Friday, December 26, 2008

Newton's Laws of Feminism

Inertia. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. This post will likely make a lot of sense to you or no sense at all. If you think I am mouthing off, maybe I am. All in an effort to get some discussion going. I have sat on this post for awhile and am now in the mood to get it out of my brain space before the New Year.

Newton Law #1: A feminist is a feminist until an outside force acts upon her.

When did you become a feminist, when did you find yourself no longer a feminist and when did you personally redefine the word "feminist." I figured all women in my generation were feminists until recently. I started asking women older and younger than I if they thought of themselves as feminists and I have been really surprised how few women say "of course I am a feminist!" What are the forces acting on women that keep them from identifying with that word?

Some observations:

The feminist in an academic environment stays a feminist. She is surrounded by people who are constantly talking about sex and gender, questioning what wave we are all on. She is used to articulating what feminism means both to herself and others around her. She has community who cares.

A feminist who leaves school for non-academic work considers herself a feminist for a little while but then really defines herself more as a "worker". She begins to see her issues as worker issues, not always feminist issues. She leaves behind some of her worries about how the non-academic world might be since now she is living it.

One observation from this group of workers: When I have asked "worker" women this question, many worker women do not like the word "feminist." Often they say "well, I don't think I am a feminist because I think women can decide to stay home and shouldn't feel judged for that." WHOA! OK, it is true they are talking to me but...hmm. Very interesting. I have also been shocked at the replies of worker women to my suggestions of changing the system. Not usually a whole lot of interest. Doesn't sound very "old school" feminist to me. Some say worker women are feminists simply by working. If these women are not constantly questioning or challenging societal norms, that doesn't seem very feminist to me.

Enter an even greater force than leaving academia. It makes the academic and worker feminists in motion rest, some only for a few weeks, but it causes introspection for a lifetime.

Let me call the result of this force, "Feminism in the Childbearing Years". Motherhood both creates and ruins feminists. This force causes women to question everything everything her mother, sisters, friends and mentors ever told her about what it means to be a fulfilled woman. For every mother, finding her balance to happiness becomes so unique that she struggles to find a mentor, let alone a heroine. This force is so hard to describe that it has actually made factions within feminist groups.

As I contemplate the forces that act upon feminism--education, working, motherhood, surely there are more forces that energize or deflate the feminist within all of us. And more important than finding all these forces is finding the place where they can all coexist. Why is this so hard?

I get to plead naivete. I have very little feminist history under my belt. I like it that way. I was born in 1977. My world is feminist. And it is not. I choose to use the word "feminist" because I am immersed in women's issues right now. I occupy a world where I often discuss the woman's choice of WHERE to birth her baby, not IF she wants to birth the baby. Another important choice is to breastfeed in a bottle-feeding society. Do Reproductive-Rights-Oriented feminists make me feel like they want to hear about these issues? Not always.

Why do so many of my activist sisters feel left behind when we describe a modern feminism? I think we are some of the most active feminists in the country. I would like more recognition and more air time. From all media, but especially feminist media. They may not understand the force that is motherhood and how it affects women, but perhaps they can provide the space on their blogs for the discussion. Here is the last "midwifery" link on Feministing and I somewhat happily found this on BitchPhD. But I want more, I want variety and I want often. I would like some of these feminists to question their systems a little bit more. If you don't like your situation, change it. I am tired of people not being part of the solution.

Enter another force I see acting on feminists: group emotion. My husband does not like conferences, at least not that much. But oh do I get excited for a get-together with other women who think like I do. But...what fires me up does not fire up the worker feminist or the academic feminist. In fact, what fires up the academic feminists on BitchPhD is somewhat offensive to me. I know that I am not alone. By a some kind of reflexive property of offensiveness, I would guess "my" feminism must be offensive to them too. They will likely not want to discuss it. For instance, we all vilify Larry Summers, don't we? NO! I don't anyway! So I am not in the club? And honestly, I do not think congratulating yourself for keeping your children out of daycare merits self-loathing. What message are you sending me again? Do Caregivers Count? I really am such a babe in the woods still. All I see are the numerous women's issues we agree on and I think we could do so much for our country if we could meet each other half-way on those we do not.

I may be young but I can be loud too. Thirty may be the new twenty but maybe it is the right age for me to speak up. Maybe I can call myself a feminist and mean it. We all can. Be a feminist, you already are in my book, just tell your version of it. I am really tired getting the vibe that women who focus on feminist issues of mothers are not "real" feminists. NOW thinks they are but do not give them center stage. Well, maybe it is because I was a dancer but I am ready for the stage. Give us the stage! Where is my leader? I have some nominations ready to go: Deren Bader, Therese Hak-Kuhn, Peggy O'Mara, Brynne Potter, Sheryl Rivett ....can we please give these women the floor? They are amazing leaders--it isn't a generation issue, it is an opportunity issue.

Newton's Second Law of Feminism: the force of feminism should be equal to all women, including mothers (yes, even those including those that take mothering practices such as birth and breastfeeding very seriously), multiplied by the injustices each of them have seen along the way.

Can this force please start making itself known? Here are two conferences where I think it will show itself: BlogHer and Fem2.0. I would love to go to both of them. I have even registered for Fem2.0. However, I am also a mom of three children ages 5 and under and so I am realistic that I may not be able to attend. No matter what, I am excited about 2009 and many feminist years to come--no matter what forces may act upon me.


Naticia said...

Hey, and then there are the male feminists, those men that advocate opportunity and choice for women. I believe that while we need to be ready/capable of stepping up on to any stage that we want, it is when this issue becomes a male issue that we will see a whole new level of change. Those of us with supportive spouses--I mean those that truly see women as human beings, not cooking and cleaning machines, or decorative arm pieces, or novelties in the academic arena, may see what I mean. And then as parents of both sex children, how we show our support of human behavior rather than polarized male/female behavior is a yet another paradigm. me feminism will be most effective when it is a male issue.

Secondly, the word feminism has so many connotations. I don't call my self feminist because I am not competitive in a wear pants kind of way. I don't WANT to be a guy thank you very much. But, that is my definition of feminist. I don't think it was the original intent behind the word, probably something more along the lines of equal opportunity spearheaded by a group of persistent visionary women.

I am visionary, but I am visionary along the lines of HUMAN rights, which to me say that we are different, culturally and gender-wise, but that the bottom line is RESPECT, TRUST in CAPABILITIES, and RIGHTS to EQUAL OPPORTUNITY--and by EO I don't mean just with employment, but all those paved over issues like support, the amount of attention received in the classroom, the right to social, familial, mental, emotional health, essentially just being PERCEIVED by the community at large as being valuable without constraint.

If we make the choice to stay at home with our kids, we are expected to also do all the cooking and cleaning too. Since when (except on our street) do mothers have 10 minutes to pick up anything around the house when the competition for the smartest, first walking/talking/high-level computational math child has become our arena? We are supposed to have star children, who are over scheduled, and a clean house and car, and dinner on the table on time, and no bed-time hassles--this is the new definition of feminism that I am avoiding. Luckily the women around me are not stuck on competition and the pretenses that follow. We are all doing our best, but when we hit on something, we share it, and we carefully make choices for the emotional well being of our families, which DO NOT always include a PhD or 60 hour weeks or a clean house, or a 10 minute bed-time for that matter.

I think we are witnessing a change in values: As mothers we recognize the importance and value of each child's uniqueness and strive to support, guide and nurture it in an environment without unnecessary fetters. We are also coming to recognize the high cost of being over scheduled, and our mental health and self esteem is suffering in environments of competition (mothering) and so are seeking a more feminine approach, more community oriented, more supportive, with lots of breathing room and room for the the development of ideas and habits that are healthy for our selves, the planet and our finances.

Okay, it is late so I hope that it ALL made sense, it did while I was writing it, but then I am in my own head so of course it makes sense to me....Hope you all have a year where you are able to be supportive, and receive the support you need in order to be your best self--not your winning self, not your one-up self, but your self that is compassionate, that can gracefully, joyfully, energetically move through life with wisdom and love for humanity.

Happy New Year everyone! There is lots of work to do on so many fronts!

amanda said...

Great post Cynthia I’ve always defined myself as a feminist, at least since the age of sixteen. The problem with the word, however, is that it was coined in a time when the single most important thing to white, educated women (black women in the sixties felt completely disenfranchised during the feminist movement, they didn’t want to START working, they wanted to STOP working), was the work force. That’s not a bad thing; it was the thing they felt they had little or no access to…certainly not to equal pay and equal position. THAT, as well as sexual politics, became the fight. It’s understandable and I in no way question or chastise our amazing women who marched the marches, held the picket signs, wrote the books, but their fight, while not won, has made great advancements. It’s the personal that has fallen by the wayside. I was a women’s studies minor in school and was immersed in dialogue regarding these issues. At the time, I was thoroughly convinced that women and men were assigned gender roles and that we were socially constructed by our parents and society to fit perfectly into that box. I got the sense that much of feminism, at the time, (not all, mind you) focused on how to become more “male,” as opposed to how to embrace the nature of the female and demand choices based on whatever our interests are, as varying as they may be. Of course, that wasn’t stated that way, but there seemed to be this need to disassociate with all things feminine and I’m not talking about lipstick and nail polish, but about traits more associated with the feminine…nurturing, loving on an emotional level etc. Now, after having two children, I feel even more strongly that my feminism is called into question because I have chosen to embrace those things that seem innate in ME. I am in no way saying they are innate in all women OR that all women SHOULD embrace them. I feel like people often wonder why a woman like me, one who has always defined myself as a feminist could “deteriorate” into someone who allows my husband to earn the paycheck and to be demoted to cook and caretaker of children, but I don’t look at it like that, as I know you don’t either. This, both biologically and emotionally is what I’m happy to do for now and it would be great to feel supported in that. But, I think we are making headway in all of this. Back in 2003 when I had Maggie, Naomi Wolf, someone VERY involved in the feminist movement had just published Misconceptions and it seemed pretty cutting edge. It was the impetus for me to find a midwife and begin to have control over my birth experience, my breastfeeding experience AND my experience of being a stay at home mother and part of that is the recognition that this is EXHAUSTING! Since that book, as you know, there have been many books and small grass roots movements about birth options and a beautiful new found love for people like Ina May Gaskin who have been touting birth and mothering options all along. I recently went back to my college and had an amazing conversation with my favorite women’s studies professor. I told her that I thought hospitals were the center for torture for women these days. She was SO interested in understanding birth, breastfeeding, at home moms’, and working moms’ experiences in our culture. She was SO open to how important these things were and she asked me for a reading list! That’s where these discussions need to happen. Thanks, Cynthia, for being a catalyst in your classes and on your blog. Would love to expound, but my kids are running amok!

Sheena said...

I apologize in advance that this comment will, undoubtedly, be a little scatterbrained. I'm the mom of an 8 month old and therefore am quite sleep-deprived. Plus, this is one of those topics that has floated around in my head for so long that there are too many thoughts but I've never taken the time to really organize them. Hopefully, though, I can pull my brain together enough to get these couple of main thoughts out.
First, I appreciate both comments posted here when I got here (Naticia and Amanda). While I don't entirely identify with everything they said the general gist is spot on for me. So, having said that, here are the thoughts that I had when reading this article and comments:
1) What is the definition of "Feminist"/"Feminism"? I'm asking that seriously as well as rhetorically. What the word "feminist" means to different people is so varied that for me it has lost it's meaning. From my vantage point most people who identify themselves as "feminists" have become ball-busting, man-hating, women are the top of the food chain, better get out of my way, pains in the head. Just like most other "causes" feminism has lost a lot of the original freshness and has been taken over by the loud, rude, obnoxious, and in many cases (as I see it) just plain misguided, and has been hijacked from the rest of us who have a more responsible view of the goal of feminism but who are so busy living a feminist life we don't have the time or energy to be out there making noise. So...I would say that I am NOT a "feminist" because I don't like what "feminism" has become. I would love it if there were a new word that we could identify with, but one hasn't been created and caught on yet. I'd like to propose "individualist" if we really need a title. (And being creatures that communicate with words I'd reluctantly agree that we do.)
2) Here's my definition of "feminism"/"individualism" - To strive to remove all societal value discrepancies placed on occupation, especially those based solely on gender stereotypes. This applies to men as well as women! (Why does a man who likes to decorate and design have to be gay?!?)
What do I mean by that? Originally, what "feminists" were striving to achieve (as I see it) was the opportunity to do and try things that society told them they could not do because they were women. As an extreme example, a woman had no prayer of becoming a firefighter in the past. Not because she was too small or too weak to perform the duties, but simply because she was a woman. That was the problem. Yes, most women physically can't perform the duties of a firefighter (I certainly couldn't) and, as such, should not. But, what needed to change was for those women who could, that they be allowed the same chance as their male counterparts to try, and if they succeeded, to be allowed. (Not that all women should be able to be firefighters. Unfortunately that seems to be what it's degraded toward.) We have won or are winning most of those battles - the ones in the workplace. But, the other half of the story has not yet been even tackled. We still devalue the "stay at home mom" and "household" work. As a collective the "stay at home mom" may garner a little more respect than she did at the height of "feminism" when so many women were trying to be men, but she has not become as valued as the "supermom" who (supposedly) raises kids and has a career. [Side note - I'd argue that this is not possible. Either the career or, more likely, the children will suffer, not receiving the full attention of that woman. But, that is my opinion and my choice and I do not begrudge anyone else that choice if that is what they choose or have to do.] My point is that we still value the traditionally 'male' tasks, behaviors, responsibilities, etc. more highly than the traditionally 'female' ones. We value strength over compassion, we value earning over rearing, we value doctors over teachers... Also, we don't allow women to posses the same strengths as men and treat them the same. For example, a man who is a strong, confident leader is revered, a woman with the same skills is often labeled a bitch. (I hope that word shouldn't have been censored. I apologize if I should have not spelled it out.) So I would argue that the values we place on these different 'jobs' need to be evened out. And I'd argue that if we do that both men and women will be happier. (See earlier comment about male designers and see the movie In and Out with Kevin Klein as an example of what I mean and Three to Tango as an example of someone standing up to this.)

Not to get off topic, but I believe it is related. Why do we place so much value on entertainers and so little on, say, teachers, just as an example? I won't go on except to say this...who is getting their pay cut and who is getting laid off and who is always struggling to make ends meet for their family and who is rolling in the dough even in this terrible economy? I see that as the most blatant sign of our misplaced societal values, even beyond gender roles. For anyone who hasn't seen the movie Idiocracy, I'd highly recommend it (when the kids are asleep because of the language and innuendo) as a not so subtle warning. You don't have to like it, but think about it anyway...

3) Back on topic. My last comment is likely to come across as being somewhat against what most of you on this blog seem to be standing for, but I don't mean it that way and I hope to be able to express this clearly enough that you see that. As a woman who recently had a child I have to say that I am almost as put off by the people (I won't single out women but it is mostly women so far) who are advocating against the medical establishment and for alternative birthing as I am "feminists". I am very sympathetic and supportive of what I hope is the core principle that these people support - that pregnancy and birth should be positive, joyful experiences that a woman can be proud of and that the medical professionals, be they doctors or doulas, are supportive of each woman's mental and emotional needs as much as they are of their medical needs. I absolutely agree, 100%! But, that's not how it comes across... I fully intended to have a natural birth and to breast feed if at all possible. But, for personal reasons, I felt more comfortable having an obstetrician and a hospital help me through the birth process rather than a midwife and a doula in my home. Perhaps it is because of the people I'm around, but if anything the reception I got for my choices (I emphasize that this was not forced on me in any way) was subtly disappointed. That seems to me to be completely contrary to the whole point of empowering women in their time of childrearing. If we're supposed to be free to choose we should be free! Not free to choose what someone else thinks is best. That is just as bad as a doctor telling you that choosing a midwife is a bad choice. It's the same unnecessary bias/prejudice. My point? A) As women advocating for women I would like to encourage all of us to be supportive of all the choices that a woman makes with regard to childbirth if she is in fact making the choices. It's one thing to act out of ignorance, and I advocate education, but it is another to choose for someone else. If for some reason you feel she is making a mistake you can always discuss it with her, but don't berate her with how her choice is so much less desirable than one you may make. B) Not all medical doctors and hospitals are anti-woman! I had 4 supportive obstetricians available to me, 2 excellent ones that helped with my birth, and an extremely supportive hospital and nursing staff. They literally went out of their way to try to stick with my birth plan as much as possible. (Just as an example, the anesthesiologist was called back 2+ hrs later just to try to give me all the chances possible to have a natural birth when they could have forced the issue earlier when he was already there in the middle of the night. I ended up having to have a c-section because my son got stuck in my pelvis (tried to come out sideways).) In any case, I'd like to speak on behalf of those who are positive and supportive and encouraging to say that it is just as unfair that they get rolled into the negative stereotypes of western medicine as it is that women get rolled into gender stereotypes. Just as much as we all want to be treated as individuals, I think that medical professionals deserve the same. Rather than saying alternatives are better, perhaps we should be saying that whatever makes the individual woman feel secure, supported, and medically protected is what is "better", whether that is a home birth with a midwife or a hospital birth with an obstetrician or any other iteration of what is possible. The POINT should be to empower the woman to make a choice and to be able to choose and get as supportive an environment as possible, not to force her in another direction than society may be tending at them moment.
On an aside, the same goes for breastfeeding. There are many reasons why a woman may or may not breastfeed. I absolutely support encouraging breastfeeding whenever possible because it is undoubtedly the most healthy option for the baby, but it's also unfair to make a woman feel badly if she can't breastfeed for whatever reason. If her child is being cared for and loved that's the bottom line. I support making the necessary societal changes so a woman breastfeeding in public doesn't feel ostracized, but I don't see how that has to translate to women exposing themselves unnecessarily in public and it having to be accepted. There are plenty of ways to breastfeed discretely and a woman doing so should be supported.

OK. Sorry for the length. I've had to stop and start so many times I'm not sure how much sense this all makes but I hope I have added a little more food for thought to this dialogue. Thanks for being supportive women and more importantly for being thoughtful and involved people.

Best to all of you in this new year!

Cynthia said...

Just a quick comment to THANK YOU three for commenting back so far! Sheena, I am very happy you brought up how some women truly do feel safer/better/etc. in a hospital. This is a topic we discuss at Birth Circle very often. It is why hospital care providers need to be like those you described--those that believe in women and being partners in their care, not authorities. I am so happy you had that for your birth. Any chance you live near Charlottesville, VA and you could come share your birth story?

My toddler is wired/tired so gotta hop but thanks and Happy New Year to all!

amanda said...

Just wanted to say to Sheena that my quick comment about hospitals being torture centers for women was too harsh...thank you for bringing it up (or comments like that). I actually had both my kids in a hospital and my son was born into the hands of a male dr, as my midwife was attending her son's graduation the night he was born. I had fabulous, life altering birth experiences because of the support of my midwife, nurses and friends, and that dr. That was an unfair statement, and made incorrectly for lack of time and focus. You hit the nail on the head when you said that it was about education. What i meant by that "torture" comment was really that education for alternative birth options is usually not given to women in a hospital setting, instead, women are often put into situations where they begin to question the very function of their bodies (something that to ME is SO symptomatic of a society wherein women are not trusted and revered to make informed choices for themselves and are not comfortable with loving their bodies!) and fear is used against them to quicken the progression of labor ie."the baby doesn't like how long this is taking, we'd better speed things up for the baby's sake." I agree whole heartedly that choice is the MOST important thing for any woman who is birthing a baby, deciding whether to nurse, or deciding to stay home or work, but I feel strongly too that we presently live in a society wherein we are not entirely informed about what is best for women or babies and more what is best for medical establishments, formula companies,drug companies, Dr's and sometimes midwives too. I enjoyed your post. Thanks again, Cynthia, for inspiring fun discussions.

Anonymous said...

There's so much here I want to respond to, but for fear of losing my train of though, I will try to distill it without getting bogged down in the particulars.

Feminism, in my world, has always been about women and men having equal opportunity, and access, to financial, educational, physical, and emotional security.

How this quest for freedom manifests is different for every person. In my world view it is essential that women (and no less so men) be empowered by choice. Only we can know what is best for ourselves, and as long as our social structure compels us to conform to ITS standards, or be vilified for our audacity, there is change to be had.

Feminism is evolutionary. And I hate to think that people have the perception of it being only one thing. It's a big word. It's a big movement. It's a powerful legacy. I hope more women will find their place in the movement, without dismissing it as 'not for them.'

There will always be people who don't agree with you. Goodness knows, there are hundreds of people who don't agree with a great deal of what I think, and the decisions that I've made. Pick any other label that you do embrace, mother, wife, writer, and think, "Are ALL people in this category like me?Do we all think the same? Do we have identical, always convergent ideals?" Probably not. People are far too diverse, and each bring wildly divergent backgrounds to any table they sit at. My feminism thrives on that diversity.

Naticia said...

Lovely Anonymous! Well said. "thrives on diversity" I was going to say I was humanitarian, which for me boils that way....thanks!

Arwyn said...

I stumbled on this blog searching for other feminist, attachment parenting (I thought it was too much to hope for natural-birth- and breastfeeding-advocacy as well!) bloggers.

I think you got it right when you said there are forces that move women (and men!) away from identifying as feminist, both external (eg being in a social circle that discourages feminist identity) and internal (eg perceptions of what feminism is, as previous commenters have demonstrated). I too, until late in highschool, thought all women (and most men) would identify as feminist, because to me feminism is, most basically, the radical idea that women are people. It was a rude awakening to discover it wasn't so!

I've found many strong, feminist-but-not-identified-as-such women since then, but am always on the lookout for those who are willing to proclaim and reclaim the label with pride. As you know, we are few and far between, and to find a self-identified feminist who doesn't think formula is the freer of women is nigh-on miraculous!

So thank you. I'll be following your blog with great interest. :)