June 22, 2011

Feminism is Not a Four-Letter Word

Whether I call myself a women's health advocate or Vagina Warrior, it boils down to this:

I'm a feminist.


What a loaded word, right? Images of unshaven armpits, gross looking white-girl dreads, floppy bra-less boobs, a man-hating smirk on my face, my fist raised in the air. Now, granted, if this describes you... um, cool! More power to you. But it's not me. And honestly, that's not what feminism looks like.

Feminism looks like women and men who want to take the world by storm to make the world a safer, better, more empowered place for women and girls. If you want men to stand by your side and advocate with you, feminists can't be man-haters. Are there some feminist man-haters? Sure. But if feminism is going to make any kind of global impact, it's got to be a collaborative effort between both sides.

Why the heck am I talking about feminism? A few reasons, actually. First, to be an advocate for women's health is a pretty fundamental aspect of feminism. It's about leveraging equal access to healthcare. Second. Esperanza at Stumbling Gracefully has a post that asks the question "Do we want too much?" and third, Schmoopy in our Prompt-ly Writing Group posted a link to a Guardian article that asks Why is feminism still so afraid to focus on its flaws?

The two are truly interrelated and it got me thinking about stereotypes that even I've held about what it means to be feminist, who is and is not considered feminist, and what it means to want more than we have.

Me at a campus protest, circle 2003. Photo by Julie K.
I took a few women's and gender studies courses in college. I was both vice-president and then president our of GLBT student alliance. I performed in the Vagina Monologues. As a young empowered woman in my early 20s, I was rockin' the feminist label and damn proud of it.

Like so many things in my early 20s, I wouldn't really appreciate all of it until now, as I approach my (gulp) early 30s. Feminism has become less about the rallies and the petitions and the student activism for me. Feminism for me has now become an active effort to make good in the world for women and girls where I can with the strengths and talents I have to offer. I blog about infertility and women's health. I blog about why we need to care about the cultural norming of misogyny in America. I support and promote the work of the Red Tent Temple Movement. I think very intentionally about the kind of world I want to shape for my niece and hopefully, my own daughter should I be so blessed.

I've been doing the SITS Girls 31 Days to Build a Better Blog (SITS31DBBB). Much like their Bloggy Boot Camp blogging conference I went to in May, I am out of my league here. I'm one of a very small group (as in, you could probably count us all on one hand) of infertility bloggers participating. SITS is a very Mom Blogger focused forum of support. I've stuck with it because I've got a lot still yet to learn about blogging and as I've come to realize from reading both Esperanza's post and the article Schmoopy shared - I've got a lot to learn about feminism too.

Did I turn my nose up at Mom Bloggers? A little, yeah - I'll be honest. Part of it was jealousy - I want what they have. Part of it was being judgemental - how can nothing but reviews and giveaways be good for the blogpsphere? But as I've spent the last 3 weeks interacting and networking with these fabulous ladies, I've realized my stereotypical judgments were wrong. The Mom Blogger niche is just as varied and valuable and has as much to offer as the ALI blogosphere. I'm realizing it's time to stop passing judgment and start taking a closer look at blogs outside of my niche to see what I can learn.

Oh Diane is one of those Mom Bloggers I've met through SITS31DBBB and she posted a fantastic post on why the Mommy Blogger market is so hot right now. What followed in her post comments was a fiery discussion about why Mom Bloggers get all the attention from advertisers while may of us childless folks sit here twiddling our thumbs.

My point is this: Mom Bloggers - and Mom Blogging in general - can be feminist too.

The Guardian article elaborates:
"Women bear the children and, far more often than not, they wish to be the primary carer for those children. At its most strident, feminism can be mistaken for an ideology designed to make women feel they are wrong to want that."

Mom Blogging is not counter-productive or counter-intuitive to feminist ideals. Even when I was in college, I got horrified looks from other college feminists who were shocked - shocked I tell you - that I didn't really care what my degree was in because I eventually just wanted to be a SAHM and pump out babies.

This is the point: it's not about creating an army of empowered career-women. Feminism is about having  equal access to and support for making empowered choices, be it career, motherhood, health or otherwise. Wanting to be a SAHM mom - like my own mom was when me and my sister were kids, a fact that I am so grateful for to this day - doesn't make me any less feminist. The fact that the Mom Blogger market is growing says to me that women's voices in social media and technology are rising, and people (especially advertisers) want to hear what they have to say.

Which brings me to my last point: does feminism want too much? Again, from the Guardian:
Worse, feminism has accidentally promoted the idea that it's pretty easy to work and have children, with the right support in place. On even an average income, it's never easy, even once children are at secondary school (though it's certainly easier then). Your priorities change. Work is no longer the most important thing, for a while anyway. Ambition can dissipate.  
Let me rephrase that: do we want too much? In fact, let's drill that down again:

Do I want too much?

Take a look at what I grew up with: a mom who stayed at home for the most part, picking up seasonal part-time work to pad out Christmas and birthdays. My father still works almost 60 hours a week. He traveled extensively when I was much younger, leaving the brunt of the child-rearing to my mom. I'm stating this as fact, not to pass judgment. This was what worked for my parents and they were in agreement about their roles as caregiver and provider, respectively.

I grew up with a big, two-story house with two cars. My sister and I went to public schools and college. We pretty much got to do just about any lesson or extra-curricular we wanted. We lived in comfortable New Jersey suburbia. For the 18 years I grew up and lived in that house, this is what The American Dream looked like to me.

Is it too much to want the big, single family house? Is it too much to want a husband that brings home the bacon while I stay at home and serve as primary caregiver to our gorgeous genetic children? Is it fair to place that kind of burden on my husband?

Folks, I struggle with this. These are things I want really bad, I can't necessarily have and boy howdy, I don't like taking No for an answer.

But let's step back for a second: in an time of record foreclosures, a flailing economy, and my seriously busted reproductive system, The American Dream I grew up with isn't realistically even possible anymore. 

Esperanza challenges us:
"The reality is, we might not get to be what we want to be, or we might have to sacrifice greatly to get there, and the same can befall our children. If certain lessons are learned; that frequently life brings disappointment, that sometimes their is no just reward for our efforts, that we must be grateful for what we have and stop continuously looking for more, that sometimes we won’t be happy, maybe, just maybe, we will wake up one day knowing how to be satisfied with our life.And maybe some day, if we’re very lucky, we can learn to be truly happy with what we have."
I counter with this:

If the status quo was okay though, we wouldn't need a feminist movement in the first place. And you know what? After all this, after this huge and rambling post, it's not about feminism anymore.

It's about being active participants in shaping a just world.

Feminist labels aside: where do we fit in to shape that world?

Where do you fit in? How are you helping to shape a just world?


MrsSpock said...

One thing I've noticed very much in my dealings with the Our Bodies, Ourselves crowd, is that traditional feminists have a very hard time with infertility, surrogacy, and third party reproduction in general because there really is not great value placed on wanting to be a mother. There is this very schizophrenic view feminists have of motherhood, where if we have such an enormous desire to be a mother, it couldn't possibly be because we intrinsically want it- and on the other hand, when we become mothers, we are not good enough mothers unless we fully embody that "mother" role by homebirthing, breastfeeding, and staying home with our children. Anything else is devalued as once again caving to a "patriarchal" obedience to the medical establishment.

This has led me to being very disgruntled with feminism.

luna said...

such an excellent post. bravo!

I love the reminder that feminism is really about the freedom and equality to make our own choices. I think so many people forget that or just don't get it.

in that sense, access to quality health care is very much a feminist issue. so many of us work just to get the benefits we need to help support our families. same with day care and valuing stay at home parenting as a viable option.

in my own family, I worked hard for years while trying (and failing) to make babies. by the time we adopted our daughter, I was 40 and ready to stay at home FT. but my husband decided he wanted to share that role too. I was lucky to negotiate an extended leave with partial pay, then returned to work PT so he could be home with her 2 days/wk. we'd love to do this for longer, until she's in school, but it's challenging as we're both on reduced incomes. we're very lucky now, but our options are limited.

it's a false choice to make a woman decide between her career and a family. yet honestly I've been envious of those who haven't had to choose, who can SAH (and have kids) freely without the (struggle or) pressure to work.

Sushigirl said...

I've blogged on this before, but I think feminism in general (inasmuch as you can generalise it) has largely ignored IF. I think it might be because of the abortion debate, but it is frustrating for infertile feminists.

luna said...

excellent point, mrs. spock. as an adoptive mother who often deals with a 'crunchier than thou' crowd, I've felt that same frustration.

Esperanza said...

I LOVE this post. I can't wait to read that article! I really identify with that quote, the one that states that "feminism has accidentally promoted the idea that it's pretty easy to work and have children, with the right support in place." As a mother who had to work I found that even with the support of my family and my husband's, we had almost no options that we could afford. And this was after I already had to give up the choice I really wanted, the choice of staying home with my daughter. That was already devastating enough, and now I couldn't afford childcare on top of it? It was so upsetting! I feel like feminism took us so far and then kind of left us dangling to fend for ourselves. Again I felt we were promised we could have it all (work, family, fulfillment) and I felt I couldn't have any of it! There is still so much work to be done because the reality is so many women need to work and sufficient affordable childcare opportunities just don't exist in many places. It's really, really hard.

This is the post I wrote on this very topic, last March, in case you're interested:


I appreciate your position, one of advocacy and change, not complaining (as I'm so good at doing! ;) I want to follow in your footsteps and help inspire real productive change for the women of today and for my daughter's generation as well. If people can't be what they want to be, they should at least be able to provide safety and health to their children.

Oh Diane said...

Great post Keiko. My mom was also a SAHM. My sisters and I all went to Catholic schools and lived in a one family home in Brooklyn, NY. My dad didn't make a ton of money, yet we were comfortable and didn't want for anything. Times have certainly changed though. Living on a single income is almost impossible. I have always dreamed of being a SAHM, and my dream came true 2 years ago when I was laid off from my job. I guess you can say that I got my wish, but this is definitely not how I imagined it would come to fruition.

In your post, you said "Feminism is about having equal access to and support for making empowered choices, be it career, motherhood, health or otherwise." This is so true. Women have made great strides here in the U.S., but let's not forget that there is still much to overcome. For example, the recent Supreme Court ruling in the WalMart discrimination case dealt a serious blow to women in my opinion. Women still feel less than equal when it comes to employment, and now it is becoming harder and harder for women to come together to address this issue as a class. Also, let's not forget women in under developed countries. They face many, many struggles that need to be vocalized and addressed.

Katie said...

Thank you for writing this! I think so often people view feminism in a negative light because they have a perception of what a true feminist is. Or, conversely, feminists have a certain idea of what they think all feminists should be. This quote says it all: "Feminism is about having equal access to and support for making empowered choices, be it career, motherhood, health or otherwise." I consider myself to be a feminist based on this definition.

Another fabulous post.

Totsymae said...

Nice post!. I didn't make it to you during the blog tour but I actually like this post much better, being somewhat of a feminist myself. I'm a straddler :-)

justine said...

I read Esperanza's post the other day and had a similar reaction to you, I think. Yes, maybe children now are being raised with unrealistic expectations ... but without hope, there is no change. The most powerful change has been made because irrational people believed that it was possible.

As for me, I think my contribution to a "just world" is twofold: first, not accepting what I think is unjust treatment of me, and second, refusing to allow others to be victims of injustice when I see it ... helping to support those people who might otherwise have no recourse. The actions are small (like caring for my neighbor's son during a "gap week"), but they are also big, for me (like resigning from my job, and creating a wave of discussion at my former employer about REAL support for ambitious women in higher education administration).

One thing I am convinced of, though, is this: that the only way we will make change, as feminists is together: mommy bloggers and ALI community members, SAHMs and WOHMs ... you get the idea. There's too much work still to be done for us to waste our time hurling barbs.

Julia said...

i do think many people do want too much- in terms of the fact that they want all of the perks- iphone with data plan, two new cars, cats, dogs, huge house- the whole works- and then also support their family on one income. it takes material sacrifice to do it (if it's even possible for some) and yes it is an absolute blessing not something to be taken for granted to be able to stay at home with your kids. but i do feel that, for me, it's an absolute priority and many other things can fall away to maintain it. in my case i am able to work part time from home, with family support for part time childcare, so i am very thankful!

Mali said...

I'm a feminist, and proud of it. I grew up in the 70s, and feminism to me was always about choice for both men and women, without judgement, rather than being forced into one course of action, and excluded from another. Though I will say for me I embraced the opportunities for independence and career, and the ability to delay breeding (delay it too long, as it turned out).

Natural Fertility  said...

I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. I love the reminder that feminism is really about the freedom and equality to make our own choices. I think so many people forget that or just don't get it. There is still so much work to be done because the reality is so many women need to work and sufficient affordable childcare opportunities just don't exist in many places. It's really, really hard. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! Keep up the good work.

Natalie said...

Great, great stuff!!! I used to h ave a blog called "stay at home feminism" which I loved, but learned I didn't have the guts for the pounding I was taking from the die hard feminists.

To me feminism is about having choices - the choice to go into the world and do anything you want - be it climb the corporate ladder or kiss your toddler's boo-boos. Feminists of the 60s won me the right to do either, but many now turn down their noses if I choose the latter.

Oh, and then I can go on and on about the unequal availability of fertility treatments...turns out ours were found on my husband's side, and surprisingly (and thankfully) it was all covered by the insurance. But what if it had been me like we thought at first - thousands out of pocket???? why pay for his care but not mine???? Ridiculous. I'm glad there are voices out there like you kicking and screaming...there needs to be.

Shana said...

You wrote " it's not about feminism anymore. It's about being active participants in shaping a just world...where do we fit in to shape that world?"
Yes! This exactly! Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

Shana (aka Schmoopy)

Lynda said...

Great post!

To me, being a feminist is helping the world see that women are extremely valuable and bring something unique to the table. At the same time, they have experiences that men will never have, but they need to understand.

I don't think you're out of your league with 31DBBB at all! Your blog is a GEM and a valuable resource. You have been a star and incredible Twitter buddy to all throughout this challenge! You are a natural leader!

I also don't really think blogs full of giveaways and reviews are GOOD for the blogosphere. They certainly don't bring anything helpful, interesting or really relevant to the table. I think that kind of blog is a way for mommy bloggers to turn a quick buck because brands LOVE blogs like that and flock to them. If you're in blogging for the money it might be the way to go, but if you're into blogging to HELP others and ENRICH your life, it won't do at all.

I have lots more thoughts, but I'm clogging up your comments enough! Wonderful, wonderful post!

Chickenpig said...

Boy howdy, this is a good one.

I graduated from a Women's College, and I have always considered myself a feminist. At my school there were feminists like you described, real Earth Mother types, very 'feminine' young women who were using college as something to do until they found their husbands, and everything in between. But we were ALL feminists because after going to that school for 5 minutes, you couldn't help yourself :) Out here in the real world, though, ppl are awfully wrapped up in what a feminist LOOKS like.

Like Mrs Spock I have been turned off by psuedo-feminists. I got tired of being called stupid and uninformed because I needed to have a C section. I am no shrinking violet when it comes to getting what I want, or need, out of the medical establishment, thank you very much.

I never intended to leave my job and take care of my kids full time, but I quickly found out that it would not be possible to take the time I needed to pump milk for one baby at my job, let alone two, and my pittance of a salary wouldn't cover infant care for twins. I hate living without my own money, but I having twins left me no choice. In a truly feminist world, I would have been paid a living wage, been given adequate breaks and a clean place to pump, or maybe even on site daycare. Real feminists know that there is still a lot of work to be done to help the women in this world...and don't insult or belittle the women who are just trying to make their way in it.

Ashley said...

I am so glad you wrote this post! I have felt ackward reading your blog bc I have endo, but I am not actively trying to have children nor do I have children (22 and in school) but I am a feminist and I find your blog important to the whole spectrum of reproductive rights.

Mrs. Zwieg said...

After reading your post and the other comments I am going to share my perspective on Feminism. First of all, I despise it with a passion. It had never bothered me until my sons were born and then it hit me like a ton of bricks what was really happening in our society.

It is the "Amazon Warrior" agenda (if you don't know much about that...they enslaved and killed all men-even their own sons). I have had to defend my sons from women who think that I should have had a partial birth abortion just because they are boys. I now homeschool after watching their self-esteem be ripped to shreds by feminist school teachers that only like girls (four years of fighting the system...I am done). There were women that wanted my boys on perscription drug use-just because they are boys and have a different physical make up then girls do. They naturally have more "bouncing off the wall" energy.

I have lived in four states and traveled to many others and the same spirit of "enslave and hurt boys" is everywhere. I do not see this "equality" that you all seem to think is there. I see a very selfish agenda that is very hurtful to the boys in our nation. I only wish that others were able to see it and brave enough to say something.

Men are not these evil creatures that the media has made them out to be. I only wish more women would give them the respect that they need to be the men we need them to be. If you do your research, you will find that most men DO want what is best for women...statistics and the media have been prone to lie about that for a long time now. I wish you could realize that...men are ok with you having your medical needs met, they are not ok being walked all over-just like you.

I am sorry for your infertility, but I do not agree with the feminist ideology that you have embraced. It is very harmful to my sons and frankly, I am tired of watching this nation hurt our boys.

Keiko said...

@MrsSpock: "we are not good enough mothers unless we fully embody that "mother" role by homebirthing, breastfeeding, and staying home with our children."

Spot on. Couldn't agree with your comment more. I too struggle with trying to live my life the best way I know how, in the most empowered way I can, but there are those who still believe "that's just not good enough."

Keiko said...

@luna: "it's a false choice to make a woman decide between her career and a family."

Indeed. I hate this choice. It sounds like you and your husband have worked out a great system, but at substantial sacrifice. I've have very candid conversations with my husband about how he would love to be a SAHD if he could.

Keiko said...

@Sushigirl: I think we get ignored b/c we're the anomaly. Having children is about choice, but infertility takes that choice away from us. I think feminism as a whole doesn't know what to do with us.

Keiko said...

@Esperanza: "That was already devastating enough, and now I couldn't afford childcare on top of it? It was so upsetting!"

I think I mentioned this in another reply, but we get this message from Feminism that "it's never good enough." If you're CEO, that's not good enough. You've got to be raising 2 kids and driving them to soccer practice on the weekends AND doing volunteer work AND arranging for childcare on top of all of this.

I think we feel like we want too much b/c it's an unrealistic burden placed on us.

Keiko said...

@OhDiane: I can't even believe the WalMart ruling. There is much work to be done yet indeed!

Keiko said...

@Katie & Totsymae: Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and found some value in it. Thanks for commenting!

Keiko said...

@Justine: "There's too much work still to be done for us to waste our time hurling barbs."

Amen. By forcing myself to work a little outside of my comfort zone and do this blogging challenge in a largely MomBlog community, I'm realizing this more and more.

Keiko said...

@Julia: A great comment and so illustrative of the idea that it's not about just wanting things, but what we are willing to sacrifice for the things we want.

Keiko said...

@Mali: Thanks for your comment. I find it particularly valuable b/c you were there as feminism really began forming in this country. Therre's something to be said about the value of a movement's historical legacy. i think back then, women had to fight a LOT harder than we do now, so in some ways, it may come across as very selfish to complain and want more/different/better. We should most certainly be grateful for the women of the Women's Lib Movement in the 60s and 70s - they paved the way for us today!

Keiko said...

@Gabriela/Natural Fertility, Shana/Schmoopy, & Ashley: Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm glad that this post was able to resonate with each of you! And Shana, thanks for sharing that article. What a great launching pad for discussion!

Keiko said...

@Natalie: "Oh, and then I can go on and on about the unequal availability of fertility treatments..."
Your comment reminded me of a post I read during the Bust a Myth campaign for Nat'l IF Awareness Week: Preconception Testing for Infertility. The blogger wrote: "As it turned out, our efforts had been in vain. My husband was diagnosed with azoospermia. There was no sperm in his ejaculate. A non-invasive, $16 semen analysis provided us with this critical information."

In the medical establishment, it's amazing how quick dr's are to assume it's a problem with the woman when statistically, that's only true in about a third of infertility cases.

Keiko said...

@Lynda: Thanks for your kind words about 31DBBB. This has been a very valuable learning experience for me, and not just about blogging. I've also appreciated our connecting on Twitter - in the end, we make each other better bloggers :)

Keiko said...

@Chikenpig: I love your comment and sharing about your experience at a Women's College. I'm curious- what was the prevaling mood or thought about fertility there? Was it something your college talked about or was it framed more in the context of choice?

Keiko said...

Mrs Zweig: First of all, thank you for your comment. I know it's not always easy to feel like the lone voice of disagreement, so I appreciate your bravery and honesty in your post. While I don't necessarily know the details of your story with your sons, I think perhaps you might have missed the point of my post. It's not just about making the world a better place for our women and girls. Whether a girl faces genital mutilation and rape in the Congo as a sytematic form of warfare or a drunk girl is raped by officers of the NYPD who then actually get aquitted for their crimes - the threat to women's safety is real on a global scale.

Feminism isn't about hating men. It's not about an Amazon Agenda at all. It's about pointing out the disparity in access, choice, and equality that exists b/t men and women - and then working to restablish equillibrium. Feminism paves the way for a just world.

In a just world, rape, the killing of abortion docs, and the fight for equal access to pay, healthcare, and rights over our own bodies wouldn't even happen in the first place. In a just world, your boys can be the kind of men they want to grow up to be w/o an unfair burden of providers, masters, breadwinners.

Feminism is very much about tikkun olam, to value ALL women as Eshet Chayil, and to promote a world based on and rooted in gemilut hasadim.

infertilerevolutionary said...

It's so nice to read the thoughts of someone who's blogging about feminism and fertility issues. I find this is pretty rare.

I actually think that feminist thought on reproductive justice issues is extremely diverse. THere are feminists who are opposed to any sort of medicalization of our bodies, feminists who think technology is the main tool for bringing about the gender revolution, and so on.

I am always interested in talking to people who have ideas about how to understand fertility through a reproductive justice lens.

loribeth said...

I am proud to call myself a feminist. Like Mali, I grew up in the 1960s & 70s. I find it kind of frightening how much we have forgotten about what life was like then for women, and how much young women today take for granted. I started working for a bank in the mid-1980s, & I can tell a few stories from those days that make the younger women I work with gasp.

I do believe the early feminists may have focused too much on women's equality in the workplace to the detriment of women in the home. And I do sense a certain discomfort among some feminist thinkers when it comes to issues of fertility & pregnancy loss. I would recommend you read Linda L. Layne's work, particularly "Motherhood Lost." She has some interesting ideas on this subject.

Danielle said...

First, as far as SITS31DBBB, you are not the only one who isn't a mommy blogger. I can't tell you how many times people have put me on a mommy blogger list on Twitter and I've looked around and said, huh, who?

I am a feminist. I was raised a feminist. I am proud to be a feminist in a time when women do not necessarily realize the fight that the second wave went through. Your post resonated with me on so many levels.

There are things that I want to say right now and can't. I always say that I have no boundaries when it comes to what I will post online, but this actually does hit one because it affects other people. Simply know that there are women in other niches who may not be facing the same struggles, who greatly respect motherhood, and who are proud to call themselves feminists.