What feminism means to me
The feminism movement started with a fight for women’s property rights, voting rights, women’s right to their own bodies, and for protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape and for workplace rights, and overall to end discrimination against women. Unfortunately like it often happens, the movement threw up a fringe element of misandrists (those who hate or feel contempt for men), but then there are an equal number of misogynists as well (men who hate or feel contempt for women), if not more. In any case, I see no point associating an average feminist with a misandrist.
So what is an average feminist all about? When Amrutha tagged me to write about what feminism meant to me I went blank, because I haven’t thought about it much and do not consider myself to be a feminist, no, not even in the moderate sense. This is because when I was a very young adult, in the eighties, feminism (which was always a movement from across the seas) had started to morph into something else, what they called the “second wave” of feminism. The global feminist movement had started to make women feel contempt for themselves if they were home-makers. There was an all pervading sense that for a woman to feel worthy she had to have a job outside the home. This even though a woman worked hard at home and contributed in other valuable ways. Being part of the privileged educated upper middle class I have seen my aunts (dad’s sisters) carve out a career for themselves and my mom and her mom worked outside the home too, but at no time did they feel that what they were doing was in any way superior to what a mother did. They felt working outside the home was a choice they had made, neither a bad choice nor a superior choice. Just a choice, a way of life. There had been no pressure on them to work outside the home and nor had there been any pressure to sit at home and do housework. In this sense they were free because inspite of there being no economic reason to “work”, they did.
But things were changing with the younger generation, my generation, and maybe it was the winds of feminism blowing in our direction from overseas. Suddenly, we all became conscious of whether we had our careers chalked out before us, and well that was good. It was good to plan a future independent of marriage and kids but what I wasn’t comfortable with was talk that getting married and making babies was infradig. Educated women who gave up their jobs after having kids were disapproved of (all this in the upper middle class cocoon that I was brought up in) and homemakers were thought to be less useful than career women, almost useless in fact. I thought this sort of attitude was degrading to women. The basic spirit of feminism, which was to give women the freedom to concentrate on raising a family and/or go out to work, had started to disappear.
Ofcourse, poor women in India always slogged, both at home and outside, on farms for example or as domestics. And lower middleclass women, at least in Maharashtra always strived to get a job and add to the family income and often we used to see matrimonial advertisements calling for “working” wives. Yes, these women always had the pressure to work outside, often at dead-end jobs, but it was an economic pressure of the kind men faced. The only difference was that both the poor women and lower middle class women had to do most of the housework as well. There was no real “prestige” associated with these women working, nor “freedom”, they all longed to give up their drudgery and it was a proud man whose wife did not “have” to work. Feminism did not touch these women or their life, not in India.
It touched us, our class of society. I feel in a way that it was because of the feminist movement (and magazines which went on about superwomen) that encouraged society to disrespect home-makers. Sure, women were in a way powerless earlier (before the feminist movement) but surely the feminist movement was supposed to bring respect to women and women’s work and give them more choices? But I didn’t see this happening. I saw that the more women did what men did and the more they beat them at it, the more respected they were. I saw that they were feeling the pressure to work outside the home and raise a family as well! I didn’t feel comfortable with this. These were my thoughts many years ago, and I can’t say they have drastically changed.
A woman should get as much respect from society and from her man whether she works outside her home or within it. Only then can she be truly free.
Men have told me that they don’t have a choice. They have to go out and earn and the pressure starts building up for boys from a very young age. Sure, it does. Society ridicules any male who doesn’t work. But I am not referring to those who don’t work, because I too have little respect for lazy people who expect others to do everything for them. I am talking of home-makers who work…at home. Or maybe at other “feminine” occupations, or part-time, or do something that is less demanding, so that they have time for child-rearing as well.
It’s a tough act, balancing a career and a home, and the choice of whether to do it should be left to the woman. If she chooses to work outside, she should not be made to feel guilty because both she and her husband are equally responsible for the children. If there are no children, the question doesn’t usually arise.
I personally do not believe that nurturing children is primarily a woman’s job, because I have seen women with and without the maternal instinct and ditto for men and their paternal instincts. I am not denigrating anyone without a maternal instinct, because even without the tenderness and loving care that we associate with mothering, a woman can be a wonderful mother, a guiding light so to say. Just like any father who despite being distant can be a great guide and role model. A father can also be someone who gives a child all the tender loving he/she requires. Children need loving caresses and tenderness, yes, but they also need guidance, they need role models for character building, they need to see a friend in their parents as they grow older, they need someone they can trust, confide in and respect and both parents can provide this together. Usually parents have different parenting styles (my description of parenting above is brief and simplistic for the purposes of making a point) and often their styles complement each other. Even if they don’t, what I am trying to say is that I do not think that parenting is solely a woman’s job. It depends on what each person in the relationship wants from life, and how the couple divides their responsibilities depending on their different skills and capabilities. If one partner does 75 percent of the parenting and housekeeping and the other does 75 percent of the money-making, it doesn’t mean that the home-body is anyway inferior to the bread-earner, whether it is her husband, or her neighbour who is bringing in 50 percent of the money in the partnership.
What I am uneasy with is when the parenting responsibilities are thrust on to another family member, usually an older person who is not a parent. We need to remember that when we talk of women’s rights, we should not just think of younger women, but older women too. They have rights as well. Sons often encourage their wives to work and demand that their mother take on the mothering role…I have seen this in several homes. Unless a grandmother is enjoying the child-minding, she should not be pressurised into it or emotionally blackmailed into it.
I have digressed from the main subject of feminism. That is because the word doesn’t hold too much meaning for me. I don’t like “movements” or “labels.” It’s individuality that we should all respect, whether it’s the individuality of a man or that of a woman.
Maybe one day, Masculinism will gain momentum and I am talking of the meaning of the word in its modern sense, the fight for men’s rights. Maybe one of the things that men will demand is the right to their freedom from the bondage of earning the moolah for the family! Right now if a man chooses to leave the economic responsibilities to the woman and chooses to be the home-body, he gets less respect than his counterpart who is in the boardroom. That is how the world is. Materialistic. Tending to the home, looking after children, and taking care of the family’s diet are less important than actually earning. Which I find strange. After all what are we earning for? Surely it is to be healthy and happy!