I can’t open a site in my web browser without reading something related to feminism. But every time I read something that has the word “feminist” in it, I get this sort of odd, cringe-y feeling. I worry that my generation is letting the feminists down.
I was born in 1969 and was fortunate to spend a lot of time with my pot-smoking, Grateful-Dead-acoustic guitar-playing, liberal lesbian aunt. She took me to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and told me I didn’t need to grow up to be like my housewife mom. She said I should be the first in my family to go to college (my mom actually asked me why I had to go to college and couldn’t just get married) and gave me a subscription to Ms. magazine when I was 12. Yes, I read my Gloria Steinem when it came in the mail with its cool 1982 covers. I studied psychology, sociology, journalism and women’s studies at my small liberal arts college, where I graduated after working my way through for four long years.
I didn’t want to be a housewife. I wanted a career. It was what was expected of me; I felt like I understood that. I realized and appreciated that a generation of women had fought long and hard for the rights I had now and didn’t want to take for granted. Fuck the glass ceiling, I remember thinking, my generation will blow that up and soar to wherever we want. We can do anything.
I read with interest Judith Warner’s piece “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In” on the cover of New York Times magazine this month. It told the tales of primarily wealthy, high-ranking women who left illustrious careers in favor of staying home and raising children, and analyzed some of the challenges they’ve faced in returning to the workplace. We got the unsurprising news that they are making less now because they’ve been out of the workforce. I couldn’t help but feel that the overall message, though not stated directly and perhaps only implied as a whispered warning, was don’t leave the workforce, ladies, or you will lose your McMansion and end up in a townhouse reading Craigslist ads looking for work someday. I’ve no beef with Warner; she’s an accomplished and talented bestselling author and expert on women’s issues. It’s just that when I see an article like this, I think about choice. About women making choices.
If a woman leaves a $250,000 job to stay home and take care of kids for a few years, and then returns to the workplace and can only find a job in the current market for $125,000, should we say it’s a result of our male-dominated society, or is it simply a consequence of her choice, one she probably considered when she made it?
I’m a feminist in the sense that I support all the traditional feminist ideologies: equal pay, reproductive rights, gender neutrality, and of course that women shouldn’t be discriminated against. I wish our society was a place where these things could exist without question, but I know that it’s not. Especially for poor women, who are not addressed in Warner’s or many other articles on the topic. It’s a shame to think debates about feminism are a luxury of the privileged, but growing up in what my sister refers to as our “upper white trash” environment, I can’t say I overheard a lot of “feminist discussions” at the apartment complex where we lived. Women were too busy working and/or taking care of kids to sit around and discuss how other women were doing it in comparison. Is it possible to be too busy being a woman to have time to be a feminist? Does a choice to just be a woman and not blame men for a bunch of shit make you anti-feminist?
If the feminist pendulum swung too far in the 1950s where we were supposed to have a hot meal on the table for our husbands every night, is it possible it also swung too far in the 1980s, with us in business suits on the CEO fast track, dropping off our kids at day care? Each of those situations can suck and leave you miserable, so my Generation X is stuck not only doing it, but also having to talk about “juggling” and “how we do it all.”
What I hope for women is that our pendulum will rest somewhere in the middle. The original hard-core feminist movement gave women a great gift: choice. What bugs me is when they’re disappointed to find that some women have made choices the official feminist establishment doesn’t like (see also: transgenders). If a woman feels that although it has few rewards and requires sacrifice, she’d rather be packing the kids up in the car for a picnic than sitting in a boardroom feeling guilty that the baby had the sniffles when she got dropped off at daycare this morning, we as women should support that. If a woman wants to work 60-hour weeks in her established career while her child is in the care of another (or she simply chose not to have any kids), we should support that too, because women judging other women is what has the potential to give feminism a bad name.
As a woman (who works and raises children), I don’t ever want the tone of feminism to be accusatory. No one likes someone coming down from the mountain to tell her how to do things. Keep your condescending debates about breast milk benefits to yourselves. Motherhood is hard enough without someone telling you that you’re doing it all wrong. And women are pretty good at navigating careers without intervention from more enlightened women as well. Chances are we as women are just all doing the best we can with the skills and environment and education level we have, so supporting one another as much as we can is what the ideal definition of feminism should mean.