The Feminist Flip-side

Have all the answers
Flown their cages
To find new questions?
~ beginning to a poem I started long ago.

Yesterday I watched part of a special on WGBH regarding the depiction of women in television over the past few decades: from Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver to Roseanne Barr and Murphy Brown.  I had to leave for a doctor’s appointment, so I didn’t see it all. I didn’t need to see it all for it to start me thinking about the changing roles I’m experiencing in my own life, and some of the questions I’ve been struggling with for weeks now.

As I’ve written before, I’m out of a job. Fortunately, we’re making it. It’s tight, and we may not be making it for long, but here, today, we’re making it pretty well. As I may not have written before, I’m absolutely sure that getting fired – not laid off, not reorganized but fired – saved my life and my marriage. But this is the first time in my life I have not either been working or in school. Maybe to fill the void, and surely to keep myself busy, I’ve taken up knitting and sewing. I’ve always loved cooking. So here I am now, the former scholar, the former professional with dreams of success and accomplishment, here I am knitting and sewing and baking bread. So, I’ve been recently asking myself, did I fail as a feminist? Was I hiding behind some antiquated housewife stereotype when I should be out there trying to live up to my intellectual and professional potential? At least bringing in some bucks?

In college, I was quite the rabid intellectual feminist. I knew the radicals, the Freudians (and there are Freudian feminists out there), historians, etc. I knew chapter and verse about the oppression of the patriarchal roles and their rigid definitions which historically disenfranchised women. I practically had it tattooed on my butt. So what the hell happened? Why am I having a blast being Suzy Homemaker? Surely something went wrong. I’ve been brainwashed, disenfranchised by the glass ceiling and brainwashed by the current backlash into traditional feminine rolls, right?

Well, hold on, not so “right.” After all, all that ambition to achieve, where was that getting me anyway and why was I doing it? It was, after all, killing me and my marriage. I wasn’t any good at it either, clearly. Twenty years in academia and the private sector, and little Miss Slow on The Draw finally figured that much out. I’d been miserable trying, had failed to read the cultural landscape, and wasn’t too thrilled when I did read the writing on the wall with what it said. I felt controlled, owned, deceived, and pressured into conforming to a value system I found reprehensible at worst and disgusting at best.  Worst of all, I was around (pardon my language) assholes all day and the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by assholes nine-twelve hours a day, five days a week. My husband has a high Asshole Tolerance Threshold. I don’t.

All this had been running through my mind when I watched the actresses and writers speak about the women they created and portrayed, and how in some way each broke the mold. One writer talked about the pressure on women to be perfect, and it clicked. It hit me. The real question was not whether or not I reverting to a form of stereotype in the form of a traditional role, but had I traded one oppressive stereotype for another in the very beginning?

There was a time in my life when I got a lot of grief from my family for not becoming a Doctor/Lawyer/Indian Chief, and I know some later career decisions were made to assuage that kind treatment, and to alleviate me of the guilt for not becoming what surely, I was supposed to be, smart as I was.  I’d had honors, I’d had scholarships. Good Lord, woman, a voice would always say, you are letting that go to waste! I allowed myself to be convinced that I was a failure because I had not achieved a stereotype of “success”.

But wasn’t I falling into the same old trap? Living up to an expectation imposed on me, as a woman, as a person, rather than fighting to choose my own path? In an age when the corporate world considers the over-forty the useless spawn of Satan, where a moral compass is a career-threatening liability, where one must sacrifice family for career, when a successful woman was more likely a young, beautiful, smart woman rather than a middle-aged, average, smart one, was it even possible for me to become that personification of professional success I was striving for? And even if it was possible, wasn’t letting myself get beaten up mentally trying to be Successful Career Woman as oppressive (at least for me) as being forced to stay at home and play The Perfect Wife?

Quite frankly, I love to cook, but it’s also something I believe in. Despite my weekly relapses into Popeye’s or Wendy’s, I really do try to make healthy foods from scratch (and do) about 90% of the time. I read Fast Food Nation and it scared me.

I believe in independence. I admire women who lived and worked before mass manufactured everything and mass consumerism. In my former life, I’d often wondered if I only worked my arse off to buy stuff and food all so I could work my arse off some more. Now unemployed, I buy no clothes, I have no stress to work out with “retail therapy,” and without the money, I’m somewhat forced into practicing a discipline about purchases that I find, quite frankly empowering. I can make the choice about what I need versus what I want versus what is utterly useless, and I can to take the power over my life back from the consumerist culture. An economic downturn as a form of feminist and personal liberation, who knew?

This Christmas, most of my gift budget will be spent at locally and independently owned businesses for materials to make gifts, rather than large corporations of department stores selling average-quality goods. Even better, I will have spent this entire Christmas season without setting foot in a mall. If that’s not liberation, nothing is.

I hated sitting at a desk eight hours a day. I hated sitting in one place, and sitting too long made my back hurt. Between sewing and cooking, I’m physically active, I move, and I don’t hurt as much.

And when it comes down to it, I’m able to write. Finally. That was the dream. Not a cube, not a job title, but to write. Maybe no one is reading yet, but I’m writing what I want to say, and what I believe in. That’s the start.

So, at the end of the day, I’ve been able to realize, maybe I am finally living my feminist vision. I realized I wasn’t trying to clone Mrs. Cleaver. But if I become something more of a splice of Olivia Walton and Roseanne Barr, I’m okay with that. I’m still a feminist, because this time, I’m going after what I want.

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