09. August 2004 · Comments Off on I Used To Be a Feminist…. · Categories: General

I used to be a feminist, a long time ago and another century, when it used to mean that you were bright and adventurous, and the life choices presented to you— the options that your mothers and grandmothers had were about as appealing as a plate of cold gruel. My Grannie Dodie opened the campaign for that conventional life almost the minute I graduated high school: my clear duty was to marry a man with a well-paying job, immediately bear a certain number of appealing children— all of which would earn her bragging rights in the battle for status among her peers, since the number and quality of great-grandchildren counted for much— keep a spotless house, which would be beautifully and tastefully decorated, cook plentiful and appetizing meals (on a budget), dress myself and the hypothetical children in understated elegance (also on a budget), and – oh, crap, just look at the latest edition Martha Stewart or the other womens’ magazines. It all looked – well, not very interesting, not next to the options available for boys, which offered lashings of adventure, interesting work, and substantial paychecks.
Trust me, there was really only one choice on the block in those formative years, in the eyes of my parents, my teachers and society in general. And a lot of the limitations we felt were really in our own heads. Those few far-scattered female movers and shakers available as role models were, we were given to understand, very rare and special and brilliant: Madame Curie, Queen Elizabeth I, Jane Addams, Amelia Earhart. When I looked around in my high school Honors and AE classes and saw only two other girls besides me – well, that said something. What it said was “Forget about romance if you are brainy and driven and competitive and don’t want to hide it, ’cause guys don’t like being beaten at anything by a girl.”
It wasn’t just at school that the limitations applied, the ones in our heads and those imposed by tradition. There were just so very few places where a woman could go, and have a real career, even fewer where you could work after marriage and children. While there were always women who broke those conventions, they were rare exceptions. They were extraordinarily talented, or lucky, or very, very driven; us ordinary girls were not encouraged to very much more than being a teacher, or a nurse, a secretary, or in sales: everything else, everything that looked daring, or adventurous, or well-paid or just plain fun was beyond a thin, gauzy veil with the words, “No, girls can’t do that.”
Feminism changed all that in a thousand ways: any number of interesting and challenging careers are now open to pretty much anyone qualified and interested, it is now possible to have credit, a business, a house in your own name, a medical appointment with a woman doctor— all of which were almost unimaginable, save to some visionaries in the 1960ies. You don’t even have to wear those damned high heel shoes, unless you want to; you can organize your professional and personal life in whatever arrangement works for you. Now there are few barriers preventing women from acquiring the skills and credentials which will give them an astonishing degree of economic and political freedom, and equality, our world is changed for us, but the movement which spearheaded those changes hasn’t. Instead it is insular, reactionary, petty and increasingly doctrinaire—- even irrelevant to most of what would be their natural constituency.
Increasingly, a number of matters began to bother me: how conventional courtesies like opening a door for a woman were somehow conflated with economic and political injustice, and how being a feminist in good standing meant having to meet an increasingly rigorous set of strictures. Reading through MS Magazine, as I did devotedly during the years that I was in active service, the message became clearer and clearer: you weren’t really counted as a (large capital) feminist in good standing unless you were a vegetarian-pagan-lesbian-single-parent-of-color-employed-by-a-university-and-serious-victim-of-the-patriarchy, and also eschewed leg and armpit shaving and makeup into the bargain – and if you had the misfortune to be white and middle class, better get down and do a lot of groveling apologies for it.
So, as I had internalized the early principles of strength, independence, and freedom of choice, the feminism of the later period brought about a certain amount of cognitive dissonance: You mean, I have fought my way into a twice male-dominated field (broadcasting and the military), borne and raised a child on my own, built a fairly happy and successful life— and you want me to insist that I am a desperately unhappy and downtrodden victim? That the military, which was really rather accommodating about medical benefits, child care, and family requirements was this horrible patriarchal, brutal establishment dedicate to squashing the sisterhood? There was nothing said about how damn good it felt to exercise authority, what an absolute kick it was to go out and make things happen; it was all sitting around with the sisterhood, moaning about how downtrodden, and how very superior it was morally to be a perpetual victim.
Mind you, the military was not one vast warm fuzzy support group that the traditional feminists envisioned as their ideal society; it is rather a brutally efficient meritocracy; do the job, get the perks, earn the pension and the status. Over twenty years, I worked with the people who were incompetent ninnies, and people who were who were totally squared away professionals. There was no correlation between competence and possession (or absence) of a dick.
There were a number of the free-standing variety, however, as well as other challenges. As a military woman, I dealt with them directly, neatly and efficiently, and without involving my commander, the legal office or the womyn’s support group, and without thinking of myself as a poor, pitiful victim of patriarchal oppression, but as an adult and a professional. I mean, if there was any oppression going around, I was far more likely to be administering it. Playing by the rules laid out for us by the doctrinaire, die-hard feminists seemed more and more stultifying, useless… and worse than that— no fun at all.
Having only a circumscribed set of pre-approved choices to live your life… well, that was just what we had started with, wasn’t it?
After all of this, maybe I am a post-feminist; holding to only a few simple strictures for organizing women’s lives. The same access to educational opportunities, to be judged in the classroom and the job by the same standards, and to be paid the same for the same work. Arrange anything else— your child-bearing schedule, your profession, and your living arrangements in the manner which brings you and yours blessings and happiness.
And if you wanna wear four-inch spike heels, or goth makeup, or go totally vegan… well, whatever, sister. It’s a big world, and the possiblities and the choices are endless.

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