We, women and men, who identify ourselves as feminists, stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us. Over the weekend, everyone on my Twitter has more or less told everyone else what feminism means. Particularly, comedian Tanmay Bhat, and actress/model Lisa Haydon.
One boldly declared feminism meant equal rights for all (*eyeroll* this is why men talking about feminism should have a proper feminist friend, or read a book) and the other denied being a feminist (this one also should read a book). While I eyerolled my way to a mini galaxy at the former’s well-intentioned but misinformed opinion, I nearly went into a deep spiral of sighing surrender at what Haydon had to say. Deniers of feminism, then, wound me the most.
Some day, Haydon said, she wants to have children and make her husband dinner, and thereby not be a career feminist.
First things first: I have absolutely no clue what a career feminist is. Why hasn’t someone told me that’s possible? Does it pay well? Second, and more importantly, now that I have kids must I regretfully hang up my tag and resign myself to…, umm what exactly? It’s what Haydon’s denial seems to suggest. And to be honest, I will give her misunderstanding some credit.
When I was pregnant with my first child, in my foolish battle over choosing to go with my biological clock over my ideals of feminism, I had decided that I was a failed feminist. It didn’t matter that I had read Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience and imbibed all she had to say about motherhood as one of society’s indestructible constructs. When I heard my foetus’s heart beat for the first time, it was all I could do to not soar and cry at the same time. What can any feminist get done when all she has time for is constantly change nappies and be the exemplification of all that patriarchy has wrought into the shape it considers mother?
I obsessed over this till I went back to Rich and remembered the one thing that had made all the difference in the way I viewed my own ideas for motherhood and, indeed, my own mother, much before I had children.
Early in this landmark book, published in 1976, Rich says, “Institutionalised motherhood demands of women maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realisation, relation to others rather than the creation of self. Motherhood is ‘sacred’ as long as its offspring are legitimate.”
This was, and always will be a life changer for me, especially what it considers sacred. But that’s a discussion for another day. When you realise what is demanded of you as a mother is someone else’s idea of it, the chains drop away. You observe your own experience, as Rich did, and mould it into something powerful, as Haydon has the opportunity to do, if only she looked at her life and saw that everything she can do today – from choosing to have sex with anyone and not having a baby to choosing to wanting to get married and be allowed to have a baby, cook, keep house. Contraception? Thank you, first-wave feminism. Want to cook dinner for your husband and not feel like you’re a slave? Thank you, third-wave feminism.
As a single mother, my children’s first role model is me. It can be débated if I’m an ideal one but the fact remains they see me do all the “man work” as well as the “woman work”. Carry a 30kg sleeping 7 y. o. up two flights of stairs? I’m your woman. Cook them a loving, fun breakfast? Yessiree, feminist mum to the rescue. Cuss on the road because someone cuts you off dangerously? Yep, I’m right here. And have 2.5 year old who insists on wearing his sister’s pink dress to a birthday party? Well, do what I do and let him. This last detail has been the one defining factor for my life as a mother who lives feminism. This attempt to break down gender binaries that patriarchy has so deeply dyed us with. My son is six now and has his own wardrobe of “girls” clothing, albeit a tiny one and believes women and men can wear whatever they choose to. Even though not many people do. But what he knows better than knowing that you can choose to wear what you want is that what someone wears is not your business. My daughter, who is a year older than him at 7, finds herself asking me at least once a day if there are women this or women that. If there’s a bunch of men doing something, like playing football, I find myself googling a women’s football match for her to get a glimpse of because she’s asked me who the best women footballers are.
There’s no one defining moment that a mother can claim to be a turning point in her parenting role as a feminist. It’s a series of incidents and conversations. The day a boy pushed my little girl aside and said only boys can climb trees, not girls. Or the day my little boy was teased for crying broken-heartedly when a couple of his friends beheaded a snail. In my households, and I am happy to say in those of many of my friends, these incidents become a rife ground to dispel the notions of gender roles, and patriarchal values.
My response has always been one of rationale, of challenging what my kids have been told. “Well, what do you need for climbing trees,” I ask her. “Strong hands and legs,” she says. “And do you have them,” I ask. “Yes,” she says. I don’t draw conclusions after that. It’s a simple enough road for a seven-year-old to walk down and conclude that her sex doesn’t get in the way of climbing trees. Strength does.
I keep going to back to Rich’s book because, more than any other manual on how to be a mother, Of Woman Born teaches you the best. It teaches you that feminist mothers raise strong children, they raise children that have compassion and a real world-view untainted by gender politics of power at home. And it all begins at home, doesn’t it? Feminist mothers in loving marriages teach children that men and women can work together, that a feminist fight is a combined fight, not one that a woman carries alone. And for that reasons alone, you, my dear feminist-mum-who-cooks-her-husband-dinner would have a raised a child that is better than the one raised by a mother who denies her feminism.
A version of this was commissioned by Buzzfeed India and appeared here.