If you’d told me 30 years ago that women would be arguing over who was a “real feminist,” my response would have been to point and giggle. Until very recently (roughly 11 minutes ago) “feminist” was something no lady would call herself in public.
Lots of young women avoid the “f” word. I’ve had female students trip all over themselves to avoid using it: “I’m getting a doctoral fellowship from NASA after I complete my NEA grant although I hope it’s the work I did for girls in Tanzania during my Peace Corps stint that’ll be my legacy. But gosh! No, I’m not a feminist. I like using perfume and hope to get married one day.” They fear feminism is about wearing your hair in braids and yelling slogans blaming men for stuff.
(There are six women in Berkeley still doing this. They’re fabulous and I’m grateful to them for getting the whole thing going. Now back to our regular program.)
I’ve argued that feminism is belief that women are human beings. I simply assume everybody I meet – men and women alike – are feminists because I give people the benefit of the doubt. You’re using cutlery? You don’t wear T-shirts saying “Men: no shirt, no service; Women: no shirt, free drinks!”? You don’t think women are just a man’s way of making more men? Then, honey, you’re a feminist.
It’s my version of feminism, which is sort of like a hip nun’s vision of Catholicism – affirming to all and not guided by rule books or doctrinal declarations – that makes me uncertain whether to applaud or denounce the ruckus going on between what is most neatly called The Atlantic Monthly’s “Stay-at-Home-Moms-are-Wrecking-Women’s-Economic-Platforms-FOREVER” article by Elizabeth Wurtzel and the approximately 17 million stay-at-home moms who have responded by blogging, posting, vlogging and ritually burning their copies of “Prozac Nation,” Wurtzel’s bestseller from 1994.
Perhaps I should start by explaining that I’ve never raised young children. I was blessed with two stepsons instead who are now at that absolutely adorable age where they are attorneys. One reason, you see, why I rarely weigh in on motherhood discussions is because I’m not a card-carrying member; mine is a proxy vote.
Yet why do women feel unqualified to comment on subjects beyond those we know firsthand? Ever notice the number of experts on women’s issues and motherhood who seem to be men? They’re not apologizing for not having firsthand experience.
But here’s my take on what we’re doing to ourselves right now: Women waste a whole lot of precious time trying to judge ourselves and evaluate our worth. We have to stop competing with other women, as if women who made other choices in their lives are our adversaries.
Checking to see if you’re better or worse than other women is the moral and ethical version of trying to catch a glimpse of yourself unawares in a storefront window; it hardly ever works. The view is always distorted.
Current cultural cliches insist today’s woman is either trying on negligees while having the nanny deal with the triplets or else having her bunions shaved, the ones caused by wearing steel-toed, hard-working shoes.
It’s not that easy.
The lives of all adult human beings are awkward, messy and full of glandular issues. As human beings, women are no exception. Yet we keep thinking we should be; we keep thinking we are not included in “all adult human beings” but must be separated into increasingly smaller categories.
When a sense of connection breaks down, things get nasty. There’s no more “we”: there’s only “us” and “them.” And they don’t like us, so we can behave as poorly as we want, nyah, nyah.
When we stop acting for the collective good, start sneering at each other and make unflattering remarks about other women, nobody benefits.
Hard truth? This snarling argument is cloud cover. It’s a smoke screen. What’s crucial is ensuring equity of access. You teach everybody to swim; you can’t then expect everybody to jump into the river.
But until every woman has access to equal opportunities for employment at wages equal to her male colleagues and until every child has a stable secure home, everything else is the wrong fight.Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.