The sad thing about advocating equality for women is I am finding so many women hesitant to participate in the conversation for fear of appearing too “feminist”. “Feminism” has become a dirty word representative of a caricature: Bra-burning, masculine-like women plotting a violent takeover of the world and destruction of the family. It is so surprising to me that in 2013, I still get called a “feminist” when people find out I did not change my name, despite the fact I’ve been happily married for 20 years. Or that my husband and I consider our careers equally important and co-parent our 3 children together. Or that I coach soccer instead of organize the team snacks. And when these topics are raised for rational discussion, the emotional backlash is strong. The ideal woman, even today, daren’t ask a man out, throw herself into an exciting career, or expect her husband to make dinner without fearing the “feminist” label, even if doing otherwise is self-limiting or perpetuates inequality.
What is really going on
1. Compliance. Of course, most people don’t want to be seen as outside the group norm. It’s no fun to be identified as the radical. So it’s much easier to comply with the status quo, no matter how frustrating, than question or change it. They create an extremist stereotype, give it a label and some visible symbols, and then avoid it at all costs. Not changing your name becomes code for some subversive, anti-family plot rather than just an individual personal choice. This is why change is so slow and difficult.
2. Head in the sand. And then there are those who think equality of the sexes has been reached, so there isn’t really a problem anymore. They wonder what all the fuss is about. They think the data about women in power is just lagging and time will fix everything. Yes, women can be anything they want, (as long as they look good, take care of the kids first and make sure it doesn’t detract from their husband’s career, that is). Ah hem.
3. Self-righteousness. Finally, there are some who have made symbolic decisions in their own lives and now feel the need to justify them. Like the childless female boss who penalizes mothers and holds them back at work. Or the at-home uber-mom who puts down working moms. Or the traditionalist who works hard to hamper any efforts to advance women that look different from the past. And everyone seems to love targeting the dreaded single mother. Popular media perpetuates this woman-vs-woman battle and it is easy for each woman to identify with their “side”: Clearly it is the “right” way because that’s the one they chose. But this doesn’t solve the problem or make things better. Instead, it sets women against each other and holds us all back.
We need to acknowledge that women are not yet equal and find a way to help this change. But how can we do this?
Here are 5 Ways to pursue equality without being a “Feminist”
1. Be aware of situations where women are held back. This means opening your eyes and ears. You don’t have to do anything but watch. The symbols, actions, and language are all around us. When someone highlights a women’s gender in an attempt to put her off balance, notice it. When policies are made that affect women negatively without women’s input, take note. When women limit themselves or accept traditional roles without questioning, be aware of it.
2. Be open to changing your mind. If you do something out of habit and find upon reflection that it might be self-limiting, be willing to reconsider. If you participated in something that held women back in the past, do things differently in the future. It’s never too late to change. If another woman is becoming defensive of her former choices, support her ability to change her mind while still saving face.
3. Use direct speak. When you see something that isn’t right, don’t call a boycot, speak calmly and directly. Tell people what you have noticed and ask them if your assumptions are true. Tell them when they have made you uncomfortable or you feel unsafe. Offer a solution that is fair to everyone. People will respond better to calm logic and non-accusatory conversation than defiance.
4. Support each other. When someone makes a choice that is different from yours, try to understand their context. Have open discussion in a supportive way. Be willing to compromise and show tolerance. Recognize that usually decisions are not black and white, republican or democrat, feminist or traditionalist, but rather there is nuance. And always leave room for your perspective to change. Help to dis-lodge the factions by taking away their power with support, encouragement, and love. The important thing is working together for equality: Together, we can achieve much more power than if we work against each other.
5. Be willing to resist. This doesn’t mean burning your bra or actively starting a revolution. It just means you don’t have to comply or perpetuate a flawed system any longer. Just stop doing things that are self-limiting or keep other women down. Ignore “feminist symbols” and just do what you know is right, what works for YOU, regardless of how others will feel.
I believe the battle for equality rages stronger than ever. But women can help the cause by advocating change without allowing the fear of “feminism” to split us into factions.
© Kelly Watson