Through the Looking Glass: The Rabbit Hole of "Feminism"
Recently, in conversation with my father, I casually called myself a ‘feminist’… the same way one would identify themselves as American or Chinese, tall or short. It was a simple, succinct term to indicate someone who believes that women should be treated as equals to men: at work, at home, and in the social sphere. To my surprise, my father (one of those “fiscally conservative” guys who looks like just about any man in the House of Representatives) raised his eyebrows at me.
He replied in a tone more well-suited to someone having just told him they thought the Earth was flat and humans actually rode on the backs of dinosaurs at some point in history. I thought my dad was progressive enough to realize that the term ‘feminist’ indicates someone we should all be proud to know: someone who participates in politics, who stands up for equality, and who works to better the lives of others. I know my father admires those types of people, and he certainly doesn’t want me to be treated like a second-class citizen.
So where was the disconnect? Years of male-driven media backlash against feminists have apparently led my father to believe that a feminist is essentially an abrasive, blood lusty attack-mode vagina… just as he pictures a guy in a thong and feathered headdress any time he hears the words “Gay Pride” (yet he has met many of my gay friends, enjoys their company, and thinks people should leave sexual preferences out of politics). In many ways, my dad is the litmus test of the average baby boomer male, also known as the majority in terms of both the vote and representation in government. Going back to my dad’s bristling at the word ‘feminist’: had I simply called myself an egalitarian--- someone who fits the descriptor of a feminist laid out above- the conversation wouldn’t have been brought to a grinding halt. Suddenly it wasn’t two people speaking intelligently about a topic totally unrelated to the women’s movement: it was an oppositional debate featuring a woman’s perspective versus a man’s perspective, because the word ‘feminist’ unintentionally put him on the defensive. And yes, I took the opportunity to educate my father on the fact that he too was a feminist by my standards (and that many men of all ages and walks of life proudly identify as feminist). But I was exhausted by the turn the conversation took, because up until that moment, gender didn’t have a role in our debate. So allow me to pose the following hypotheticals before I get accused of being a bad feminist:
What if notions of gender didn’t exist? What if the new feminism had less to do with being female (which in the eyes of many is essentially just not male), and more to do with being human?
Right now, the gay rights movement is doing excellent work to fight inequalities, and those involved have effectively positioned gay rights as human rights. This movement is also genderless, with the belief that it is up to the individual to decide what gender they identify with (if at all). I’m captivated by the spirit of the movement because I’m tired of my actions and thoughts being examined through the lens of my gender and the associated stereotypes inherent in being female. If I could wave a magic wand and erase all ideas of gender from the planet, I would in a heartbeat. And I’m far from the first that has proposed a genderless society. So far, all the negative commentary I’ve seen about such societies seems to protest losing the pleasures that a female gets to enjoy, such as fingernail polish and frilly dresses. Thing is, I know a lot of men who would (and do) enjoy such girlish exploits… so for me, that is even more of a reason to eliminate gender and the stereotypes that accompany it. These arguments just spiral us backward into gender stereotypes anyway… suggesting there are female things and actions and male things and actions. This is like saying there are male jobs and there are female jobs, black bathrooms and white bathrooms.
And so I’m having a gender identity crisis, because my idealism and my reality are in a major existential clash. Of course I acknowledge that gender warfare exists. To quote a friend of mine: “In my next life, may I be born with a penis, so I never have to apologize for being so (expletive) assertive.” I find it interesting that as a strong female trying to forge her path, my first wish is to not to have my gender take precedence over my accomplishments. Take, for example, an interview former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, where an interviewer asked what designers she preferred. Clinton responded curtly: “Would you ever ask a man that question?” Or the recent obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill in the New York Times that applauded her for her cooking and parenting skills before mentioning her innovations in the field. Strong women still are being defined by their gender before even being acknowledged for their professional successes.
For the real, original spirit of feminism to succeed for the modern woman, we need to work to remove gender from the conversation, because otherwise we are functioning in a separate but equal environment. Perhaps the best way for us to move forward as women is to try to eliminate ideas of gender because they often immediately give way to stereotypes and derail effective conversation. So to test my theory, I’m not going to call myself a feminist anymore… I think “human rights activist” has a better ring to it. And no, I will not apologize for being so assertive.
Writer: Antoinette Moore is an Austin-based future MD interested in providing low cost healthcare to disadvantaged populations. Follow her on twitter: @FutureMD4change