A while back, one of my favorite humans asked me how I became a feminist, and I didn’t have a good answer…because I don’t think I ever wasn’t. So I thought about it some more.
When I was small, both of my parents worked. Mom did virtually all of the housework and Dad’s province was heavy lifting in the backyard, but we were a two-income household from the start. Before that, the two of them were a dual-income household that also spent most of their time rebuilding our first house very nearly from scratch. Mom got herstart on a farm in the tropics and my grandmothers were not stay-at-home parents all the time either, so the idea that women were unsuited for exertion was utterly foreign. They set out from the start to push all three of us toward educated careers, determined to make sure we were better off than they began. If they had contradictory messages for my sister, they didn’t show here—if anything, the terror that a trophy-wife version of her would be left high and dry after a divorce drove them to push her harder. They embraced the idea of career women with enthusiasm matched only by Mom’s enthusiasm for the day when our finances were secure enough that she could become a stay-at-home parent for a few years.
They did harbor regressive views, of course. It was hard to pick them out, between their other prejudices, but they were there. Would they have looked down on me for an interest in nursing because it’s “effeminate,” or because it’s “not a doctor”? Would they have chastened my sister away from low-wage work in landscaping and roofing because those jobs are for men, or because they’re for the new, uneducated, and non-Anglophone among Miami’s masses? It is hard to put a pin in a lifetime of subtle patriarchal conditioning and tease apart the relative contributions, especially in a world suffused with the same message. In their case, their pressing my sister away from certain activities was almost always couched in terms of protecting her from the many dangers this world imposes on women in particular, such as leering, handsy construction workers and frat boys armed with GHB. The message was not “because women shouldn’t do these things,” but rather, “because men are bastards.” Dad also cynically, ashamedly mused, “because boys don’t come home pregnant,” a message I am not sure my sister found helpful. The messaging at home was obviously, overtly anti-feminist in other ways, especially on dating and bodily autonomy, thanks to all the Catholicism, but within that referent it could have been a lot worse.
My elementary school curriculum was delectably subversive. Cooking and cleaning were Mom’s duties and I resisted them as forbidding, unpleasant, and not mine, but home economics was a mandatory class for all. I also experienced a multi-day module exploring the idea that men venturing into stereotypically female spheres like cooking, and women into men’s spheres like hunting, was not a harm, but a net good that made households and societies more flexible and functional. The delightful Claymation film The Fable of He and She was a prominent fixture. The history classes made a point to highlight women at various turns, especially American fixtures like Molly Pitcher, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth (complete with her “and ain’t I a woman?” speech). I remember vividly when the teacher pointed out that the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution left people like Truth high and dry, because it only officially enfranchised minority men.
In some basic sense, I’d made it to puberty with the idea that women and men ought to be equal participants in society more-or-less uncontested. That is first-wave feminism’s triumph, that taking issue with its primary contention is a nigh-universally recognized sign of backwardness or evil. I was too young to hear the Catholic foolishness Mom and Dad fed us, and for most of that time my sister was a toddler or less, so she didn’t hear it either. There was no grand epiphany that fixed my confused mind, the way there was when I rejected religion; it was an altogether more subtle, piecemeal process. I refined; I did not replace.
Still, anti-feminist thinking was omnipresent in the broader society, and it dovetailed neatly with emerging adolescent frustration. I internalized a lot of negative attitudes about women as I came of age. For a while, I embraced the idea that straight women innately have terrible judgement about their romantic partners and need to be duped into paying attention to non-awful men, and that intoxicated women were fair game for shenanigans. Thankfully, my crippling social anxieties prevented me from taking advantage of “opportunities” I might otherwise have had. Even more thankfully, my need to be validated rather than merely satisfied made sure that many of those “opportunities” didn’t even register. Throughout all of that, though, and even while I was still sorting out ultimately fallacious notions that fetal viability was a relevant thing to think about when determining whether aborting a pregnancy is okay, I had already settled comfortably into the idea that I was a feminist.
The rest of my growth was a matter of refining that basic identification, and taking it to its conclusions. A big part of that process was abandoning the Nice Guy fallacy, a process I’ve already described. The rest I owe to Freethought Blogs, the world’s largest Anglophone atheist blog network. It was here that I encountered Ian Cromwell, Natalie Reed, and other writers who helped me grow my time-tested but hidden atheism, my nascent feminism, and my inchoate mess of a political stance into something coherent, and to correct many errors and biases I had previously harbored. They and the people I encountered through them, turned a basic understanding that people’s ability to function in society should not be circumscribed by irrelevancies into the happy leftism I currently embrace.
I continue to grow, thanks to Freethought Blogs and its growing, shifting roster of fantastic writers.
So why am I a feminist?
I am a feminist because there is no good reason for women’s participation in society to be limited based on their gender.
I am a feminist because ignoring and restricting the possibilities of half of the human race is not a good way to build the future.
I am a feminist because women’s perspectives and experiences matter and it is high time that we listened to them.
I am a feminist because I want better for my sister and my someday daughter and the rest of the world’s women than being subjected to men’s advances whether they want them or not.
I am a feminist because I do not want men’s possibilities cut off at the knees by the expectation that men are or ought to be constitutively angry, aggressive, destructive, and unconcerned with boundaries.
I am a feminist because I recognize that adult humans are more important than fetuses.
I am a feminist because feminism is the first step to recognizing that enormous amounts of how we think about gender are not just wrong, but incredibly damaging to people who do not fit into the ciscentric, heteronormative paradigm most of us are fed from infancy.
I am a feminist because feminism promises the freedom to explore what it means to be a human without treating vast swaths of the human experience as verboten.
I am a feminist because feminism is a prerequisite for realizing the human rights we were all promised.
I am a feminist because it is wrong not to be a feminist.