What does it mean to be a feminist? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, jumpstarted by the Wiscon controversy over Elizabeth Moon, and most recently the controversy over Bitch Magazine’s 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader. In the latter controversy, Bitch took heat because they removed some of the books from the list after readers complained. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has an excellent rundown on their blog.

By the way, I really dislike the word bitch used in this way. I get that it’s an insult co-opted by the insulted group, thus taking away the power of the word, but I hate it the way I hate the word “nigger,” which has been co-opted the same way. It doesn’t do any individual of either group any good.

Moving on.

So from these incidents and others, I started to think that it’s kind of hard to be a feminist. You have to take into account the history or feelings of anyone you come in contact with, even if you don’t know that history or those feelings, lest you hurt their feelings or traumatize them. That was the lesson from the 100 Books brouhaha. Or, only some people get to be feminists and that is defined by the dominant group with no exceptions. That was the Wiscon brouhaha.

So what I thought was, being a feminist is simple — not easy, but simple.

Feminists work for a living.

That’s it. You are responsible for your financial well-being and welfare, so as part of that responsibility, you get yourself educated and you train for the job you want and do what you can to the best of your ability to not be dependent upon someone else.

Okay, okay, that’s too simple. So here’s another rule.

When feminists have children, they are responsible for their financial security as well. You still have to work. And you have to work at a real job, one that brings in enough money that, if your partner or spouse is no longer able to work, only half the family income (say) is lost, not 90 percent of it. So knitters and crafters, Etsy doesn’t count.

This is quite difficult, as anyone who has ever had babies knows. We don’t have good maternity policies in this country, and daycare isn’t uniformly great and sometimes it is downright dangerous. But being a feminist is not about how easy it is. And a lot of people are creative about putting together childcare that turns out right for their kids and themselves. This is where women can turn to each other to work out what they need, if good daycare and preschools aren’t available, and maybe become politically active.

Here’s another rule:

Feminists are responsible for their reproductive choices and support access to birth control for all girls and women. There are some feminists who say you can’t be a feminist and be anti-choice. I don’t go that far, because this is such a deeply human issue that I can understand the anti-choice stance while not supporting it. At the very least though, you can’t be a feminist and not support access to birth control for all girls and women. Having control  over our reproduction is probably the most important factor in the well-being of women in the Western world. Death in childbirth is practically a nightmare of the past.

That’s pretty much it. [Thinking, thinking…]

Yup. That’s it.

  • Feminists work for a living.
  • When they have children they still work.
  • Feminists support access to birth control and reproductive rights for all girls and women.

Feminism changed my life. Heck, it changed the world. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and their generation have been knocked for their brand of feminism, with critics saying they only took into account middle class and upper-middle-class white women and their concerns. I think that’s unfair, and it’s also allowed the current wave of feminism to be derailed from its primary focus — the specific rights of women to take their place in the economic and cultural marketplace in this country.

I’d like to return feminism to its roots. I’d like to bring it back to what matters. I like to think that this is a start.

All the best,



vanita · February 12, 2011 at 9:31 am

Yes ma’am. I think you crystallized it perfectly.

carolyn p · February 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm

My thoughts exactly….

NicoleMD · February 12, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I agree with your first and third points, but the second one doesn’t sit well with me. It doesn’t seem fair that a lifetime of feminism can vanish with a woman’s choice to not return to a paying job after having kids. Does that choice have to negate everything that came before it?

What if she spent eight years working a professional job while supporting her husband through grad school? What about all the years and money she put into purchasing a house and laying the foundation for a family? If she’s put in the time and effort to ensure the financial security of her family ahead of time, isn’t that enough?

I think being independent as a family unit is more important than trying to measure individual contributions over the course of a lifetime. And as I see it, a woman can be responsible for her financial security without actually having to bring in an income at all times.

Patrice Sarath · February 12, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Hi Nicole,
You make a valid point — there a ways a woman can contribute to a family’s financial security even outside of the workforce. Laying the foundation is a good way to put it.

The problem with staying home and not working, as I see it, is that it treats jobs as disposable. Women too often and too easily give up work or a career. At that point, they will become marginalized, sometimes in their relationship, sometimes in the outside world, sometimes both. By retreating into the home, they give up their place in the marketplace.

What I mean by marketplace is the agora, the meeting place for ideas and commerce. Women belong in this meeting place as much as men do. Choosing to walk away from the agora is worse than not being allowed in in the first place.

To be perfectly candid, when my children were small I wanted nothing more than to walk away. The idea was so attractive — quit my job, stay home, raise the kids, be really frugal, etc. I’m glad I didn’t do it. It wasn’t easy — really, maternity and childcare policies in this country suck — but I stuck it out. I think the children benefited from it, because financial security is nothing to sneeze at, and I did too, from simply a financial standpoint.

Recently, in the New York Times a divorced woman wrote about having to find work in this economy after her ex-husband paid for her to continue to stay home with the kids even after they split. Then he lost his job.

Now, their kids are in a precarious situation. The author of that piece acknowledges that it wasn’t the best decision. And I just think that more women need to think about the ramifications of relying on one income.

[Edit] I changed this last line because I’m TRYING not to be so judgmental.

Rebecca Ziegler · February 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm

I’ve heard people say women didn’t use to work outside the home, in the old days. But, they forget that back in those days housekeeping was WORK, when preparing dinner started with killing a chicken, when clothes were hand made, hand repaired and hand washed, and when someone really had to keep the home fires burning. Now, there is an extreme and absurd view of house keeping in which kitchens are sterile and the house is dust, dander, and germ free. That this is actually unhealthy for the residents, the planet, and the homeowner’s finances, is (pardon me) swept under the rug. House work is NOT real work, though child-rearing, done properly (not plopping them in front of the tv) is important, and difficult work. In many cases, mother and child are both better served bysharing some of the burden with a pro. Yeah daycare!

Rebecca Ziegler · February 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm

Sorry about the tirade. I am so tired of women who are entirely dependent on others for their daily bread still claiming to be feminists.

Patrice Sarath · February 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm

No need to worry about tirades. I even let ones stay when I don’t agree with them.

maria ragucci · February 14, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Wow. This is really interesting…and puzzling, to me.
I am a stay-at-home mom, after the birth of my first and only child, and after 15 years in the work world as a lawyer. I intended to return to work, arranged to return to work, but didn’t return to work. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made; my whole identity was as a woman in the business and legal worlds. But having made the decision to stay home, I have not looked back even once.
I do agree with Patrice that the risk of marginalization is there. In feelings of, what did I do of consequence today? This can come out when thinking of the much more exciting world my husband, also a lawyer, inhabits, as well as with friends and family who are still working and have happy, enviable, productive lives that are CONNECTED to the wider world.
However, I am still delighted to be able to stay home, to have freedom from job stress and pressure, to exercise not at 6 a.m., to see a movie at noon.
And I actually feel I make a contribution to the world; I help people and am generous with many people. The woes of the world weigh heavily on me and I consider myself blessed to be in the position I am in and I don’t take it for granted.
Why is being a feminist so cut and dried? If my husband and I divorced, I would not have to go back to work. What about someone who inherited money? It just seems a bit restrictive.

Bethe Ann Bugbee · February 14, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Hi Patrice,

My thoughts on this matter require me to give a bit of background. My mother has never been one to refer to herself as a feminist. In spite of that, she has had many people consider her to be one (and say that she was one before feminism as such existed), including when she did not “work outside-the-home for pay.” I don’t remember where she first came across that phrase, but she decided that it was a perfect description for stay at home moms. They certainly work, just not outside the home for money. And when I consider the amount of volunteering she did for things like Camp Fire Girls and Cub Scouts and the school band, there was a lot of outside-the-home work too. I was raised by a very strong willed woman. My father often traveled four days a week for his job, so Mom was in charge of the bills and everything else about the household. It wouldn’t work to wait for him to come home on Friday and solve a crisis that occurred back on Monday.

It also seems to me that there are probably lots of women who fit your three criteria due to economic necessity. (They can’t afford not to work, and birth control is much less expensive than another child.) That doesn’t automatically make them feminists.

To me, a feminist has to meet two criteria:
1. She must consider herself to be equal (not inferior and not superior) to the other members of the society in which she lives (and to the rest of the human race in general.) A woman could meet all three of your criteria buy still feel inferior to her spouse or her boss.
2. She must insist that society treat her as an equal. This can mean things such as equal pay for equal work, having separate credit cards from her spouse so that she has her own credit history, and insisting that the car salesman speak directly to her instead of her husband when shopping for HER next car.

Like my mom, I have never really labeled myself a feminist. I think that we both associate too much anger with the word, too much of “us vs. them.” The women we knew who called themselves feminists were always trying to change things by screaming at them from the outside. We would rather work from the inside to cause change without people really being aware of what is happening. (We’re sneaky that way.) I guess that I’d really like us to come up with some new term. How about Equalist? I’d proudly consider myself equal to those around me, both men and women, and call myself one of those.


Patrice Sarath · February 15, 2011 at 8:23 am

Bethe and Maria,
I’m really glad you guys commented. In particular, Maria, I was wondering what you would say…

I know so many strong women who stay at home and who work outside the home that it’s hard for me to say who is a feminist, and who isn’t, and really I don’t have the right to anoint anyone.

I would like more women to stay in the workforce. I know so many bright, smart women who leave — a la you, Mer, and co-workers, etc. While everyone has their own decision to make, there is such a conflict between individual and family desires and the need for women to keep their place in the outside world.

I like your term Equalist, Bethe. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up Feminist, but I see where you are going.

Off to take the son to school and will comment later as I think of more things to say. Thanks!


maria ragucci · February 15, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Bethe, you helped me formulate my thoughts on this further. And I like very much the term, Equalist! I think the issue is a function of broader human and, dare I say it, biological, factors, as well as economic ones. People have different goals and desires, different lifestyles and personalities. There are stay-at-home dads, there are men and women who take jobs that are less demanding, those that must work 14-hour days to feel productive. People leave the workforce for all sorts of reasons. I still have my letter of resignation from my last job in which I said I would miss my colleagues, the work, the sense of accomplishment each day, but that my infant son was a bigger draw. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I had my son at 31, rather than at 41. My personality also would not have supported working AND parenthood; I crave control too much and would have felt totally out of control of BOTH aspects of my life. The resulting stress would have done me in! Should I have done something against my nature, against my desire? Would it have been better for my family?

I know the dilemma of women getting higher education and then leaving to have children and stay home. I always think it is particularly problematic for doctors who have undergone such lengthy schooling. It seems even worse when a woman gets her law degree, say, and never works.(I know several.) Is that a wasted space in law school, a wasted education? Not entirely, I think. I worked for 15 years, but certainly had many more years in me if I went back. Did I waste my law school education, at Harvard, no less? I think my education, all of it, has made me a more interesting person, a better parent and more likely to be un-marginalized.

There IS value in the work of a parent, at home. A quick story showing the other extreme: a few weeks ago, there was an emergency dismissal from school due to a winter storm. On my way to pick up my son, I got a frantic call from the full-time-working mother of one of my son’s friends: “Bernie and I are in Park City, the nanny is in Manhattan, our driver is in Queens. Can you get my kids?” I wouldn’t want that to be my life. Of course, most working parents wouldn’t want that to be their life either! But there should be guilt-free satisfaction taken by those who choose to stay at home; it is not necessarily better for their kids, but if it is right for their family, it is right. There are benefits to both choices. I think those of us who do stay home have difficulty losing that guilt. But staying at home shouldn’t mean losing our place in the world.

Bethe Ann Bugbee · February 16, 2011 at 9:56 am

Did you see/hear this NPR article: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133599768/ask-for-a-raise-most-women-hesitate

One of the reasons women make less than men is because they simply don’t ask for raises as often.

Patrice Sarath · February 17, 2011 at 9:10 am

Fascinating article, and I’m guilty of that too. An unfortunate side effect of this reticence is not just that women leave more than $1 million on the table of lifetime earnings, they are perceived as not being a bargain, but as actually being worth less. That is, you accept an offer, and the thinking becomes, well, if she works for that little, she can’t be that good.

I did ask for a raise at my last review, which was a very good one. And I was shut down. My boss did refer to the economy, and the way the company is organized, she has little power or discretion over raises. But I wonder, if one of my male colleagues had asked, would he have been taken more seriously?

And now I have to figure out what happened to a whole other blog post I thought I posted.

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