Over the last several months a debate has been raging in particular force over who may call herself (or himself) a Feminist. Can someone who is Pro-Life be a Feminist? Can a stay-at-home mom be a Feminist? If a woman works outside the home is she necessarily a Feminist? So I thought I might add my two cents to the debate and share some of my reflections on my own quest for an authentic, or as I call it, an Organic Feminist Ideology.
Often, in discussions about femininity or feminism the question of nature versus nurture arises. In looking at the behavior of women and girls, people wonder how much is a result of the way females are raised, and how much is an intrinsic part of their nature? This particular question is one I am very interested in and one that I ponder frequently. However, it is not the aim of this post to consider this part of the question.
In looking at the biological differences between men and women, however, it is pretty easy to determine what is nature and what is nurture. It is clearly not a part of cultural conditioning that I have a menstrual cycle; it is not a result of the way I was raised that I am able to get pregnant. It is not nurture that makes my breasts capable of breastfeeding a child. As these things are very clearly and obviously inherently feminine, it seems to me that the authentically Feminist response would be to give such processes honor and respect. If some people's reactions are to change, suppress, or eradicate what is clearly authentically feminine—how can that be part of an Authentic Feminist Ideology? And yet, I have heard many who claim to be Feminists using very degrading language in references to these processes. Referring to pregnancy as being "knocked up" is something that I would expect from a misogynist, not one who calls herself a Feminist. I am not suggesting that we always talk of these processes as though they are always experienced as a walk through the tulips, because in many cases these very processes involve at least inconvenience and often outright physical suffering. I feel, however, that it is possible to honestly acknowledge the challenges we face in these uniquely feminine experiences while not diminishing the worth of them. I feel it is an appropriation of a misogynist mindset to think that such experiences have no value or meaning to ourselves and to the wider culture and that such contributions are second-rate to more noble and valuable contributions as those generally performed by men.
In my own experiences of menstruation and especially pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, I was extremely aware of society's tendency to diminish female suffering. I made absolutely sure that my husband was aware that just because I was female I did not have some sort of magical gene that made suffering a breeze to endure. The fact that millions of women have gone through these experiences was, to me, inconsequential. It didn't make it easier for me to experience them. I'm reminded of Heller's Catch-22. Yossarian, the protagonist, is in a war and he is very upset that people are trying to kill him. Others remind him that they're trying to kill everyone, not just him, and he says, "What difference does that make?" Indeed, whether the enemies are trying to kill him or all his fellow soldiers is irrelevant to him. People are still trying to kill him. So yes, women have experienced menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding for ages, but that knowledge didn't negate its profundity nor its difficulty for me as an individual.
If societal conditions or biases exist that make it difficult for women to participate in the wider culture and to have her gifts and talents recognized, then the solution cannot be to change women to accommodate misogynist views, but the response must always be to change the perceptions and sexism of the culture.
This year many people are celebrating 50 years of the Pill and marketing it as 50 years of progress and greater freedom for women. To me, this is equivalent to celebrating 50 years of the skin-bleaching industry and calling that progress because that enabled all the people of color to participate to a greater degree in the societal discourse. How absurd and offensive that would be! If people must be white to have their contributions recognized, that is racism and injustice. Furthermore, droves of minorities rushing out to bleach their skin would not change the status-quo but would, in fact, reinforce it. Likewise, if women must take carcinogens and harm the ecosystem of our bodies in order to contribute to society in whatever way we choose, I call that sexism and oppression. To change ourselves because of other's biases never increases respect. It in fact perpetuates the disrespect because such behavior reinforces the aberrant belief of our own inadequacies and male superiority.
The multi-billion-dollar contraceptive industry would have us believe that our choice is between having 20 kids or buying their products and just bearing with the side effects and expense. As I have stated in previous posts, a safe and natural alternative exists in Natural Family Planning. NFP couples learn to observe the changes that naturally occur in a woman's body the week she is fertile and, depending on whether they wish to conceive or not, either take advantage of her fertile time or abstain. (For more information on NFP, you may wish to view my other posts on the topic.)
As the struggle for freedom of many oppressed peoples illustrates, often times the greatest struggle is not attaining physical freedom, but overcoming the colonization of the mind—the perceptions of inadequacy and inferiority implanted there by the colonizer. Women, do you really and truly like being female? Do you absolutely know that you are equal to men, as you are? Do you believe that life, as you experience it, has value and meaning? Sadly, I feel the behavior of many women suggests that the answer to these questions is no. We must confront such attitudes in ourselves and society and strive after genuine freedom, which is not freedom from ourselves, but freedom to be ourselves.