I'm beginning to have no idea what "feminism" means.
Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote this predictably inflammatory essay in The Atlantic about why some fictional-sounding wealthy housewives are responsible for the "war on women." In it she said, "Let's please be serious grown-ups: real feminists don't depend on men."
In her supportive response, Jill, of the blog Feministe, writes: "No. Feminism is not about choice"
Wait. Wait a second. But -- I was pretty sure -- But in my gender studies classes... But my mom... I thought?
OK, the full quote from Jill is:
In any comment section on the internet where feminism comes up, someone will pipe up and cry, "But feminism is about CHOICE!" No. Feminism is not about choice -- at least not insofar as it's about saying "Any choice women make is a feminist one and so we can't criticize or judge it." Feminism isn't about creating non-judgmental happy-rainbow enclaves where women can do whatever they want without criticism. Feminism is about achieving social, economic and political equality for all people, regardless of gender. It's not about making every woman feel good about whatever she does, or treating women like delicate hot-house flowers who can't be criticized.
So obviously there's a little bit more to it.
And since we're criticizing women now, as feminists, let's talk about how lame stay-at-home-moms are. Because that's a new thought. Wurtzel is all over that. She's disappointed in "full-time wives," who are the same as SAHMs, but I think with more nannies, pedicures and possibly servants. She feels betrayed by them. She makes it clear that everything is about money. "... there really is only one kind of equality -- it precedes all the emotional hullabaloo -- and it's economic. If you can't pay your own rent, you are not an adult."
Motherhood is not a job, both writers agree. Practically any woman can do it. There are no qualifications. It's not selective. So let's cut the crap. Stop saying it's "the most important job in the world!" Men know it's not. Everyone knows it's not. It's not even a job!
OK, maybe it's not a job. Who cares? Does everything valuable have to be a job? Do we really have to think of everything in terms of money? Yes, Wurtzel would clearly say.
Jill is concerned about the children of these women who aren't contributing anything to society. She says:
It's also worth considering the messages that we model to our kids. If staying home is your "feminist choice" and you actually have a full range of choices, what does that say to your sons and daughters about gender roles? Is it in any way challenging an already deeply-held cultural assumption that women exist to serve others? That women are care-givers and need-meeters and housekeepers and emotional-work-doers, whereas men are breadwinners and influencers and public-sphere-operators who are served by women? What is your son going to expect of himself and in a partner? What is your daughter going to internalize?
Well, I can't speak for all daughters of SAHMs, but I can tell you what kind of an example MY mom set. My mom has always struck me as high-powered. That is not an exaggeration or a joke. She was a SAH homeschooling mom. She was intensely organized, viciously smart and always tuned-in. She knew what was what. She was high-octane. She was intimidating. She had an opinion about everything, and she was pretty damn sure she was right. It took me until very recently to realize that my mom is not "high-powered" by standard definitions. I had to learn that "high-powered" meant making a ton of money. Meant being the head of a corporation or working at a major Wall Street firm or governing a state.
I have always admired people with grit. My parents are entrepreneurs. They started and ran a business together when they were first married, and for a decade after that. My dad still runs it now. For years and years, they barely had any money, but they were living the life they'd chosen. When my mom chose not to send her kids to school, the argument could've been made that my parents didn't have enough money for that kind of lifestyle. Well, whatever. People make a lot of different lifestyles work with a lot of different amounts of money.
My feminist SAHM was always going. She never, ever stopped. For occasional fun, she grew enormous flower and vegetable gardens. She would read in bed after the day was done. She taught me I could be anything I wanted. She thought I would be a good lawyer. A good rabbi. She thought I'd be a good professor. She taught me to work hard for what I wanted.
But I don't just object to the idea that SAHMs are destroying society and are bad role models for their daughters (such an old argument at this point). I also don't like how no one seems to be talking about women who work from home here.
What about women who contribute to the rent check but can't pay it in full because they've worked out a situation with their partner that enables them to do something they really want to do, instead of working a more standard job? What about women who could pay their own rent if they lived somewhere a lot less safe, but have a partner who makes enough money for them to live closer to a pretty park where they can go jogging in the evenings so they live there instead? What about the women who are making absolutely nothing for now, because they're starting their own business, and they need support for one year before they can become more financially independent? What about the women whose partners support them in taking risks that might lead to big rewards? The men who work terribly boring jobs that earn them pretty good money and are living vicariously through their partner's awesome, world-saving non-profit career that pays very little? What about the men who are thrilled for their girlfriends and wives because these women are pursuing their dreams? What about the women who aren't moms yet or won't be ever or who will be moms but not SAHMs, but who are financially dependent and hardworking?
Especially now, in today's economy, where it is harder for absolutely everyone to get a job. Where people are doing twenty different part time things at once, and becoming increasingly desperate and creative. Where online business is booming and so many of the people driving that kind of business are creative women. You'd think there'd be more room to think non-traditionally about jobs, as well as thinking non-traditionally about relationships. Sometimes a traditional relationship allows for creative freedom. Sometimes a traditional relationship is anything but traditional. It depends how the people in it feel. How they act. How they treat each other.
Let's not imagine that the conversation should stop at "the woman is at home." There's more to the story.
And God, I don't want to have a normal job. I have done it, and I would do it again, if I had to. But I feel so incredibly lucky to be a writer. I don't want to have a high-powered job. I really don't. I want to make up as many of the rules as I possibly can. I want to shape my own life. Of course I do.
(Me, posing as the worst feminist ever)
Luckily, I never thought I'd make much money. It was never a goal of mine. I don't make much money now. I make more than I thought I'd make when I started writing full-time. I make more every year. But on my own, I would still be poor. I don't think it'll always be that way. I think one day, I will make a lot more money than I do now. But it'll be a while. When you're trying to make it as an artist, it usually takes a long time to make money. You have to build up for it.
Without my husband as my safety net, I would not have the chance to build up to it. Not the way I am now. Not working every day, all day, at it. Not being able to throw my whole self into it.
I don't think that me having a normal job would be better for the world. I think it would be worse. Not that I am saving the world over here. But I am certainly saying a lot more than I would otherwise be able to. My voice is out there, somewhere, as a part of a conversation. I think that means something.
Should I go get a "real job" instead? For feminism? Should my mom have? My childhood would have been totally different. My mom, maybe, would have not appeared so bold to me. So brave.
"When it's come up, I have chosen not to get married. Over and over again, I have opted for my integrity and independence over what was easy or obvious," Wurtzel says, explaining how she is personally modeling her version of feminism.
When it "came up," I chose immediately to get married. I was in love, after all. And it did feel easy. It felt easy and good and right. It felt obvious. I hope that becoming a mother one day will feel like those things, too. I know it isn't all like that all the time, but life is friggin' short, and I want it to be as easy as possible. Which is not to say that I'm not going to work my ass off. But it is to say that I'm not going to restrict myself based on an abstract idea of what women should do in order to fight in this perpetual "war on women" that keeps magazines like The Atlantic flying off the stands.
Do I want women to be paid as much as men? OF COURSE. Are you kidding me?
Things are not perfect. They are far from it. I feel sick to my stomach over the sexism and injustice that are constantly stirred up in our policy-making, national debates and daily lives. But at the same time, I can't see a way forward that doesn't involve allowing people to pursue individual happiness.
I was talking to another writer the other day. She is just getting started. She has a PhD in something impressive from an impressive university. But she wants with all her heart to write all day. Her boyfriend wants that for her, too, and so they are living on his meager salary in a tiny apartment in a city cheaper than this one, where they are very, very happy.
Maybe one day, they'll break up. And you know what? I think she'll figure out what to do at that point. Maybe by then, she'll be totally financially independent anyway. Sometimes you just need to be given half a chance. To get on your feet. To have the room to hone your craft and send a million pitches.
I don't want to live in fear. That I'm failing women. That my husband might die or divorce me and then what? And then oh my god, I'll be helpless. I am not helpless. And I have been working since I was a kid. The difference is, that now I get to work at something I love.
If that doesn't fit into whichever definition of feminism we're going with these days, that's fine with me. I'll just be one happy woman, who still believes in choice.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake