Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of criticizing the choices of others, we could ask each other honest questions about why we chose the way we chose?
Do you ever feel like we’re repeating ourselves? I know my mother does. She listens to me talk about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a manifesto about women and the workplace, and she can’t believe we’re still having the same conversations she was having when she entered the work force in the late ‘70s. I know Leslie Gore does; at the end of a PSA featuring her song “You Don’t Own Me,” the singer says, “I recorded ‘You Don’t Own Me’ in 1964. It’s hard for me to believe, but we’re still fighting for the same things we were then.’” I know Tina Fey does; in her 2012 speech about male politicians waxing poetic about rape and reproductive rights she said, “I watch these guys, and I’m like ‘What is happening? Am I a secretary on Mad Men?”
Is this a bad dream? When do we get to have new conversations? When do we get to move forward instead of tripping over the same hamster wheel of idiotic sexism over and over again? Last week, renowned feminist Susan Faludi published an epic obituary for Shulasmith Firestone, another radical revolutionary who passed away last August. As I read about divisions within the early movement and about Firestone’s battles over process and policy, I felt like we, too, had not sufficiently absorbed the lessons of our predecessors. It’s not just them, the idiots and the misogynists, who can’t seem to let go of the bad behavior of past generations; it’s all of us.
In 1976, Jo Freeman wrote an essay for Ms. magazine about the epidemic of “trashing” that was contaminating the women’s movement. Through letters and petitions circled among members or published in newsletters, early feminists attacked each other, criticizing their commitment to the cause or their methodology for pursuing it. Wrote Freeman:
Like a cancer, the attacks spread from those who had reputations to those who were merely strong; from those who were active to those who merely had ideas; from those who stood out as individuals to those who failed to conform rapidly enough to the twists and turns of the changing line.
I read this description in snippets on the train, while eating lunch at my desk, and I couldn’t stop myself from nodding along. “Trashing” is the word I’ve been looking for to represent the woman-on-woman virtual bitch-slapping we still engage in, the arguments about what is and isn’t feminist enough, the mommy wars waged between the stay-at-homes and the go-to-works. How are we still doing this to each other?
Feminism is supposed to be about enabling and supporting the rights of women and men to make their own choices free of gendered expectations or traditional pressures. It’s about creating space in the workplace for women to achieve, and space in the home for men to nurture. Or, it’s about not gunning for promotions in the workplace if that’s not your thing, or about not nurturing, if that’s not your thing. Feminism is about creating choices and discussing choices, not judging choices.
There are women (and men) who will make choices that I would never make, who will choose to follow paths that I would never take, who will decide to make compromises that I will never make. If I’m not OK with that then I’m failing to respect the agency of others and that is just about the least feminist thing around. Your decision to change your last name (or not), or stay home with your kid (or not), or drop out of grad school (or not), or put your kids in daycare (or not), or get a face lift (or not), doesn’t impact my ability to make my own choices. To tell you otherwise is to assume that you’re not capable of weighing your options the way I’m capable of weighing my options. Sounds pretty arrogant to me.
In my book club, we read a Joan Didion essay about her experience with the hippies in Haight-Ashbury. Didion was perplexed by young women who participated in the experience by returning to the kitchen to bake pies for the men. My friend, frustrated by Didion’s judgments, rolled her eyes, “I mean, bake a pie if you want, but just be f***ing critical about it!” Refusing to trash each other doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t discuss and explain our choices. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage with what these decisions mean to us personally, and how they fit into the greater narrative of our history and community. It means we should do it without undermining each other and giving fodder to the haters.
In the season finale of 30 Rock, new mom Liz Lemon spends her days trading jabs with other mothers on fake blog GothamMoms, a debate that quickly devolves into drama, “Go back to Saudi Arabia, Hitler!” Because our choices have been the subject of public debate for so long, women are compelled to jump straight to defense before the conversation can get anywhere productive. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of criticizing the choices of others or justifying our own through put-downs and insults, we could ask each other honest questions about why we chose the way we chose? I know you have reasons for leaving the workforce, tell me about how you made that decision? I know that your engagement ring is meaningful, tell me what it signifies to you? What process did you go through when deciding whether to change your name? What is important to you? What is meaningful to you? Why?
Those are hard conversations to have, but they are the ones that enable us to go from trashing to translating experience into empathy. Maybe the SAHM mom did the math and found that her salary wouldn’t cover the cost of childcare. Maybe it wasn’t a “moral” decision at all. Maybe she’s really not judging your different choices. Maybe the last name she’s lived with her whole life belonged to a father she never knew and maybe she was thrilled to change it. How do you know? How do I know? We don’t, unless we ask.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.