Recently, I went to a family party attended by my sisters, cousins and friends. Four of them are newly married, one lives with her boyfriend, and I am single. I am also a self-identified feminist who has often found myself ridiculed or mocked for being an advocate for equal rights. It’s not malicious, but rooted in misunderstanding. I take it in stride, reminding myself that it doesn’t matter what other people think.
But it does matter what people say.
Which brings me to this conversation I witnessed among my sister, our cousins, and a friend. All living with their significant others, they each had stories of how their live-in men assumed that their wives/girlfriend would take care of most of the housework, cooking and cleaning, despite the fact that both partners have full-time jobs and in two cases, the women worked longer hours than their husbands/boyfriend.
They said things like, “It doesn’t matter how ‘enlightened’ a man is, or how modern—they still unconsciously think a woman’s place is in the home” and “He’ll come and ask me why he has no clean socks and I’ll tell him, ‘If you need socks, there’s the washing machine there.’” As a feminist, I was in total agreement. I love men and date them at will, but many, in our society, have been raised to view women as fitting into a different set of expectations than they do. As a feminist, I work against that problem and advocate for gender equality, and hope that I support other women in that endeavor.
But here’s the thing: none of these women identify as feminists. In fact, most of them emphatically reject it. I realize this means there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what they think feminism is, but it irks me nonetheless. After witnessing this conversation I whispered to my sister in a joking, yet conspiratorial tone, “You do realize this sort of makes you a feminist, right?” To my great consternation, all she did was scoff.
Like, what? Annoyed with my sister, I really stopped to think about it. She and I probably believe 95% of the same things as each other, but I call myself a feminist proudly and she does not. I stood there and listened to five women echo exactly what I’ve been advocating for years, and all they had as a response was a dismissal. What does that even mean? If you don’t take the name, are you hurting the cause?
At first, I knew what this meant to me. I am a firm believer that no woman has to call herself a feminist if she doesn’t want to. I support that choice, because it can come from so many places. Maybe you don’t want to label yourself for fear of being scoffed at (yet I had overcome that barrier), maybe you’re afraid of social repercussions, maybe you don’t want to be political about it, maybe you just don’t understand. I am fully in support of my sisters’ decisions to not call themselves feminists, but it confuses—and annoys—me when they are in agreement with me about the issues, yet scoff at the term.
I support them not taking the name, but do they support me for doing the opposite? I’d like to think so, but I’m not entirely sure they wouldn’t be happier without me zealously expressing my opinions, even if I do it without hope for conversion. I do it because I’m passionate, and I think I’m right.
I do it because feminism has helped me, and I want it to help them, too. I think it will, but they don’t. I guess I have to accept that.
At the end of the day, that’s what feminism requires. The acceptance of the knowledge that others, sometimes others that you may love, respect and admire, just don’t agree with you or understand you, and possibly never will. Feminism must be built on a foundation of mutual support and respect. Feminism must allow for other women to eschew the name, if that’s what they choose.
No woman should tell another what to believe, how to live, and how to define themselves. It’s a lesson I’m still learning, a lesson that my sisters and peers are still learning. But feminism will suffer without it. Women will suffer without this basest level of understanding and support.
Feminism isn’t about winning an argument or being right—it’s about supporting women and working toward gender equality. If I’m doing that, then I’m doing fine. And in the meantime, I’ll let others just carry on living their lives, and support them—with or without the name.