08 March 2010

Intrenational Women's Day: Feminism, Personal Choice & Respect

I'm going to be talking about something that may seem controversial in the context of International Women's Day: the challenges faced by women who choose a 'traditional' homemaking career. It is only recently that I began to realize that some people might not consider this a 'feminist' choice. I was raised by a strongly feminist stay-at-home mom. She taught me that feminism is about respect for women in all areas of life, and about a woman's right to make her own decisions about how to live her life.

In the past few years, I've been exposed to another type of feminism--one that  focuses strongly on women's rights in the workplace. On some level, I've always been aware that the terms 'feminism' and 'women's rights' usually refer to workplace and education rights, and the phrase, 'a woman's right to choose' refers to abortion. I also know that many women (and men) have fought hard to break through gender and sex stereotypes and create more career options for women. However, I suddenly find myself in a situation where I am making choices that don't fit this picture of feminism, yet I still consider myself a feminist.

For example: I am currently a homemaker by choice. Traditional feminism sought to give a woman the right to choose to work outside the home, but I do not think that the intention was to prevent women who truly wanted to devote themselves to home and family from following their passions. Unfortunately, that seems to be what has happened. Housewives are portrayed in our culture as un-liberated, intellectually dull, and tied to their children. Housework is seen as drudgery to be avoided. These attitudes may be left-over from a time when women had few choices and were expected to cook, clean, and care for the children. Today, many women are homemakers or stay-at-home-mothers by choice. However, since there are more career choices available to women, we are expected to want to 'do more with our lives.' In social situations, stay-at-home-mothers are often discounted or left out of conversations that revolve around the common question, 'What do you do?'

As if social pressure and stigmas weren't enough, there are also new economic problems. In a society where many women choose to pursue paying careers for intellectual stimulation & personal fulfillment, in addition to financial reasons, it has become much harder to live well and raise a family on a single income than it was in the 1940's and 50's. As dual income families have become more common, it has also become more necessary for both parents to bring home paychecks. Inflation has increased faster than salary levels, and now there are families where one parent would very much like to stay at home as a full time parent, but cannot because of financial pressure.

In our modern culture, women can be tied to earning a paycheck in a way that is similar to how they were once tied to home and family. I know that some families still survive and even thrive on a single income, but it is much harder to do than it was 60 years ago. We have not necessarily expanded a woman's choices and options as much as we think we have. Women's choices of external careers are more varied now, it is true, but the option to choose to focus on homemaking and motherhood is becoming less and less available.

Many people see financial independence and increased career choices for women as important feminist successes, and they certainly have made life better for many, many women. However, I think the central feminist issue is really respect. Does a woman need financial independence in order to be respected? In choosing to be a homemaker, I am financially dependent on my husband, but my choice does not change my need to be respected by my fellow humans. Mutual respect and appreciation is essential in the creation healthy interpersonal relationships. It is this respect that I see as the central issue of feminism, and I think most feminists would agree with me.

So what about the next, core tenant of feminism--equality? In the struggle for equality, it sometimes seems to me that feminists set out to prove that they were as good as men by trying to act just like men. Anything that marked them as female was seen as a weakness--just as women had been seen as 'the weaker sex' for centuries. I would like to see feminists advocating respect for woman regardless of whether we want to pursue careers or be homemakers. Unfortunately in same the way women who wanted to work outside the home were once looked down on, stay-at-home moms are now too often frowned upon. Is this an either-or situation? Is there a way for us to live together, and strive to protect and support women's rights to the full spectrum of choices? Or must we decide between the right to have careers and the right to stay-at-home and care for our families?

Another personal choice that can have feminist implications is whether or not a woman changes her name when she marries. Some people have expressed surprise that I chose to change my name. I won't speculate on why some women choose to keep their maiden names; a name is a very personal thing, and I think that the decision of whether or not to change it is equally personal. One of the reasons I chose to change my name was that I saw it as the socially expedient option. Our society still expects parents and children to share a last name, & since I hope to have children someday, I think having one family name will make my life easier in the long run.

Another reason I changed my name goes back to the issue of respect. Before women entered the work force on a large scale, a woman's husband was responsible for caring and providing for her and her children. In choosing to take my husband's name, I am following a tradition that honers his promise to care and provide for me and any children we may have. Does honoring my husband in this way make me less deserving of respect? Does it make me less of a feminist?

The only problem I see with my claiming to be a feminist is that the word implies a 'liberated' career woman who has proved she can do everything a man can do. I, on the other hand, am a homemaker and I hope someday to be a stay-at-home-mom. I believe that my choice is equally valid and deserves as much respect as the choices of more traditional feminists. So I found a new word. I started calling myself a 'Neo-Feminist.'

What I mean by Neo-Feminist is this: a Neo-Feminist is someone who believes that a woman has the right to make the choice to be a career woman, a working mother, a stay-at-home mom, or anything else on that spectrum. A woman has the right to be respected as a human being, without having to prove herself to anyone. To me, equality is about equal respect, and men also have the right to choose to work from home or be stay-at-home dads and still be respected. Neo-Feminism is about respect for the full human spectrum, for individual choices, for balance.

Is a person who chooses to devote their life to raising their own children any more or less deserving of respect than a person who chooses to work in a high powered career? How is stay-at-home parenthood not an equally valid, equally respectable choice to career parenthood? Or even choosing not to have children at all? Tell me, isn't feminism about a girl's right to grow up and follow her dreams? If my dreams have always been of motherhood, does that make me un-liberated? Or does it make me feminine? Isn't motherhood an expression of what it means to be female? So tell me, why would motherhood not be a feminist career?


  1. Very interesting insights. I just wrote about this last night in my diary actually. In the next few months I have to choose whether to go for a PhD soon or not and some of these same questions and ideas you raised here have been in my thoughts a lot the past few weeks. I am curious how the church members reacted.

  2. The people I talked to after the service had generally positive responses, but I didn't get into any specific discussions with anyone.

    Good luck with your decision about whether or not to go for your PhD.