From when I was a baby until I was in middle school, dolls and stuffed animals were my favorite toys. I talked to them constantly, brushed their hair and washed their faces, made dresses for them out of leftover scraps from Mom’s and Granny’s sewing projects. When I was eight, Granny hired me for my first job of cleaning her house from top to bottom once a month for $50, and I saved up all of my profits for our biannual trips to the flea market in Louisville where I splurged on Madame Alexander porcelain dolls (the seller told me I was the best bargainer she’d ever met). I displayed all 30+ of these dolls on a shelf in my bedroom, and I’d often lie on my Pepto-Bismol-colored carpet and stare at my collection, admiring how beautiful they all were.
This passion for taking care of things didn’t stop with inanimate objects. I regularly played with the little kids at church while the girls my age played their own games, I started babysitting when I was 14-years-old, I got my Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, I taught in a daycare after college, and I always dreamed of having my own baby one day. While the environment I was raised in may account for some of this, a large portion of it is just something that’s been inside of me ever since I can remember.
I’m gonna get even “girlier” on you now: I also love to cook, and even to clean. Some of my favorite memories are of Mom, Granny and me making big dinners together in the kitchen. I baked my first strawberry pie when I was seven then took it to a church potluck and hid near the dessert table so I could watch people eat it without them knowing I was there. The enjoyment in their faces, their generous second portions, their unsolicited compliments, all filled me with so much pride that I decided I was going to be a baker when I grew up (spoiler alert: I didn’t).
And when I say I like to clean, I mean it – the act of it in addition to its results. This is probably connected to having OCD, but it’s also connected to those sweet memories of long Saturday afternoons cleaning Granny’s house, smelling her shirts as I folded and put them away, rubbing my fingers over her silk pillowcases while I made her bed, dragging dust rags across framed photographs of her in younger times. I remember feeling so satisfied at the end of the day, especially when Granny showered me with compliments (and yes, also when she gave me that $50 bill).
Dolls, cooking, cleaning… Some people might say I was trained to be a perfect little wifey. But you know what? Those people are wrong. I wasn’t trained to take care of a man – I was trained to take care of myself. I was taught how to be independent, to make my own choices and feel good about them. These ideas of independence, freedom, and confidence are at the root of feminism, yet I hear over and over how being domestic means I’m not a real feminist. All of this infighting and nitpicking among modern feminists is killing the entire movement, and, in my perspective, is exactly the opposite of what the movement should be about.
So yeah, Mom and Granny did all of the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. But that doesn’t exempt them from being feminists. While they always wanted me to get married and have kids, they didn’t want me to need this. They never once positioned marriage and motherhood as opposed to my dreams of pursuing my education and being a writer. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to cook with them until I finished my homework, and they often told me to stop washing the dishes so I could go write a story I was blabbering on about.
Guess who else also had to cook and wash the dishes? My older brother. But he was so lazy and annoying about it that, while they still made him regularly contribute to the chores, they didn’t take his food to the potlucks or hire him for the big cleanings. And they equally encouraged him to get married and have kids. They just wanted us to be happy, and while marriage and parenthood isn’t the path to happiness for everyone, it actually is great for me. I love being a mom. I love being a wife. I love it when my husband tells me I’m beautiful, I love watching people eat my food, and I love when my kitchen is neat and orderly and smells like fresh mint. None of these loves of mine have anything to do with whether or not I’m a feminist.
I think a lot of this current backlash against domesticity comes from that idea that second-wave feminism in the U.S. revolved around the renewed, forced domesticity of women post-World War II. But the key word here is “forced” – the deeper-rooted issue was that women didn’t have a choice. They were shoved into a role based on their gender before the war and then again after it, and they were held back from other opportunities as a result of these forced roles. To me, feminism is about equal rights for all people, about all of us having the same opportunities and the same options to make our own choices, not about whether we as individuals are traditional, domestic, radical, or rebellious (or, crazy as it sounds, all of these things simultaneously). Women should have the same freedom as men to forge our own way. Some of us will choose domesticity, some of us won’t. That doesn’t mean that some of us are worse feminists than others. Feminists come in all kinds of shapes, colors, sizes, and forms, and it’s time that the greater movement focused on how to embrace this rather than argue over it.
Mural: Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists by Franco Folini / Creative Commons
Which brings me to a bigger issue: the modern feminist movement is SO WHITE. Like, racist white. Earlier this week, a friend of mine, Leigh Hecking, tackled this issue though analyzing Hulu’s recent release of The Handmaid’s Tale, and she came to an insightful, eloquent conclusion that sums up my sentiments exactly:
“We need to approach feminism from a place of empathy, openness and inclusivity. We need to challenge our own views of what it means to be a woman (women don’t need to have a vagina or breasts, for example). We need to stop viewing other women’s lives as fiction and ours as reality.”
I LOVE the way she phrases this. Honestly, everyone in the world needs to practice more empathy right now, but it feels especially awful to hear women attacking other women over if they’re a good enough feminist or not. The fact that feminism is racist is a real issue, but you know what won’t solve it? White women yelling at other white women over what is and isn’t a feminist. You know what will solve it? Practicing this empathy and openness that Leigh is calling for. Being supportive instead of overly critical. Listening, honestly listening, to each other. And looking at the ways in which we ourselves contribute to this racism.
So on this note, I’m asking some friends of mine who identify as women of color to answer two questions: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I hope you check back next Friday for their answers, and please feel free to offer your own answers, as well – as long as you’re respectful!