And no, I don't mean "Why do we need feminism?". I mean, "Why do we call what we need, in order move forward as an equal society, feminism?".
This was the question up for debate as my husband and I made the trek north to the city of Pittsburgh to attend a lecture given by none other than Margaret Atwood. A Canadian National Treasure. The queen of dystopian speculative fiction. And, someone who has been labeled a feminist for decades. If you know anything about the current state of the South Hills of Pittsburgh, you know that we had plenty of time to discuss (thank you PennDOT). Anyway, the conversation had us talking about the word feminism. Atwood herself seems to reject being an "ist" of any kind. Which had me wondering, why would someone who leads thousands of people to the conclusion that our world is out of sync in the gender department be reticent to call herself a feminist? My speculation? Because she is an author, and words are very important to her and sometimes ill-defined. As an author, she has ample room to define her words within the content she creates, but in her personal life, speaking to people, the words she uses will be defined by society at large.
I understand this struggle. For years, my husband and I had a hard time expressing to people that we are both feminists. There really is no better word for it to us. Unfortunately, the word has so many negative connotations to others. To some, it means hating men, pure and simple. To others, it is equated with the somewhat backwards feminist movement that attempted to make women the same as men by proving that we could do the same things as they do. While that movement paved the way for women to enter the workforce and to receive minor benefits, it was not truly what feminism was intended to be. In reality, I think most modern feminists would say that they do not wish to burn their bra any more than they wish to do the work of every man they encounter just to prove that they are exactly the same. I mean, we are not exactly the same and we know that. Biologically we have different parts and culturally we attribute different characteristics to men and women. I think the role of feminism is not to make us inherently the same beings, with the same attributes, able to do all the same tasks, but to express that the attributes we associate with femininity are viewed as equal to the attributes we associate with masculinity. In other words, it was great that we were allowed to enter the workforce, but it shouldn't have been based upon the idea that we can be "just like men"; rather, it needs to be based upon the principle that women have something valuable to contribute of their own right.
For example, if a man cries he is usually labeled a "pussy" or a "girl". If a woman cries she is told she needs to "man up." Feminism is not there to say that she is capable of "manning up", of shedding her inherent femininity to attain equality; it is there to redefine equality as something we can attain while maintaining our differences. A biological man who expresses feminine traits is equally as affected by our disparaging view on femininity as a biological woman who may or may not embody what we consider feminine traits. Believe it or not, the gender traits we express as adults are as much inherent as chosen. The way we define emotion (something we tend to see as a feminine trait) is often viewed as lesser than the ability to hide or suppress those emotions. In this case, the "masculine" trait of indomitability is viewed as strong and powerful and something that should be sought, and it is viewed as something men inherently have the ability to be, whereas the ability to express and tap into emotions is equated with having a lack of strength and power. This last, I have to disagree with wholeheartedly.
After finishing up the Maddaddam trilogy this week, I was struck by the overwhelming resilience of the female characters. Not only do they suffer, repeatedly, they have very little hope that things will get better and yet they push on. Resilience is something we often overlook when we talk about strength. We think about lifting heavy objects, keeping stone cold while being mocked by our boss in a meeting, or heading out into battle with axe or tweets (depending on the battle) at the ready. Strength is being undefeated. Strength is being better. Strength is being unbreakable. Well, until it's broken. The problem with such a linear view on strength and with keeping it solely as a masculine attribute is that we discount the possibility of being defeated. We cut out the part of strength that comes from resilience. Resilience is not really a masculine trait. I mean, in every fairy tale the man doesn't come up against something he can't defeat. He doesn't have to pick up the broken pieces of his life and rebuild. It is Cinderella that is resilient. She gets up everyday not knowing the outcome. She faces defeat at every corner and since happily ever after is the biggest lie ever told (I'm sorry, I've just never met someone who has been happy every single day. Imagine when Prince Charming dies. Will they all remain Happily Ever After? That is a bit twisted. There is a story in there somewhere but I digress), we suspect that it is not something that changes post rescue. We see her resilience as a silent waiting, as inactivity, when truly it takes a remarkable strength to get up everyday and move forward with only the slightest hope that your circumstances will change, and even more so when you believe they will not.
The ability to access emotions like distress and hope, to process them, to let them crash into you like a wave and swallow you can be far harder than the ability to lift a sword out of a stone, especially in a world that places no importance on accessing and utilizing our emotions. The ability to face things, not knowing if you will win or lose, while admitting you are scared or frustrated or vulnerable and perhaps even suspecting the worst, is an amazing quality in a human being. It is real.
So what is feminism? To me it is the need for society to reevaluate the equality we place on traits that fall to either side of the gender spectrum, to stop putting female traits below masculine traits. To stop creating a hierarchy of personalities and start creating a coop of ideas formed from different people and different points of view. To embrace our differences in a way that allows them all to be present and appreciated. If we equated the things we view as being inherently feminine with those that are viewed as masculine there would be no issues with maternity / paternity leave, oversexualization of women, female reproductive rights, and communications and diversity in the workplace. Words like vulnerable, bossy, and picky would be replaced withopen, leadership, and discerning. We would admire the different but absolutely necessary opinions and attributes that filled our work place because the outcomes would be more beneficial for the whole of society, not just one sect.
As it is, the word feminism is not perfect. With such a strained history, many people struggle admitting to their peers that they consider themselves part of the fight for equality. I think many people do consider themselves part of the fight, but the title they want to claim does not exist. It has been stripped and while we try to resurrect it not everyone will jump on board. So, how do we broach the subject? What do we call ourselves? Are we humanist? Well of course, but does that lack of femininity in the title miss the point? Do we need to have an all encompassing word, or do we need to get to the heart of the matter (the heart of the matter being that masculinity is not undervalued but femininity is)? Honestly, I do not know the answer. I think it is something very personal to each person. I will say, however, that the conversation should not be over. The fight to make every human equal is not won so - despite what you call yourself - I hope you have the courage to continue to have the conversation.