Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Feminist is NOT a Pejorative Term

During a recent segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, I heard a caller assert that young women are reluctant to call themselves feminists. She suggested that the word has become attached to Blue States, the left, liberals, and to groups and ideas advanced by the Democratic party. It’s not much of a stretch then to link feminist and radical because left and liberal are synonyms for radical in some circles. I think that’s a shame; I think women young and old should be proud to call themselves feminists. Here’s why.

The word feminist describes someone who advocates for social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men. Feminism is women helping women, insuring that opportunities for excellence and independence are available so that every woman may achieve her dreams no matter how they differ from one another.

First, feminists advocate for social equality, a noble pursuit, wouldn’t you agree? They seek to insure that when people interact with each other, they do so respectfully and mindfully. They hope that women will not be subjected to insult or injury when they travel to and from their homes and when they speak out in behalf of reproductive rights. Feminists want to be sure that women are not anyone’s prey or punching bag. They try to teach others that their daughters should never be expected to fetch coffee for the men in the room simply because she happens to be female unless, of course, she has chosen the role of hostess. Social niceties include offering and serving beverages to make others feel comfortable, but neither woman nor man is more suitable to being nice in this way. Similarly holding the door open for someone else is a social nicety, but women should not expect this courtesy unless they are willing to extend it to others who may need a helping hand.

Social interactions also include very controversial matters such as terminating a pregnancy or one’s own life. These matters become controversial because people do not agree about abortion and suicide any more than they are able to agree about what should be censored, when children are old enough to evaluate language and history, and what is right and wrong. Differences of opinion and passionate debates electrify these matters, transporting them from private, personal ones to cultural ones, and all sorts of factions vie for supremacy, for the right to define right and wrong and to limit individual choice. Let us, for the purpose of exploring the word feminism, agree to John Stuart Mill’s wisdom: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” Therefore, unless your choice and decision deprives me of my choice, then you and I may choose according to our consciences. I hope every feminist would agree.

Feminists also advocate for political equality. Early feminists, at home managing the farms and estates in their husbands’ absences, begged those men to include women in the new government. In fact, in 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her beloved John, saying “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

Mrs. Adams matured during an era when women were treated as adornments, something their husbands could admire and enjoy. Indeed, during Mrs. Adams’ day, females were often not taught to read or write because the general sentiment was that they did not possess the intellect required to learn anything but the most basic lessons. Yet, Mrs. Adams and countless others made reasoned, impassioned arguments for equality even as men made reasoned, impassioned arguments for a democratic republic.

As you know, women were excluded from the original Constitution; they did not achieve the vote until 1920, fewer than 100 years ago, making the 19th amendment just a toddler in the greater scheme of rights in this nation. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott kicked off the suffrage movement at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, but only one woman present at that convention was still living when the nation amended the Constitution. Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt were among the twentieth century women who wrote, protested, and spoke in behalf of women and the vote. Surely, we are grateful for their feminism because we now have the right to vote and consequently play an important role in deciding the political direction for the country.

In addition, women now run for political office, winning every office except those in the highest executive branch. We have yet to elect a woman as president or vice-president in either major political party.

Insuring a woman’s legal right to vote is just one of many legal advancements for which feminists work. When men or women break the social contract, there are now many legal remedies, including the right to seek redress for unequal pay if both the man and the woman performing the job have equal experience and skill. Public schools, colleges, and universities may no longer reserve all their space and money for men-only sports. Women can buy, sell, and inherit property without a father or husband’s approval. Women can volunteer for service in the military. Women can also insist upon being safe from sexual exploitation through legal measures. The feminists have pressed these matters before the public and brought about significant change, nudging our attitudes and interactions toward a more equitable and safe world.

Feminists also helped the economy of women by raising our social consciousnesses and insuring legal equity. They argued for equal pay for equal work, and the nation found that the idea had merit. Even though women still lag behind men in earning power, they have legal redress through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts, especially after Lily Ledbetter refused to give up when the courts turned her aside. An Executive Order in 2009, during the Obama administration, extended a woman's right to file a complaint with the EEOC.

Feminists have also shown us the way. Some powerful, successful women still take time away from their careers in order to raise their children; others try to juggle everything--the career, the children, the home, and marriage, and they have our respect for having such strength. Single women are no longer labeled as spinsters or old maids; they have a respectable slice of the American pie at every age, and single mothers and fathers have our sympathy for theirs is an exhausting road, but one oft traveled.

Ladies, girls, and women, let us not avoid calling ourselves feminists for feminism is an old and honorable label. It simply describes someone who tries to leave the world a little bit better for the next generation.