place now in government, in media, in the courts. What I mean by simple is this: at the time I was coming of age, during my slogan shouting, placard carrying youth, is was generally accepted that the ideology of feminism was, at its core, the act of advocating for the equal treatment of women. This encompassed equality in the form of legal, economic, cultural and social reforms: equal pay, bodily autonomy, voting, property ownership, education.
You either believe that women are equal to men and deserving of the same protected rights. Or you don’t. If you believe that, you’re a feminist. If you don’t, you aren’t.
Like any other ideology, feminism fired up a lot of rhetoric and stirred up the pot. Hardcore groups splintered off and changed the spelling of women to womyn, demanded that gendered nouns be neutralized, made us all scratch our heads over Best Actor, Female statue(ette) at the Oscars. Of course they also shone a light on shocking pay inequities, domestic violence and paved the way for legal and educational reforms, not to mention changing the way we, as a society, view girls and women. Any time a movement sets out to highlight inequality there is going to be anger. There is going to be displaced rage, there is going to be finger-pointing and denial and generalization. I still maintain however, that the heart of the matter remains: Feminism is not about thinking that women are better than men. Feminism is believing that women are equal to men. It is not believing that women and men are the same, because men and women are not the same. It is the belief that women should be granted the same privileges and legal rights as men.
Simple, right? Yet all of a sudden there seems to be a checklist. There is a list of criteria you must meet. Somewhere there is probably a Buzzfeed quiz you can take. Good feminists, bad feminists, women who like to take pictures of themselves declaring why they don’t need feminism. In all my 43 years I have yet to meet a woman who has stood up and said to me, “I believe that granting women the right to vote was wrong!” or “Men should get paid more for doing the same job!” or “It should be legal to discriminate against a person on the basis of their sex!”
If those women do exist then they have earned the right to opt out and frankly, I don’t want to know them. But women who think they are not feminists because they wear makeup or do housework? Women who declare they don’t need feminism because they like looking after their man or because they fear that labeling themselves feminist means they are somehow victims in need of protecting? Pffft, I say.
It doesn’t matter if you wear makeup because you like the way your eyes pop when you wear mascara, what matters is that you believe a woman doing the same job as a man should be paid the same amount.
It doesn’t matter if you wear high heels because you like the way your calves look, what matters is that you believe laws should not favor men simply because they are men.
It doesn’t matter if you like to bake or wear an apron or wear pink, plastic gloves to avoid dish pan hands, what matters is that you believe value should not be assigned on the basis of sex alone.
It doesn’t matter if you like to make lunch for your husband every day, what matters is that you believe you should be legally and socially protected from a spouse who would beat you for not doing those things.
You can be a feminist in a heterosexual marriage or relationship.
You can be a feminist who believes in God (or who doesn’t).
You can be a feminist who has children.
All of the above involve taking part in either a legal, religious, or cultural institution which was created to or has perpetuated the subjugation of women at one time or another. But I have to believe that people are multi-faceted. I have to believe that you can marry a man in equality, that you can believe in your own version of God, that raising children or staying at home with them is not mutually exclusive to the belief system that women are meant to be barefoot and pregnant.
Feminism is not about putting someone else down in order to make yourself feel better. In fact, that is the exact language I use with my children to describe bullying. Feminism is not refusing to cook a meal because a woman in the kitchen is a sexist notion. Feminism is not throwing your contemporaries under the nearest bus because they make a different choice. Feminism is not forcing a belief system on another. Feminism doesn’t need to be as complicated as it has become.
Men and women are not the same. Nothing has taught me that more than raising two young boys. In fact, I would argue that raising boys is one of the most feminist acts I’ve undertaken because I am raising them not as boys, but as people who are taught to respect other people--male or female. Sure, I make sure I throw in a lesson on Anne Bonney when the pirate talk starts or highlight the discoveries of Madame Curie or the soccer talents of Mia Hamm. But overall, I hope that I am teaching them to see the value in the person, not the sex.
There are lots of things about inequality that are complicated. There are layers of reasoning and institutionalization that make it even more so.
Let’s not make the basic belief complicated as well.
**It was a conscious decision not to touch upon feminism and female sexuality. Issues involving the gross sexualization of women, violent crimes against women and the recent steps to strip women of their legal reproductive rights are all pressing matters that are deserving of the attention not just of an ideology, but of society on the whole. Those things are part of the feminist movement, as they must be, but they must be addressed not only from the perspective of feminism. There must be a clear cultural shift in attitude, backed by legal and economic systems.