Editor’s note: The following post is part of a series in which a diverse range of women writers discuss their definition, idea, or experience of feminism. For more background, take a look at our Fall 2012 issue, which features “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay. You can find other pieces in this series by clicking here.
I love Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” essay. It is so time for us to choose our own identities.
Wait. Wasn’t that what we were fighting for in the 60s? I pretty sure that was the case—and I was there.
A card-carrying second wave feminist, I was at the lip of the wave, taking women’s lit classes, demanding respect in relationships, assuming that a career would be central to my life—and that the man in my life would be respectful of this. I would make money, climb heights, be just like a man—except for the marriage, home, and children I would—of course—also have.
Like Gay, I acquired degrees. I worked. I wrote. I acquired more degrees. I taught.
And then, like so many, I did marry, have a house, children.
And like so many others, I divorced, moved, raised my kids alone.
I still worked. I still wrote. Well, the writing went underground for a long time while I raised those boys and, oh, incidentally, housed my dying father. And did I mention undergoing two custody battles with the ex for kids he had had practically nothing to do with?
It has been pretty sobering to have it all.
Recently, I had dinner with a very smart, talented friend who became annoyed with me. The subject was women and math and science. I’ve just published a novel about a female mathematics professor who became one because she was good at it—and also because she embraced the solitude that was part of her chosen profession as a mathematician and as a woman mathematician. As part of my research, I had run across Larry Summers oft-quoted remarks at Harvard that women aren’t as good at math, science, and engineering as men. Many will say that Summers retired as Harvard’s president at least partly because of those remarks and the firestorm that ensued. I had also read the extensive study that the American Association of University Women published on these areas.
What is crystal clear from the study is that culture can certainly impact whether women feel confident venturing into traditionally male professions. Believing that women are good at math has a demonstrably positive effect on test results. So, there is every reason in the world to embrace this view and to do everything we can to support young women in believing that they are as good as they want to be. I’m fully in support of my friend teaching her daughter to say to herself that women are good in science and math.
But what is elided in the studies: whether women aren’t as good when starting off.
My friend went a little stiff when I made this point over dinner. Is there any evidence that women’s brains aren’t able to do math? The evidence shows that the male and female brains are more alike than they are different—yet they start differently in structure, and they develop differently, and that development is also affected by different hormones.
Not a huge difference—but a difference.
I’m in awe of the essay on Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s radical choices, to stay in a marriage to a man who was so deeply, tragically flawed (who had other wives, for God’s sake)—a man who might be relegated by some to the category of abusive. Yet Lindbergh chose to stay in the marriage to the end—to raise her kids, to love other men, to write. Were her choices harder than mine—or easier, for that matter? We were both influenced, in part, by the society we lived in. She was married when women didn’t divorce; I was married when they did. And yet she strikes me—and clearly her daughter—as extraordinarily brave, heroic even, in holding the family together and taking advantage of her husband’s extreme absences not to berate him or bemoan her fate but to raise her children on her own terms.
I taught for eight years as white faculty at an historically black university. I came to a very clear conclusion that there was neither need nor excuse for holding on to the standard use of the word “feminism” when I talked about women’s issues in my classes. I had many women students and started a women’s studies minor while I was there. My students’ experience of oppression and men was different from mine in practically every single way that matters or is imaginable. Yet we had a wonderful, fruitful time reading Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison together. Like Venn diagrams, we had much difference, some real overlap.
Lindbergh, Toni Morrison. Is there not a marvelous complexity to life that is close to miraculous? Isn’t it our job to appreciate this, not constrain it? Are we so morally fragile that we cannot appreciate the complexity and at the same time hold on to what is right? Safety, that is basic. Health care—that too. Pay equity. That. Respect for each other, men and women. Always a good plan.
Beyond these, is it necessary to be enslaved to any ideology, whether masculinist or feminist?
Gay talks about wanting to surrender, to be taken care of, of not wanting to fix her car. She speaks of liking to dress up, to shave her legs.
Surely what we wanted all those years ago was not to be the same as men? And, just as surely, we didn’t fight for the right to be the same as each other—to cut ourselves with the cookie-cutter of each feminist other? Is our fear of conflict, of difference, of disagreement, so deep—our need to please and conform so self-defeatingly endowed—that we have come to this point of such dreadful conformity?
As glad as I am that Gay is embracing being a bad feminist rather than no feminist at all, I have to wonder if perhaps it IS time to move on, leave behind the tired terminology, to escape a prison that is surely by now of our own design.
About the author: Ginger Moran (@GingerMoran) holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston in Literature and Creative Writing and Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from the University of Virginia. She has published in Salon, Oxford American, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Feminist Studies, among other journals and magazines. Her first novel, The Algebra of Snow, was nominated for a Pushcart Editor’s Choice Award and was published in spring 2012. She edits the University of Virginia Women’s Center magazine, Iris, and serves as the associate director. Find out more at her website.