Why I am a feminist

The discussion about the state of PAS over the last few days, here and here on this blog, on ObjectDart, and on New FreeLand, beautifully picked up and described and enhanced by the ineffable Jolisa Gracewood here, and even referred to on Kiwiblog, has got me started thinking about why I am a feminist.

I live and breathe feminism. Not in-your-face feminism, but nevertheless, everyday, on-going feminism. I learned my feminism at my mother’s knee, literally. Give me an issue, and I reflexively analyse it as a feminist.

I don’t think that a feminist analysis suits every issue, every problem, every little action.  Years ago, when I was lecturing in Philosophy, I taught a brief section on Feminism. Students inevitably treated ‘feminism’ as a dirty word, and many of the young women, too many, said that they would never call themselves feminists. So I asked them to imagine a statue in a darkened room. The whole statue can’t be seen, but if you shine a light on it from one direction, you see something of it, and if you shine a light from another direction, you see something else. Each time you shine a light from a different direction, you may be able to learn a little more about the statue.

Think of a feminist analysis as one of those lights. It may reveal something unknown about the statue, or it may not. It may not reveal anything useful. Or it may give you a whole new way of thinking about the statue.

So what is a feminist analysis? Very basically, it involves asking the question – How does this affect women?

A great deal of the time, the way that something affects women will be no different from the way that it affects men. But sometimes, there is a difference, and then, you are led into a whole realm of questioning why this might be so, whether it matters in any case, whether the world, largely considered, would be a better place if the difference did not exist, whether the difference is ineradicable, so it is the world that needs to be changed, rather than women.

When I ask myself these questions, I find that there are issues where the difference really matters. And that is why I call myself feminist.

I am a feminist because it is still possible for people to claim that if the ordinary working practices don’t suit women, then it is women who must change, not our understanding of how work should be done.

The problem is, like it or not, women who have children are always going to be second-class workers and no law can redress this.

I am feminist because it is still regarded as permissible to criticise a woman in public life for not having children, when by and large, the same criticism is not levelled at men.

I am feminist because on so many billboards, in so many magazines, in so many television advertisements, women’s bodies are used to sell products that have nothing to do with women’s bodies.

I am feminist because women’s childcare responsibilities mean that their earnings potential is seriously constrained.

I am feminist because workers in female dominated professions and trades typically earn less than workers in male dominated professions and trades.

I am a feminist because women are raped.

I am a feminist because so many of the freedoms won by women are so new. My own country, New Zealand, was the very first self-governing country in the world to extend the vote to women, on 19 September 1893. That’s only 114 years ago. Universal suffrage for omen in countries that like to think of themselves as bastions of freedom, the United Kingdom and the United States, was not attained until after the Great War. In my country, as recently as the 1950s, it was thought to be reasonable that women should be paid less than men, even if they did the same work. Rape was legal within marriage, assault at home was ‘just a domestic’, women could not control whether or not their bodies were used for reproduction. Women only started going to university in significant numbers in the 1970s. Women leaders are now commonplace, although not as commonplace as male leaders, but this has only been true for perhaps the last 10 years, both here in New Zealand, and in other countries around the world.

These are recent changes, and I believe they are still tender. Not brittle, and liable to break at a moment’s notice, but recent, and still needing time to be bedded in. I call myself feminist in honour of the women who fought for these changes, and because I believe that we need to protect these freedoms.

I am a feminist, because in so many parts of the world, women simply do not have the freedoms that women in New Zealand take for granted. Last Friday, I posted a quote from Catharine McKinnon, asking the incredible question, “Are women human?” I invite you to read the quote again. While I have the privilege of worrying about flexible working hours, women in other countries are beaten, raped and abused, and sometimes killed, merely for the sin of being female.

I am feminist because I have three daughters, and I want them to be free to choose how to live their lives.

For these reasons, and for many more, I am a feminist.

Don’t get me wrong. I live with, love, and intend to continue living with and loving my husband. I have loving, caring male friends and relations, men I like, and admire. Many of the changes I want in our society will benefit both men and women. This is not about improving the lot of women at the expense of men, but ensuring that women are simply treated as human beings.

By the way, Jolisa, if you are looking for a good pav recipe, I have a couple you could have.

2 responses to “Why I am a feminist

  1. As a man I can live with that and indeed support and encourage it
    I think it just madness that motherhood as a choice is not encouraged and that the states and us the people should regard it as a very worthwhile occupation
    We all require generations to follow us and only women can do that
    Of course this is nothing new but in balence women should be seen as not just potential mothers (it is a choice) but as people, special people
    Like you I learnt feminism at my mothers knee as she railed at men as having special rights in the 50s

  2. Good pav recipe? Lay it on me!

    Amen to your list of great reasons to be a feminist. I love the torch analogy, because you can carry that torch in your pocket. You can take that torch and shine it on other obscure areas… and then shift and adjust the beam to illuminate things still left in shadow. No one light or vantage point will show you everything about the statue — indeed, too bright a light will make the finer details indistinguishable, and you can never see all sides at once… but if we all stand around and talk about what each of us sees, we can build up a pretty coherent picture of the whole.

    I’m a feminist because this vast, diverse discourse we call “feminism” is such a useful set of basic intellectual tools, subject to endless adaptation and refinement. The sorts of questions feminists ask, call it the feminist toolbelt, can be (and has been) used to help untangle and address so many other social conundrums. Slavery, general suffrage, children’s rights, workers’ rights, indigeneity, nationalism, globalisation, sexual identity, masculinity, the politics of language, and on and on. And that’s cool.