Saturday, January 26, 2013

True Feminism

I'm not very caught up on what everyone else is saying about feminism at the moment.  That is, I don't know where the feminist movement stands from an academic perspective --- only where it stands in the world of my daily observation.  So with that prelude to my ignorance, I will proceed to share some thoughts.

Generally the last century of feminist activity has been divided into "First-wave," "Second-wave," and "Third-wave" feminism.  The first was known for its emphasis on suffrage and property rights.  The second, which bore the Women's Liberation Movement, focused on equality in the workplace and on ending legal gender discrimination.  The third (beginning in the 90s) has emphasized reproductive rights and fluid gender roles.

I am a feminist.

Growing up, I thought it was a bad thing to be a feminist.  I was pretty convinced that women should cling to their traditional role of wife, mother, homemaker, or society would collapse.  I thought feminism meant stealing a woman from the home and placing her in the workplace, leaving her "latch-key" kids to fend for themselves; that feminism sneered at the idea of being a stay-at-home mom whose life and identity revolved around her children and husband; that feminism was the foremost cause of delinquency, debauchery, debt, disease, disaster... all strewn in the wake of broken homes and heartbroken families.

That is not my kind of feminism.

There is a brand of feminism, that first reared its head in the "Second wave" of the 70s and 80s, which preached that women needed something other than their children and homes as outlets for their intellect and creativity.  It says that a woman will become depressed, and ultimately feel unfulfilled, if she has no work outside her home.  I think it is safe to say that, in the politically correct world, this vision of womanhood has been effectively crushed.  Most people accept that a woman can lead a fulfilling and influential life from within the walls of her home, though most would also advise that every mother maintain hobbies or part-time work and pursue life-long learning for a well-balanced self.  (My three sister-mothers and my own mother, who are stay-at-home moms, do this beautifully).  More women today are choosing to stay home with their children than did in the 80s or 90s, which is a credit to the direction mainstream feminism has taken.  I do not say this because I believe every woman should stay at home, but because every woman should be free to do so without censure.

But the point I want to make has to do with gender roles and rules.  Second wave feminism sought to make men and women equal in the workplace.  It said that a qualified woman is not inherently less desirable than a qualified man in any position.  It insisted on equal payment and equal treatment.  These demands wrought wonderful changes in our society, and opened up a world of possibilities to women that had never been dreamed of by the suffragists.  I feel that today, it is finally normal --- not common, perhaps, but certainly not shocking --- to hear of a woman CEO, tech entrepreneur, even president of a nation.  It is so good that America knows that women and men have equal potential for success in any position, depending on their training, talent, and tenacity.  But not on their gender.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive results of the push for gender equality, there is some danger in it.  It leads some to see men and women not only as equal, but as fully interchangeable.  And here is where I might diverge in my feminism from the mainstream movement.

What is feminism that does not celebrate --- fully --- what it means to be feminine?  And I don't mean the color pink, or large shoe collections, or a love of chocolate.  Those things are associated with femininity in American culture, but not in all cultures.  What is feminine?  Across all nations, races, ages?  A propensity for chit-chat?  Maybe.  An adoration of babies?  Maybe.  Appreciation of beauty, of spirituality?  Maybe.  But although women are more prone toward these qualities than men, they are not woman's exclusive domain.

The female body.  That is feminine.  Fully feminine and exclusively feminine.  With it comes the ability to conceive, build, and bear another human body.  With it comes milk to feed an infant, and hormones that bind us to our children.  And I must argue that there is such a thing, also, as the feminine spirit.  With it comes the ability to nurture in a particular way, to sense in a particular way, and to connect in a particular way.  There is  also something within every woman that binds us --- women --- to each other.  Sisterhood is feminine.  Fully feminine and exclusively feminine.

True feminism should not stop at "women are equal to men", and it should not go so far as to say "women and men are interchangeable."  True feminism must embrace what it is to be feminine.  I believe this means that true feminism should by nature be more focused on childbirth, on child-nurturing, and on sisterhood, than it is on anything else, because these are among the only things that are in woman's exclusive natural domain.  (With them, of course, come related spiritual gifts which are, again, more common among women but probably not exclusive to them).

I could end this will all kinds of disclaimers about the obvious exceptions, but I won't.

Instead I'll say where my feminism has brought me.  I have a very fulfilling career in the academic world.  As a professor, I teach my classes, and grade papers, and research, and manage administrative duties as effectively as any man would.  But I do it as a woman, which means I do it differently (not better, but differently).  Then I go home from work, and there I play with, feed, and nurture my son --- differently than my husband does it, because I am a woman.  I rejoice in those things that make me different from the men who share my roles as professor or as parent.  Our contrasting contributions make our product more complete.

I am a feminist because I honor those things that make me different from a man, and not simply because I hold that I am not different from a man in many respects.  I am a feminist because I celebrate my femininity, without believing it to be superior or inferior to masculinity.  I am a feminist because I rejoice in those traits of mine that are exclusively female --- my body, my spirit, my sisterhood.


  1. Thank you! I have been searching for a great summary of what I feel it is to be feminist and have found it! This is spot on, Meredith.
    As a medical professional it is very interesting to see my peers' various courses through life. I believe that gone are the days where you had to act masculine to make it "in a man's world". Women are truly better healthcare providers when they embrace the traits that truly make them feminine. I think it's true for most professions now.
    I remember a very specific moment for me when I admitted to someone, rather shamefacedly, that I was "a bit of a feminist" and that person asked me very directly why I felt that was a bad thing. I hadn't thought about it until that time. I'm not sure where all my negative connotations came from but I have since been trying to leave them behind and define for myself what I think feminism is and what it should be. I believe it is exactly as you have said: an embracing of all of the roles that we as women can so wonderfully fill. Bravo!

  2. Brava, Merzi! Thank you for accepting the label so unapologetically. It's a misunderstood label for some folks lately, particularly those who so staunchly defend the patriarchal structure of the world/church/society but I think feminism helps all people, not just women.
    The bloggers over at and would just love you.

  3. So lovely, Meredith. I was just telling Keenan today how much women need women (I recently learned that the word "midwife" means "with women").

    Since I was a little girl, I've been interested in understanding who I am and what it means to be a girl. My brothers would call me a feminist sometimes when I would ask questions about women, and I felt bad about that. All I was really seeking was equality -- to understand myself and my role as easily as they seemed to understand theirs. I still have questions, but I have so much clarity and confidence, which grow each time I allow my feminine spirit to flourish. I love being a woman.

    This is a very nice prelude to my birth story, which I hope to post this week. Thank you for these thoughts.

  4. That was wonderful, Meredith. I loved reading that. Those are feelings I've had, but I've never associated it with the word feminism and I really appreciate that insight.

    I love you, sister.

  5. Meredith, this was such an uplifting post to read. Thank you so much for speaking what so many of us have felt.

  6. I guess I never commented on this! Thanks for the good thoughts. It's a topic that I ponder on a lot--our temporal roles here, and our eternal roles. Here's a good ted talk with a fresh perspective.

    1. So funny. I thought of that TED talk, too, when I read this! Also, this one: