I never really thought of myself as a feminist. I wasn’t out marching for women’s rights or rallying against the patriarchy. It wasn’t until I got married that I realized that, in many ways, I am the poster child for feminism. It’s not a political or social choice; it’s the way I was raised. My mom was a single mother for the first part of my childhood and when she married, it was to a single dad. They came together with an understanding that they would each contribute to the household based on their strengths and interests.
Growing up, my mom tended to be the one to fix things (for better or for worse), she cleaned, she assembled and she occasionally pulled out the sewing machine to repair our clothes. My dad did the food shopping, took care of the yard and picked us up from work. They both worked and shared responsibility for cooking and our bedtime routines. I couldn’t understand (or really respect) my friends’ moms who stayed at home, watching soaps during the day (by the time I was visiting friends’ houses during the week, we were all in school) and hovering around while we played in the afternoon. It seemed, to me, to be just about the most boring existence I could imagine. Then again, my lifelong goal as a six-year-old was to either work as a teacher (my mom’s profession) or a “TV repairman.” Clearly, I had a limited world-view!
Over time, I began to see the inequity between men and women in our society. In my college engineering and computer science classes, women were treated with disdain, if they received any attention at all. The “boys” were too competitive to study together and behaved as if knowledge was better kept to yourself. And, with a grading system that relied heavily on a curve, who can blame them? My female counterparts were furious with me when I switched to – get this – anthropology. As it was, I was one of the top students (male or female) in our program. I didn’t care. I hated that world and wanted nothing to do with it. On the other hand, I thrived in my anthropology classes, where we were treated as equals and knew when we were succeeding.
I met my husband-to-be at the age of 30. By then, I had accepted that I might not get married, and I was ok with it. I’m an independent person and, although I thought it would be nice to share my life with someone, I knew I could take care of myself. I was not someone who had dreamed her whole life of marriage and kids. I didn’t create a vision for my wedding day until there was an engagement ring chosen.
Our wedding was unique. We planned the whole event from beginning to end, based on our personalities and interests. The ceremony itself was written by my dad (not my biological father, who was not in the picture), who had special dispensation for the day to marry us. As fitting my style, I was not given away. The idea of it seemed absurd anyway. My husband and I walked down separate aisles and met in the center, mirroring our life paths. We wrote our own vows, which reflected both our equality and our differences. No one agreed to do any “obeying.”
My extended family was a bit upset that we didn’t get married in a church, but they were stunned, yes stunned, that I did not change my last name. My husband and I had discussed it. I was adopted by my step-father at the age of 12 and had changed my name at the time. I wasn’t excited about the idea of changing it again. And, my husband has one of the most common names (first, middle, and last) in the United States. Since our first names are almost the same anyway, it didn’t really appeal to me to have such a generic last name. Most importantly, I didn’t buy into the notion that I SHOULD change my name. I’m not his property, so why does his name take precedence over my own? We talked about him taking my name and about us choosing a new last name or hyphenating. In the end, he decided that he was not willing to change his name. We came to the agreement that if he wasn’t willing to choose a family name, the kids would take my last name, since I am not willing to be the one person in the family with a different name (something I went through when my mom remarried).
And here we are, with two kids sharing my last name. It bothers me that it’s such a bizarre idea to people. I find it a sad statement on the affairs of women today that people simply assume that my husband isn’t their father. I’m angry that it is free for a woman to change her name upon marriage, but that it costs men to do it. And I’m surprised that, as women still struggle for the right to earn as much as their male counterparts, no one notices that these type of expectations underscore an unchanged view of women as lesser beings. To be clear, I don’t care which name you choose as you start a life together. I care that it isn’t a question of which name to choose. I care that it’s an assumption that women will wash away their identity and take on a new one simply because “that is what’s done.” On an aside, it irks me to no end that I have family members who still address me as “Mrs. My Husband’s Last Name.”
Which brings me to feminism. I am a stay-at-home/work-at-home mom, who shares household chores with her husband. He takes out the trash and does most of the heavy lifting. We take turns with the power tools (neither of us are very good with them). He manages finances, I control everything else in the house simply because I’m around. If we need to fight for our consumer rights, I am often the one to take it on. We follow our skills and interests in household tasks and we co-parent with relative equality. I don’t believe that being a stay-at-home mom spits in the face of feminism. Feminism is about choice. What spits in the face of feminism is not making the choice, assuming roles because it’s traditional, and not asking why. It’s devaluing ourselves and our opinons (“I know this sounds dumb, but…”). It’s fighting with each other over trivial matters and not fighting with men over important ones. It’s standing back when we should step forward and staying quiet when we should speak out. And, the worst thing of all, it’s teaching our daughters that they are also less.
So, I’m still not out rallying against the patriarchy in any giant way. And I don’t believe that starting with men is the way to change what’s going on. I think the power is with women, and with our pre-existing male advocates, to change the subtle, insidious, and inequitable things in our daily lives. Because if our daughters and sons grow up, as I did, with no concept that men SHOULD be more powerful or more respected or more intelligent, that is where change will begin.
What does feminism mean to you? What changes can you make to ensure that your daughters – and sons – grow up with the knowledge that women are worthy?