Back in the 70s, when we talked about feminism or “women’s liberation,” we talked about very basic issues: equal pay for equal work, equal rights to own property and to mange our own financial affairs, the right to make our own reproductive decisions. We also talked about respect, that women are just as capable as men are to serve as elected officials, business executives, authors, artists, and professors. We talked about safety, about laws and policies that made it nearly impossible for a woman to report rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. I’m sure most of us will agree that we’ve come a long way in the past thirty-five years, but that we still have a ways to go.
As a young writer back then, I wanted to define my philosophy, to put it into words. I asked my sister-feminists, “What is a feminist?” My question most often was met with a list of adjectives: courageous, thoughtful, kind, assertive, dedicated to the group, etc. But I wanted something more. After all, you can be courageous and kind and not be a feminist. You could be a boy scout, for crying out loud.
After a lot of reading and thinking and writing and praying, I did manage to define feminism for myself. It’s a bit winding, but here goes.
Any definition must begin with advocacy of the belief that women must not be denied any right, privilege or protection because of her gender. But let’s take it further.
In an archetypal and/or stereotypical sense, our culture often ascribes certain traits and characteristics as gender related, for example: men are analytical, women are intuitive; men are active, women are passive; men are protectors, women are nurturers. This belief in a dichotomy between the essential nature of masculine and feminine led our culture to funnel boys and girls into varying career paths: boys into business, engineering and science; girls into teaching, nursing and social work.
Of course a lot has changed in recent decades. Plenty of men now choose to be elementary school teachers and nurses, and there are lots of women scientists, engineers and business execs. However professions that have traditionally been considered feminine are still valued less than those traditionally masculine. Just look at the salaries.
I believe it is a common misconception that feminists think women should behave like men. I’m sure there are many women who feel they must put on a type of masculine demeanor to make it in “a man’s world.” I wish this wasn’t the case. For the sake of our mental health, I think it’s a good idea for each of us to strive to integrate the best qualities of both the feminine and the masculine. But as a feminist, I believe our culture severely undervalues all things feminine. As a feminist, I am not simply an advocate for women, I am an advocate for the feminine.
I think a gentle, cooperative, intuitive approach is just as valuable as an assertive, analytical one. And most definitely I believe the concerns of our nurturing professions—children, the elderly, the poor and disabled—are just as important as the concerns of business and law.
As a feminist I am proud to be concerned, not simply with a narrow set of issues that concern American women, but with nurturing the health and creativity of all people everywhere. This is the role women have joyfully accepted since before written history. It’s time for our culture to welcome this work as vital, important, and necessary.