I read a few weeks ago that there was a big brouhaha about a 22-year-old actress who had declared that she was not a feminist because she likes men. First, I’ve always understood feminism to be a movement of people who believe in equal opportunities for women. Most of the men I know are feminists, too. But I know that this term has been appropriated by people who believe that feminists are bra-burning, man-hating wild women, so there’s a lot of debate about the meaning.
Setting that aside, I wondered why we would seek wisdom on this topic from a 22-year-old. I wasn’t a feminist at 22 either. I had taken a few college classes that had made me more aware of sexism, but I could point to only a few experiences of it in my own life.
Growing up, I thought that women had already achieved equality. My mom, a teacher, had told me how she wore pants to work one day back in the 1960s as part of a protest against the dress code. Probably her first and only act of rebellion. And that’s how I thought of the women’s movement, as something that took place in the 60s and was done. I wore pants. I played soccer. And my parents raised me to believe that I could have any career.
When I was nearing the end of my master’s program, I met with my favorite journalism professor, a man who often praised my work and hoped that I would aim for a job at a major newspaper. He learned that I was engaged and asked about my betrothed. “Don’t get married,” he said sadly. I bristled at his paternalism. He was just another adult warning me against marrying young.
With age, I’ve come to see more to that comment. Young women are pushed to excel in school and told that every dream can be in their grasp with enough hard work. We are shown female role models and given lofty books to read. And right when we reach the point where our careers should be taking off, when our education is finished and we’ve put in a few years of grunt work, it’s time to have babies, if that’s our plan.
And there is no support. After all those years of working hard and hearing about equality, we are confronted with a 1950s world. It is not as blatant as a construction worker whistling at a short skirt. The inequality is silently built into our society. We must take time off work without pay to have a baby. We must decide whether we should shell out a huge portion of our paycheck for childcare or take the risk of leaving our jobs — and it is a risk. We must figure out where to shuffle children when school lets out mid-afternoon and during the holidays and then all summer. Men are increasingly involved in these decisions, but most women I know are still the primary planners.
Maybe I’m giving my professor the benefit of the doubt, but I have to believe that his comment carried the undercurrent of some of this.
As for the 22-year-old, she has not yet lost out on a job offer because she was pregnant or had just had a baby. She has not yet lost out on a job because she was over 40, and therefore, no longer valuable in the eyes of our beauty-obsessed society. She might never reach the point of calling herself a feminist, but someday she will probably recognize the need for feminists.
I will continue to claim that label and accept all of the baggage that comes with it. I hope that Eleanor someday finds that the dreams that are nurtured in school will be supported throughout her life. And I hope that, like my mom, I can help lower the hurdles she will face.