I kind of follow the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.” There’s been some online buzz about Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, who plays Penny, stating in an upcoming magazine interview that she does not consider herself a feminist and enjoys serving her husband. I won’t get into how the pull quotes distorted what she actually said, but that and other recent celebrity weigh-ins on the subject got me thinking. I may be progressive, but I have long declined to call myself a “feminist.”
I read feminist authors–Carol Gilligan, Catharine MacKinnon and others–in my gender-based discrimination class in law school. Afterward, the professor asked us to raise our hands according to whether we were radical, liberal or cultural feminists, or not sure which kind of feminist. I did not raise my hand at all. The popular professor’s classroom was packed, so nobody noticed my abstention. That disappointed me. I would have liked to explain why I refused the label.
I had, after all, chosen to take an elective class called gender-based discrimination. Had I thought the subject was unimportant, or a bugbear invented by people unwilling to take responsibility for their individual shortcomings, I could have picked a different elective. The Law of Insolvency or Advanced Estate Planning would have apolitically given me the units I needed to graduate.
But I never was the apolitical type.
I believed then, and still believe, that discrimination based on immutable characteristics, including gender, is real. My husband represents people who’ve been fired, demoted, harassed or overlooked for career advancement due to gender, race, disability and age. As I tell our son, his dad is a civil rights hero. My beloved stepdaughter, who is biracial, has been called charming names like “rag head” and “terrorist” to her face in Oklahoma. Famous women in all walks of life–politics, business, journalism, film, music–are constantly critiqued on their clothes, hairstyles and figures while the appearance of men outside the entertainment industry usually passes unremarked.
I learned then, and still believe, that privilege based on immutable characteristics is likewise real. My favorite extreme example of privilege–that is, born on third base thinking he hit a triple–is that former occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, George W. Bush. White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, wealthy, grandson of a U.S. senator and son of a U.S. president, without any discernible physical or mental impairments (general dim-bulbedness doesn’t count as a handicap in American public life, but that’s a subject for another day), George doesn’t need affirmative action or the protection of anti-discrimination laws. He’s got a legacy membership in every club where power resides.
I’m not some deluded “individualist” who thinks we live in a color-blind, gender-blind world and we all sink or swim strictly on our own merits. I am grateful that women who went before me and put up with all manner of sexist crap opened doors so I could sit at the table with the guys in the law firm and catch flies with honey instead of vinegar. But I’m still not comfortable with the label “feminist.”
First, there are things about feminism that I disagree with or find embarrassing: women who are stridently anti-male, who posit that female qualities are better than male qualities, who try to dictate everything a “feminist” should believe, who suggest women are the only victims of gender stereotypes, who blame sexism and patriarchy for everything bad that happens to women, or who are so intent on subverting stereotypes that they become rude or ridiculous. I would never give a man of a certain age who holds a door open for me a lecture on patriarchy, though I know a feminist who did while on a job interview. He hired someone else with a better sense of time and place. I would never insist on changing the oil on the car while my husband cooks dinner when he likes to work on cars and I’m a good cook, though I know a feminist who did. She and her husband ate out that night while the car was towed to the shop.
But for me, the main thing is the word thing. I know that the dictionary definition of “feminism” talks about political, economic and social equality and is not per se pro-female at the cost of being anti-male. Some will say I’m not being fair to what feminism is really about. But as a cisgendered heterosexual middle-class female of European descent, I feel no more comfortable calling myself “feminist” than I would calling myself “whitist” or “middleclassist” or “straightist.” It’s like I’d be putting myself in a semantic club that excludes approximately half the population based on an immutable characteristic.
Here’s what I want: Until the birth-privilege clubs dissolve, I want laws that hold the doors open and the ladders in place for outsiders. I want people of all genders and races and abilities to be able to move through the world being their honest selves, following whatever passions and professions their spirits dictate, respected and treasured for their unique humanity and free of the constraints of stereotypes. I want work to stop being a contest for who can put in the most hours and affirmatively create, rather than just give lip service to, work-life balance for all employees with and without children. I want people to be courteous in offering help and comfort to friends and strangers, whether giving a pregnant woman a seat on the bus or opening a door for a man who has both hands full. I want people to whom help is offered to accept or decline graciously, recognizing the kind intention. I want people to honor whatever choices other people make for their own lives as long as they don’t harm others. I want everyone’s children to be educated, compassionate, mentally and physically healthy, accepting of people who come from different places than themselves, and following their own stars wherever they may lead. And I want everyone to put the seat and lid down after they use the toilet so my dog won’t drink out of the bowl. What would you call me?
(c) 2015 Susie Allison Litton. All rights reserved.