I used to never use the "F" word. This was back in the 1990s, when I cared more about respecting social norms. I was a new-ish lawyer working at a big law firm, and I wanted to fit in. It wasn't like lady lawyers were unheard of, but they certainly weren't running the show. It was clear that the women who made it the farthest were the ones who acted in a way that prevented their gender from getting noticed too much in either direction -- something that male lawyers never had to worry about, incidentally. Using the "F" word would have drawn attention in the wrong way.
My career wasn't the only thing that would have suffered. Back then, if you asked any man if he'd be interested in dating a woman who wasn't afraid to throw around the "F" word, he would have shot back with not just no, but f*ck, no. A lady lawyer who wasn't afraid to use the "F" word was hard-pressed to hold onto anything.
Avoiding the "F" word wasn't a conscious decision on my part. Rather, I accepted the game that was in place. I sized things up from the standpoint of what I needed to do to succeed. I learned the rules and played as well as I could. That all changed on December 5, 2000.
I had already been a parent for 16 years by the time Hannah was born, but I had never before had a daughter. Once I did, I became concerned with yet another "F" word: fairness. My focus shifted from how well I could play the game to whether the game itself was fair. It wasn't.
The first time I witnessed sexism try to keep Hannah's aspirations in check was back in 2005 when she was not quite 4 1/2. Pope John Paul II had passed away, and the Papal conclave had not yet chosen a successor. Being from a liberal catholic family, I followed the news with interest, hoping that the church would choose someone more progressive this time around.
I was driving Hannah home from Montessori school while listening to coverage of the developments on NPR when Hannah weighed in on the matter.
"I know who would make a good Pope, Mommy."
"Oh, yeah? Who?" I replied.
"Me! I'm a Democrat and I'm really fair," she said with authority.
At 4 1/2, Hannah was old enough to know that she was fair, but too young to realize that grownups often aren't. I really didn't want to be the one to break it to her. How do you to tell an optimistic and ambitious little girl that she needs to adjust her aspirations downward simply because of her gender? Wouldn't learning that being a girl could serve as a handicap in some situations impact the way she saw both herself and the world -- even if I simultaneously underscored how wrong this was?
I found myself wrestling with how to handle the dilemma. I worried that telling her about gender discrimination would tamp down her idealism and cause her to lose faith in the grownups who ran the worl d-- grownups upon whom she and every other kid very much depended. But on the other hand, what would shielding her from this reality accomplish? She was going to come face-to-face with it sooner or later.
As it turned out, the question answered itself. I may have been able to roll with the punches when sexism muscled its way into my world, but once Hannah shared it with me, I wouldn't let sexism so much as flex a bicep without calling it out. Like Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri in the volunteer cheerleader skit on SNL, I became a volunteer cheerleader for gender equality. ("My name's Christina! I really care. I'll call you out. If you're unfair! Go, gender equality!")
Disparities that I used to accept as simply being the way things were, like the pay gap between men and women or the unequal representation of women in the upper echelons of power, suddenly hit me as completely unacceptable. And rather than celebrating our progress, I was struck by how relatively recent certain gains had been made, like women serving on the Supreme Court or even going to law school at all.
That's when I came to the conclusion that I couldn't parent my daughter responsibly as long as I was afraid of the "F" word. I couldn't be scared to have people hurl it at me and I couldn't be reluctant to use it myself. Not only did I have to get comfortable with it, I had to learn to like it. So I tried it on for size. It turned out to be a really good fit.
That was almost a decade ago, and now people pummel me with the "F" word almost as often as I drop it myself. It doesn't faze me one bit. In fact, I take it as a compliment. I'm proud to be a feminist -- I'm all the way out and totally proud. I'm no longer one of those women who says things like, "I believe women should have the same opportunities as men and all, but it's not like I'm a feminist or anything," as if feminist is some sort of dirty word. Being a feminist simply means you believe that men and women should be treated equally -- a concept that seems unremarkable to the point of being passé.
And yet, some women -- even smart, educated ones -- have been conditioned to believe that being a feminist is somehow unfeminine. It's this reluctance or even fear of being labeled a feminist that helps to perpetuate the status quo. Trust me, ladies, self-identifying as a feminist will not automatically result in a makeover that includes a butch haircut, cargo shorts and a fanny pack stuffed with man hate. What it will do is make you more observant, analytical, assertive and fair -- attractive qualities in either gender.
Plenty of men worry about exactly the opposite: That being a feminist will make them unmanly. Listen up, men. You can be feminists and hang onto your man cards all at the same time! But don't take my word for it. Feel free to ask my feminist boyfriend -- if you can catch him when he's not busy doing manly things like crushing it at the gym, watching ESPN, coaching basketball or reading really hard books.
If you're thinking about experimenting with feminism, let me warn you, it's really easy to get sucked into the lifestyle. Even if you're just feminist-curious, before you know it you can easily find yourself pushing the whole feminist agenda, demanding things like equal pay for equal work. And it will feel so natural you'll have a hard time remembering why you ever had an aversion to it. At least that's how it worked for me.
How has all of this affected my daughter? Did the indignity of getting passed over for Pope cause her to become a budding Gloria Steinem? Is she directing all of her adolescent rage toward fighting The Man and shattering gender stereotypes? Hardly. Her reaction is more eye roll than fist pump. She takes for granted that women can do anything men can do. And it's easy to see why. In her world, women doctors and lawyers are a dime a dozen. From her perspective, the war is over and the good guys - er, gals -- won. Continuing to fight the fight feels like living in the past -- like continuing to bray about the earth being round rather than flat. Everyone she knows gets it already. And when I try to impress upon her how bad things used to be, I get the sense I'm coming across like some old-timer talking about how I used to have to walk five miles in the snow to get to school.
On the one hand, I can't be mad at her. Her boredom is more than just a reflection of how far we've come; it actually helps to advance the cause. Greeting the subject of gender equality with a yawn serves to cement equality in place by conveying the attitude that the entire matter is a no-brainer. On the other hand, the alarming number of states that have recently passed laws that infringe on women's rights combined with the constant chatter by right wingers about things like "legitimate rape" and women's libido makes clear that there are plenty of people dedicated to turning the clock back on us. This is no time to be complacent. In the final analysis, I think both Hannah's "No, duh" response as well as my "Never again" resolve are useful. The former protects the present while the latter safeguards the future.
So, what does Hannah want to be when she grows up? A ballerina. Some may think her quintessentially girlie career choice amounts to an act of rebellion on her part, but I disagree. She wants to be a ballerina because out of every single option out there, that's the career choice she finds most compelling. Her decision was unadulterated by stereotypes or agendas, and that's precisely what I wanted for her all along. But if I'm wrong and Hannah's desire to be a ballerina actually is an act of rebellion, I'm OK with that, too. She's willing to work her toes to the bone in pursuit of her goal, and I respect the hell out of her for it. And who knows? Maybe when she hangs up her pointe shoes for good she'll decide to run for Pope. On second thought, f that.
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