On being a bad feminist

Bitch, Ph.D. wrote on Friday about feeling like a bad feminist because she’s doing the stay at home parent thing.  Here she has a Ph.D., is perfectly intelligent and capable, but is choosing to do volunteer work, etc. instead.  And that makes her feel like a bad feminist.  A “good” feminist shouldn’t take on that role.  Been there, done that.  Feel the same guilt.

What she suggests is that sometimes fighting the system requires us to go against our personal connections, some of which might actually support the system, like marriage, like parenting.  What would a good feminist do?  Would she go find work in her field even if it might take her away from her family?  Would she insist that said family come with her to wherever she goes for work, even if it might mean her partner would have to take a lesser job or have no job at all?  Practicalities get in the way sometimes of doing the “right” thing.  Some women ten years my junior have talked about seeking out partners that would go into the career thing with them equally.  Many of those women are still single or living halfway across the country from their spouses.  And that’s all fine if that’s okay with them, but I know some of them aren’t particularly happy with their arrangements.

While I look back on some of the choices I made and wonder, well, if I’d done x or y, might I have been in a better place career wise.  And sure, if I’d insisted that Mr. Geeky wait until I was at a point where I could go on the market with him, I might have tenure by now.  But, Mr. Geeky might not be at a place that he likes.  In fact, his career might have just defaulted.  And that wouldn’t have been good for either of us.  And maybe my choices, mostly making the best of wherever Mr. Geeky ended up, looks like I was being a bad feminist.  At the time, however, I was doing the best with what I was faced with, as was Mr. Geeky.  A lot of my decisions and his decisions were actually our decisions.  And that’s what you do when you hitch your life to someone else’s.  Our mutual needs and desires have always led us to make decisions, some of which we’re very aware go against a particular political stance.  It’s always a matter of compromising.  We know what we wouldn’t compromise and unfortunately, an ideal feminist relationship isn’t something that we can always maintain.  It’s good enough for us.  It works for us.  And both of us do work that directly challenges the system that keeps women down.  Nothing is perfect.

12 Replies to “On being a bad feminist”

  1. I think the most important thing about modern feminism is the increase in choices open to women. The funny thing about choices is that people make them for a wide variety of reasons, and they don’t always choose to do what others think they “should” do.

    It seems to me to be a perfect example of feminism to make choices while considering the whole family. Sometimes a member of the family needs to make a bigger sacrifice than another to make things work.

  2. I agree PhilosopherP. There is a kind of feminist message out there, though, that says that if you’re not working, you’re not a “good” feminist. I actually find myself more at odds with capitalism, which is part of what drives some women to work, but that often puts me at odds with feminism. It’s complicated!

  3. “It seems to me to be a perfect example of feminism to make choices while considering the whole family. Sometimes a member of the family needs to make a bigger sacrifice than another to make things work.”

    I think this is a cop out when it’s always the woman who is making the sacrifices. Then, we need to be talking about the systemic effects that’s producing that effect, as well as the personal choices everyone is making.

    On the other hand, as others have said, I don’t think we have a personal obligation to make bad choices for ourselves, in order to support some outside ideal. What we have the obligation to do is to make good choices for ourselves, even when it bucks the forces that are buffeting us (an example being a repeated insistence to call dad to organize the carpool, rather than mom, in order to buck the trend towards putting the mom in charge). But, a mom isn’t *required* to do that unless that’s the choice her family wants to make (i.e. dad is in charge of the carpool).

    Actually I think a columnist at the Atlantic said this when talking about the decisions to marry outside/inside one’s race. That it’s simply not a decision that’s made politically, even if we know that we are being influenced by the forces of society. The same is true for relationships within marriages. They’re just not tools of political decision making.

  4. Is it *always* the woman though? I think it is probably most often the woman for lots of reasons. We do need to talk about the systemic effects. I’m not sure I can see the forest for the trees. And I’m part of multiple systems–the academic one being a subset of the larger system that expects a woman at home (or at least a spouse). I’ll also say that things like the cost of daycare and housing were huge factors in determining whether I worked or not. I think the biggest issue for many, many middle to upper class families–maybe all families–is the inflexibility of the work schedule. It takes time to manage even the day-to-day household and childcare stuff and there just isn’t enough time if both parents work full-time demanding jobs (even without a commute). Well, there isn’t enough time if you want to do more than just household chores before passing out for the day. I know some people who live that way. I just don’t want to.

  5. I’m going to have to agree with bj here. It’s almost always the woman.

    And given societal pressures with respect to gender and careers, I really don’t think women are making these decisions. I think the options are whittled down to so few, women are choosing among the least worst options.

    My “decision” to stay home was made only after X, Y, and Z happened first — all of these things beyond my control.

    Being a feminist, in my view, is realizing that because of systematic problems, my “choice” is not often a real choice. It’s making the best decision out of what is offered. I think this is particularly true in the intersection of careers, gender, and economics.

  6. I remember seeing a blogging heads once with uber-liberal feminist Linda Hirshman and at one point she sort of talked herself into a corner and admitted she was married. The way in which she said it would have been more appropriate if she was admitting to a heroin addiction. She genuinely seemed ashamed. I just never understood that. Feminism should (in my humble male opinion) be about choice and choosing to stay at home with the kids and ensure the next generation are responsible adults, seems like a prety worthwhile pursuit. Douthat and Salam covered that subject in Grand New Party. They suggested that the way women are demonstrating their feminist impulses now is by choosing much better mates and creating ‘power couples’…not in the Brangelina kind of way but in the ‘we are going to raise an awesome family, combine our earning power and be really supportive spouses’ kind of way.

  7. Anjali, you put that really well. I’ve always felt my choices were constrained because of systemic problems. If I were always making choices that made even the best economic sense, much less feminist sense, I’d probably be single and working on Wall Street. And that sounds utterly depressing to me. Though it might be what makes someone else’s life completely satisfying.

    @Mike, Linda HIrshman makes me angry. And yes, feminism should be about choice, but it also seems to have dictated that some choices are better than others. Though, I will say that feminism now, in the 21st century, does value women who stay at home or work part time or whatever. I, of course, was raised on 1970s feminism. I was gonna go braless and work full-time no matter what. Makes me laugh. 🙂

  8. See, I’m in one of those “flip-side” marriages where my husband gave up everything in terms of jobs, community and future to come with me on my tenure-track position. This town isn’t a good match for him in terms of jobs (this is a place where there’s still very much a pink-collar mentality of office work). It was a conscious choice because we knew there were very few jobs out for historians. Either I stayed in grad school city to be a perpetual adjunct and we pooled our relatively limited salaries together or I pursued this tenure-track job for very good security and a much better financial resolution, overall. Just at the cost of any professional satisfaction for my spouse!

    So you could say that I’m a “good feminist” by putting my career first but I often feel like a bad person for bringing the person that I love most into such an invidious situation. Because I’m a feminist and a woman, I’m much more aware of what I’ve done than many a man would be in my situation, I suspect.

  9. @Janice, I think this whole issue has a lot more to do with feminism within academics than more broadly. Had I been in another career, moving almost anywhere would probably work out just fine. But when you’re an academic, you often find yourself stranded after moving somewhere because of your partner’s career. And even if you end up doing something fulfilling, there may always be some nagging doubts about that old career you left behind.

  10. Sigh. I’m a crappy feminist, for a lot of different reasons, as any quick read of Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy quickly reminds me.

    I actually reject the idea that feminism can just be reduced to “everyone choose!” But I’m too tired and brain-fried to get into my definition. Except to say, just because you’re a woman, and you’ve made that choice, doesn’t make your choice a feminist choice.

    I agree with bj and Anjali in general on this one. I wouldn’t necessarily make different choices, given my constraints, but I am not 100% comfortable with my choices, either. I hope my children have a different choice-set, and I hope there’s still work I can do to see that happen.

  11. So, Mr. Geeky chimed in to say, “Hey, I’m a feminist, and I think we both made feminist choices out of our *very* limited options.” He wanted me to recognize that some of what we’re all talking about relates to our subject positions as women.

    One thing we talked about a lot in our Gender and Technology class was the huge gap between theory and practice when it came to how we deal with gender. On the one hand, we could all agree that the system that insists on just two genders and encodes certain rules for each is wrong and should be fought against. On the other, we had a difficult time actually figuring out how to fight. There are situations you go into where you think, “I should behave this way because I’m reinforcing gender norms” but you can think of no way around it, practically speaking.

  12. One of the problems I’ve always had with the “bad feminist” argument is that people equate chosen paid work for women with feminism. I’ve always had this feeling that being a “good feminist” meant fighting in some way for equality between men and women, girls and boys, for an ethics of care, etc. I understood the 1970s or second wave advocacy for careers for women as a means of influencing policy and laws in this direction. So if certain life circumstances mean that we’re not DAs or head of the AMA or on a Wall Street bailout task force, then we could certainly be good feminists by advocating for municipal support of women’s shelters, volunteering to coach girls’ sports, helping single elderly women to the doctor or even raising our sons to understand the need for equal pay, equal housework, etc.

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