My mother does not consider herself a feminist.
We’ve had many arguments on this topic. To give you some context, my mother has always been the primary breadwinner in my family, while my father stayed home and took care of me and my younger brother. Our household was more Modern Family than Leave It to Beaver.
Working as a county attorney in Arizona, my mother was certainly acquainted with sexism. I can still remember her coming home one night, when I was about 10 or so, enraged because a client had refused to have her represent him, picking a male colleague over her, because he was afraid that a woman lawyer would be too timid and meek in court. Having seen my mother in court many times, I knew he was making a mistake. Her colleague was soft-spoken and mild; my mother is the world’s biggest loudmouth and most passionate advocate, with a laugh so raucous it echoes across buildings.
My mother is the fiercest woman I know. She will do what she thinks is right to carry out the letter of the law, sexism be damned. And still, my mother does not consider herself a feminist. As she tells me, she thinks that men and women are just different. And doesn’t she think they should still have equal rights and opportunities? I retort. Yes, of course, but…
As the election draws closer, I have increasingly gotten more and more enraged as it is pointed out to me more and more frequently that apparently, feminists have won everything. I'm told that the “war on women” when it comes to social issues is meaningless because the real “war on women” is economic, and neither war is really a war in any case.
Though I question the parsing of issues into “social” and “economic,” I can take the point. Women, like everyone else, face a variety of challenges which affect not only their lives, but the lives of those around them. Their interests cannot and should not be flattened into a few key talking points. But when politicians and pundits alike do a poor job of linking the social to the economic, or when one is deemed to be totally unimportant because of the other, and when neither is really considered a “real” issue facing “real” America, a world-weary millennial feminist fresh out of college toes the fine line between rage and exhaustion.
I know it’s gauche to be an angry feminist now — I’m supposed to be all wry and detached, or whatever — but the level of my rage as the election approaches, as I find myself engaging in more and more rhetorical battles about complex issues like abortion and reproductive rights, sexual assault and domestic violence, pay inequity and economic issues, health care, parental leave and adequate child care, LGBTQ rights and so on, can only be expressed in a GIF. (The only one I’ll use this article, I promise.)
Why am I so angry?
Because I, alongside other feminists, have to assert, time and time again, that these issues matter. And not only that these issues matter, but that they still matter even though a lot of other issues also matter. And these issues will matter to me, and to others, when we cast our votes on Tuesday. (Trust me, tired as I may be, I’m still going to vote. It’s been less than a century that women have been allowed to do that, and I’m going to take advantage of my still-pretty-new right.)
If recent advertising trends indicate anything, however, it is that these issues are too often taken far too simply, by pundits and politicians alike. When messy, complicated, tangled problems which are so enmeshed in all of our lives are reduced to bullet points — binders, check; Lilly Ledbetter, check — we all lose. Unless we start really delving deep into these problems, investing our concerted, collective attention into figuring out the natures of the problems, and in turn, better solutions to them, the U.S. will continue to fare badly in terms of gender equality.
OK, pause. Let me be clear about one thing: As a feminist, I am really not all that radical.
Honestly, I’m not. If you know anything about the history of the feminist movement in America, you’ll know that I am hardly as out there as you can get. I’m not calling for artificial wombs, or for a sex strike, or for gender quotas. I don’t believe that women are the only ones affected by sexism, nor do I believe that gender discrimination only falls along male/female lines. I don’t believe in a feminism that doesn’t acknowledge its own problematic history. I don’t believe that solving issues of inequality is easy, or that I necessarily have the right answers, or that my set of proposed solutions speaks for the needs and desires of people of all genders, or even all women.
(It’s bullshit for me to even try to speak as the voice of all women, especially being as I am a white heterosexual cisgender able-bodied middle-class college-educated feminist, aka demographically pretty close to the ‘voices,’ like Gloria Steinem or Caitlin Moran, that usually get picked as authoritative.)
But here is one thing that I do think: Our social systems are riddled with inequalities, and so we should be trying to devise better systems in order to lessen these inequalities.
I don’t believe in the zero-sum framework of human rights. I think it’s possible to increase rights for all, and I think doing so requires that we do something. Because I lean towards a progressive view of government, I tend to think that some of the things we should do should be via federal or state governments, but I by no means think that government alone can create the kind of change I wish to see. (I am unconvinced that free market capitalism will really do any better, but if you can prove it to me, I’m willing to change my mind.)
But apparently, in this allegedly highly-polarized electoral climate, even expressing the fact that you think that there are problems that affect different people differently, and that we should be actively trying to redress those problems, is tantamount to heresy. Haven’t you heard? Just like we live in a post-racial America, we live in a post-feminist world! Look at Hillary Clinton!
Talking to my not-a-feminist mother on the phone last week, I expressed my frustration in trying to get people to agree that, when it comes to the election, we should be consciously addressing issues of inequality, or even the fact that inequality still exists.
“I’m in complete agreement that the problems are complicated,” I said. “But some people just don’t think there are any problems. And I just don’t know how to explain. It’s like as soon as I call myself a feminist, all of a sudden people are rushing to tell me that I’m totally wrong, and things are totally OK for everyone, especially women, and actually we totally have equality. It’s as though as long as they’re OK, it doesn’t matter how things are for other people, and it doesn’t matter that we keep participating in these things that hurt people.“
“And you’re never going to convince them otherwise,” replied my mom. “So why do you bother?”
“Because there’s nothing else,” I said.
I am all for nuanced discussions. I am open to a variety of opinions. I am eager to hear solutions, policy or otherwise. I am appreciative of new framings, new data, new facts. Like any good post-modernist and/or digital journalist, I gave up on objective truth a while ago.
All I ask of you when you read this article, when you cast your vote on Tuesday, and when you engage with progressive and/or feminist ideas on- and off-line well after Tuesday, is that you consider this: Though the long arc of history may bend towards justice, we are the ones who must actively make it bend that way.