I get it now, Part II
The anti-abortion legislation in Texas passed on Friday, amidst two weeks of massive protests, rallies, and marches all over the state. I post as much relevant information as I can on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MsMichelann. The issues and problems we face are myriad, but this post is a continuation of my discussion of my relationship with the idea and label of feminism.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s. My mom told me stories about what it was like before abortion was legal, before women could take birth control pills, and before they could grow up to be doctors, lawyers, and scientists. My dad encouraged my interest in science and taught me how car engines work, the processes of nuclear fusion and fission, and words like “lagomorph”. My parents were very liberal, and were unhappy about the movement of the country towards the right with the election of Regan in the 80s. I absorbed a lot of their values; political and social. And yet I also absorbed a bias against the idea of feminism or being labeled a feminist. Where did it come from?
I spent my early adult life in San Francisco — an incredibly liberal town. I was exposed to and learned to welcome many sexual preferences without bias. I moved to Austin when I was 24 or 25. Again ensconced in a liberal bubble (my boyfriend was a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs – home to many ex-Carter and Johnson administration faculty), my politics and world view were not particularly challenged, although I did learn to appreciate country music and southern manners.
At some point in my life, I don’t know when exactly, I absorbed the idea that feminists were loud, obnoxious, unseemly extremists with outdated views of the world. I grew up in the post-feminist era. I could be whomever I wanted to be! I didn’t have to tolerate sexual harassment! What the hell is this patriarchy thing, anyway? My therapist in Austin when I was in my 30s was Jungian and talked a great deal about the Patriarchy, and how it influenced everything in society. I didn’t really understand the term, or the framework. I wanted to say, “Wake up! I grew up in a different world than you, and I want to face the challenges of my era, not rehash yours!” I either didn’t see evidence of imbalance of power between men and women, or I had been conditioned not to see it.
When did this change? When did I start to question my assumptions? I think the turning point was the story I told in a previous post, “My Manifesto”. I was teaching my first college course, an adult undergrad class on leadership. I was 9 months post-partum and frankly, kind of a mess. But I put on my suit, dropped my daughter off at the in-laws’ house, and gave it a try. I had absorbed the same messages all my female friends had about motherhood and work. Don’t talk about it; it’s irrelevant, unprofessional, and to be minimized. But every second of my life for the last 9 months had been about learning to take care of this little person, and a good part of it had been hell. So I told my students, among other things, that I had a young daughter, and sometimes before class I would talk informally with them. At some point, I must have said that I was wiped out from being up all night with the baby.
When I got my anonymous feedback after the class had ended, there was a comment that I should not talk about being “mama-tired” in class. I probably hadn’t talked about it during class, but I likely did informally before class. At first I was mortified. How could I be so unprofessional? Then I started to get angry. Why is motherhood irrelevant? Why is it shameful in the work world? Why are we supposed to marginalize and minimize our roles as mothers? And who but another woman would say “mama-tired”? This got me thinking about all the assumptions I had made about motherhood and work, and how most of them were utter bullshit.
I started thinking about misogyny from a feminine standpoint. Why do women cut each other down? Why do we collude instead of confront? If the Patriarchy is a structure or system that our society adopted thousands of years ago that designates roles and attributes to women based on their inability to control pregnancy and lesser ability to physically wage war, why the hell do these biases persist in the post-modern world?
Women can be combat soldiers. Women can prevent or choose pregnancy. And why the fuck are women supporting their own powerlessness by accepting that we need to be modest and self-deprecating, while redirecting our competitiveness and aggression at each other through indirect and immature behaviors? Who is the primary supporter of the remaining patriarchal systems and cultural artifacts? Well, obviously there are some white guys in Texas who think it’s a great thing, but we have all experienced destructive, indirect aggression from other women. Gossip, collusion, triangulation; these are the ways women hurt each other.
When I talk to women about these ideas, they almost always say, “That happened to me! I have experienced that!” None of them say, “I’ve done that! Why do I do that? How can I change?” But I believe most of us are also perpetrators, not just victims. We need to admit it, and figure out how to change. I want my daughter to be comfortable with being direct and honest about her feelings, including the “unfeminine” ones like anger and competition, even if I can never completely shake off my own conditioning.
So I got me a copy of The Feminine Mystique and read it. I wanted to know where the whole feminist movement started. There was so much I didn’t know about the era my mother grew up in. How psychiatrists diagnosed women who wanted more than mother and wifehood for their lives as deviant. How totally rejecting society was of women working in skilled professions. And what really blew my mind, was how much idealization of the ideology described as the “Feminine Mystique” persists today, especially in relationship to motherhood. Much of the ideals espoused by the Attachment Parenting movement bear an eerie resemblance to the self-annihilating requirements of motherhood in the pre-feminist era.
The other thing that really got to me was the author’s description of the caricature of the first-wave feminists. These women broke out of the Victorian mold of the “angel of the house” to proclaim that they were not decorative extensions of their husbands, they were humans with brains and they should be allowed to vote, to go to college, and to contribute more than just babies to society. They were not anti-child, they just wanted to be whole human beings. And yet by the era of The Feminine Mystique, they were derided as masculine harridans with no appreciation for the sanctity and beauty of motherhood and wifehood. Moreover, they were pop-pathologized as maladjusted freaks. Whoah.
Doesn’t that sound freakishly similar to the caricature of the 2nd wave feminist that we Gen-X women grew up with? The militant, braless, hairy, angry “feminazi” who judges us if we want to wear makeup, have babies, or wear a push up bra?
So here is where I start to deconstruct what I absorbed about feminism, what I actually like about it, and what I seek to redefine about it for my generation.
Most feminists were and are not militant, anti-bra, or anti-motherhood. Some are, and that sucks for those of us who felt the same kind of rejection for being ourselves as they did in their era. But the generations who make huge sociological changes can never fully shake off the conditioning of the eras they come from. The summer of love did not do away with all sexual repression, certainly not for the generation that birthed it. But it did pave the way for subsequent generations to feel less shame and conflict around sexuality. They paved the way for my generation to support gay people, gay marriages, and gay families. They helped us open up conversation around homosexuality, transgenderism, bisexuality, and the concept of the gender spectrum. The DSM no longer lists homosexuality and transgenderism as mental illnesses. My generation’s ability to integrate these ideas comes from my parents’ generation’s rejection of 1950’s sexual moires.
Now it is time for my generation to do the same for our children. We must deconstruct what we think we know about how we relate to ourselves and each other. The political and social systems we live in are vastly different from our mothers’. We don’t carry the legacy of sexual and gender repression in our psyches that they couldn’t always fully release. But we do still uphold many of the sociological norms of that system, and we will continue to inflict them on each other and teach them to our children if we don’t start asking questions and taking responsibility.
These last two weeks were a huge wake up call for the women of Texas. It wasn’t just baby-boomer liberal women showing up by the thousands at the Capitol building in Austin. My generation, millennials, and many men as well showed up to protest. Republicans, Catholics, medical professionals; thousands of people who don’t fit into the “militant feminist” category woke up and realized that we wanted a different world for ourselves and our children than we have been allowing to develop in Texas and many other states.
We have let anti-woman legislation slide, and slide, and I believe that it is partly because we still carry internal conflicts about what is “seemly” (not protesting!), and what is feminist (being irate and anti-reproduction – thanks, Rush!). We woke up and began to realize that this is all bullshit. 40 years of ugly anti-feminist propaganda has permeated our culture, yet again, and convinced us that we need to sit on our hands and let other people make decisions for us.
While I believe there are some real ideological splits between my generation of feminists and the 2nd wave generations, I also believe that I absorbed a whole mess of caricatures, conditioning, and taboos from the successful right-wing campaign against feminism. I believe that a significant part of our collective discomfort with being called feminists came from this indoctrination, not just our individual experiences.
It is up to us to create a world where our children grow up human first, and their internal plumbing is just one trait among many that makes up who they are. I want our kids to be themselves as hard as they can, regardless of how that fits or doesn’t fit into our society’s definition of men and women.
Fuck it. I’m a feminist. I define what that means for myself, and if other people ascribe negative traits to that label, what else is new? I’m an academic (When are you going to get a job in the real world?). I’m a professor (Those who don’t do, teach!) I’m a mother (Don’t let that interfere with your career…). I’m a wife (Don’t be an unpaid domestic slave!). I’m an intellectual (You’re an elitist!). I’m a liberal (You’re a enabling commie!). Get the drift? Choose your labels based on what they mean to you, not on how someone else may interpret them.