Monday, May 6, 2013

Why I No Longer Call Myself a Feminist: Part One

I Was a Teenage Feminist

As a child, I was extremely proud to be a Kiwi: a citizen of the first country in the world to give all women the vote (other countries had previously allowed only certain women to vote). I suspect my youthful interest in feminism stemmed primarily from my 'ewwwww boys' phase, but whatever my reason I was a proud feminist from a very young age.

I never really thought much about what feminism meant to anyone else; to me it simply meant that girls were pretty awesome, and should be allowed to do whatever boys were allowed to do. That was basically the extent of it.

When I was fourteen, I won my high school speech competition with a speech about feminism. By then I'd added a few points to my brand of feminism: people shouldn't use 'like a girl' as an insult, girls shouldn't dress just to impress boys, boys should be more interested in girls' brains. After the speech, I had a few people ask me if I was a man-hater (despite having specifically stated that I wasn't) or a lesbian, but I didn't care what they thought; I was a feminist and proud of it.

I was nineteen when I saw Mona Lisa Smile. I remember being so angered by the ending, where (spoilers!) Julia Stiles' character decides to forego Yale Law to be a homemaker. Julia Roberts was all, "But you can have both!" and Julia Stiles was all, "But I don't want both!" and Julia Roberts was all, "Bullcrap! I saw how much you wanted this!" and Julia Stiles was all, "But this is what I want!"

I've always wanted to get married and have kids, but I wasn't going to do anything crazy like change my name or just be a housewife. I was right there with Julia Roberts, thinking that Julia Stiles had given into social expectations and would live to regret giving up on her dream. A friend I'd seen the movie with tried to convince me that it was what she really wanted, but I just couldn't understand it.

Why choose when you can have it all?

A couple of years later, I was at university, jumping around degrees and programs and pretty clueless about what I wanted to do. Looking at my options, I realised that my problem was that I didn't want a career. A job was fine, but I couldn't imagine doing the same thing for the rest of my life, working my way up the ladder, defining myself by what I did for a living. I discovered something at odds with my feminism:

I just wanted to be a mum.

I've always loved kids, and I always thought I would be a mum and have a career and life would be perfect. But as I looked at career options, I realised that career meant having someone else spend more time with my children than I would. At that point I'd spent a year as an au pair, and I couldn't imagine having an au pair, or nanny, or team of daycare workers for my own children. Even though it was all hypothetical with no kids or potential father in sight, I didn't want to embark on a career only to realise I'd given up on what was really important to me.

I knew that a lot of feminists had a problem with stay-at-home mums, but I also knew that feminism was supposed to be about choices, and if my choice was to not have a career, then I was just as good a feminist as any other. After all, if feminists cheer for stay-at-home dads then it would be hypocritical of them to have a problem with my (purely hypothetical) decision.

So I reconciled my dreams with my feminism and became a nanny. I never actively searched for a husband (as much as I wanted it I wasn't going to let it be the be all and end all) but I didn't give up hope that one day  I would start my own family and raise my own children, something for which I seemed to have a natural gift.

Feminism to me came to be more about acknowledging that there are some traits that women are more likely to have, and some traits that men are more likely to have, and while no man or woman should be expected or assumed to have or not have any of them, the 'feminine' traits are just as valuable as the 'masculine' ones. Women should be allowed to be like men, but they shouldn't have to be like men in order to be considered equal.

I didn't realise at the time that believing in such a thing as 'feminine traits' and 'masculine traits' was controversial.

To be continued...

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