Feminism Evolving

28 Feb

DSC01304I want to throw in my two cents about feminism. My views about it have been growing and changing so much in past couple years, but I also find myself alarmed by what I am hearing some of my female friends saying about feminism, and so I want to put forth my perspective about it.

But to begin, a little history: I grew up in the age of girl-power; I was taught that a girl could be anything she wanted when she grew up. Although I was surrounded in a world of Barbies, Bratz Dolls, and Disney Princesses, somehow the idea that women are simply idols of physical beauty never fully penetrated my psychology and never really impressed upon me some idea of limits. I certainly did not grow up learning that I was in any way supposed to be subservient to males. Understanding, however, the history of underrepresentation and oppression of women, I think I self-identified as a feminist at an early age. It was just second nature to me. In my girl-power mentality, I couldn’t be anything but a feminist.

As a kid, I wouldn’t call myself a tom-boy, but I definitely was not much of a girly-girl. I preferred most to play with gender-neutral toys or boy-dominant toys. Although I played some with Barbies and dolls, my fascination with them was limited. In school, I loved to compete with boys. I will always remember fondly the competitive relationships I had with boys that entailed verbal sparring, competitions in multiplication tables, and keeping up with the boys in physical activities. My favorite topics in elementary school were math and science, topics I was aware at that time were more boy-like. I prided myself in outdoing the boys and proving myself as worthy.

In my teenage years I eschewed pink like it was the devil. Although I enjoyed dressing up for special occasions, mostly for the purpose of flirting with boys, the majority of the time I was more comfortable in jeans and a jacket. I have always felt more myself in pants or shorts than in a skirt or dress. To be in a dress on an average day was to accentuate my femininity in a way that felt unlike me. When it came down to occupation, throughout my whole life I have always balked at the idea of being a housewife. I have always known that it would be stifling to my bones, and I always vowed to be a working woman.

My history as a child and teenager is important in my understanding of feminism today. I am beginning to reflect upon my ideas of feminism in childhood and in adolescence and have a growing sense of concern for my philosophies of former years. I am beginning to notice that my feminism was about comparison. I compared myself to boys, finding empowerment in the competition with them. I strove to live up to the expectations placed on males in our society– to be smart, quick-witted, ambitious, physically strong, and motivated professionally. I could prove my worth by how much I lived up to the standards placed upon my male counterparts. Somehow I understood that the highest expectations were placed on males, and by golly, I was going to live up to the highest standards!  As a result, I actively shied away from being “too feminine,” and I prided myself on not being too girly.

Yet as I have been learning about patriarchal oppression, I have been contemplating internalized sexism. I think that my idea of feminism was to denounce that which is feminine (i.e. that which is frivolous, superficial, passive, and excessively emotional) and to conform to the expectations of masculinity. To put it quite simply, I bought into the idea that it is better to act like a man because it is not admirable to act like a woman. This here is the internalized aspect of sexism. I looked down upon womanliness. Girl-power to me was the ability to compete with the boys, but I lost the ability to measure myself outside of the patriarchy and to cherish that which is womanly inside of me.

While I am thankful for the feminist movement throughout the late 1900s, I see that it has been primarily a movement for women to become more like men. We work more like men, dress more like men, run our communities more like men, assert ourselves more like men, etc. The measure of our value is by how much we can succeed within the framework of a male-dominated society. And in the meantime, there is very little effort to make men more like women. It’s always been a one-way road. It’s called feminism when women try to be more like men, but it’s completely unthinkable and downright appalling for men to become more like women. (Why do you think there is such a strong reaction to homosexual males? What could be worse than a man who acts like a woman?…..) I am not saying that the feminist movement has not afforded me many freedoms that my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother did not have at my age, but I am saying that even through the liberation process, we have continued to devalue femininity and womanhood in our society. Is it any wonder that I struggle really to deeply connect to the woman inside of me?

What I want to do is embrace myself fully and unconditionally. I want to reclaim and nurture those aspects of character that are often associated with femininity: empathy, caring, steadfastness, tenderness, sensitivity to others. I want to understand how having this physical body influences my relationship to the earth and to other people. Mostly, I just want to be me and do what feels most natural to me.

To me, feminism is not about donning the pants (although I do like pants). It’s about finding what is true within us (for females, males, queers, and transsexuals alike). Feminism, to me, is about expressing who we are in a way that transcends gender norms. It’s about discovering which aspects of femininity and masculinity we admire and emulating those as a part of our character. It’s about deciding what works for each of us. I feel concerned when I hear female friends of mine worry about enjoying domestic activities because they feel they aren’t being feminist enough. I say, to hell with that! It is okay to like domestic activities! Being feminist is not about women working outside the house. Being feminist is about finding a lifestyle that most accurately reflects your true self. Being feminist is about communing with what is true inside and understanding and loving oneself. In a romantic partnership, feminism is about finding the roles that work for each partner. If your roles happen to conform with traditional gender norms, that’s okay! If they don’t, that’s okay! Whatever works and feels healthy to you! Feminism is about understanding what gender expectations are in place and actively deciding to which norms you will conform and to which you won’t. Whatever your answer is, it’s okay, as long as its yours and you own it!

I get impatient with those who pigeonhole feminists as radical, man-hating women who don’t shave their armpits. While there are some women who prefer not to shave and there are some who are distrustful of men, this hardly really captures the wonderfully transformative essence of feminism. Feminism is not the anti-man movement. Really, it is the process of recognizing and validating all gender identities and holding them with equal weight and respect. Women, for sure, historically have not been validated (unless conforming to submissive and subservient gender norms) nor have they been given much value. Those with queer or transsexual gender identities have been even less validated. Feminism is about correcting these soul-depraving norms of valuing masculinity above all else and instead cherishing gender as it is expressed in each of us.  It is about transcending the oppressive nature of gender expectations that impact all of us.

To me, feminism isn’t, however, just lifting up women. Feminism is about being conscious of the systems of power that exist and standing in solidarity with all people. One can barely touch the topic of gender without also reaching race, culture, sexuality, and class. How can anyone talk about securing the rights of women while also denigrating others? If I fight for my rights, I must also fight for yours because the liberation of one is dependent on the liberation of all. Feminism cannot stand on its own in isolation.

So, when I look back on my childhood, I continue to look fondly upon the boyish aspects of myself that lived in me as a kid. But I don’t want that to stop me from exploring and cherishing the woman I have become. I want to claim both the masculine and feminine parts of me that make me the woman I am. At the end of the day, I am going to own who I am, and that, to me, is my way of being a feminist.

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One Response to “Feminism Evolving”

  1. Drew March 14, 2013 at 9:22 PM #

    “downright appalling for men to become more like women”
    As a male who rarely fits the masculine stereotype, I have felt these pressures all my life. I remember feeling envious of women’s ability to be both feminine and masculine without the same social policing. Even today, I often struggle with the pressure to live up to the expectations of my sex while knowing that I do not even believe in the validity of the expectations.

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