Why we are all feminists

Sadly, I’ve been reading a lot about feminism of late. And the reason that makes me sad is that there have been so many powerfully disturbing reasons why feminism has needed to be written about. From Gamergate to our “single sex party”, as the Chaser crew so aptly described the Australian Federal cabinet recently, and the astonishingly ignorant responses to No Gender December, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have regressed to the 1950s, when women were expected to be content with their place at the kitchen sink, with occasional forays as far as the laundry and the supermarket.

And yet it was not that long ago that I resisted describing myself as a feminist. I justified this with vague statements about “isms” being disturbing things, and how I was for equality, not for a particular fight on behalf of one sex or the other. And certainly that second statement remains true. But it has finally dawned on me what feminism is truly about. It’s about making it possible for everyone to find their vocation.

Whoa. What? Was that a huge non-sequitur, or the crunchiest of crunching gear changes? Actually no, if you’ll bear with me, I think I can explain. You see, I believe that everyone has a vocation. A career that they are good at, that they love, and that they can be passionate about. The problem is that not everybody finds that vocation. Because although some people seem to be born knowing what they want to do, others need to try a bunch of different things before they find their calling.

I was sure I was going to be a vet, but instead of animal hospitals, my science degree led me inexorably towards Computer Science, after a chance encounter with my cousin Chris’s commodore 64 when I was a kid. Chris encouraged me to program this bizarre device, and I was lucky enough to be ignorant of the fact that, as a girl, I wasn’t supposed to enjoy this kind of thing. This chance encounter led me to spend a lot of time in the library at school, toying with Apple IIc’s and, among other things, playing the Infocom Hitchhikers game, until eventually I chose Computer Science as a fill in subject in first year university.

When it turned out that I was good at it, I ran with it further and further, until I wound up, almost by accident, doing a PhD and becoming an academic. My academic career persuaded me that research, while fun, wasn’t my vocation, and a few startling twists and turns later I wound up where I really belong, teaching Computer Science in a high school.

All because Chris encouraged me to try programming his computer.

This is truly my vocation. When I talk about what I do, I light up from the inside. And I’m not about to reject it, as a newly minted feminist, because teaching is a “female” sort of thing to do. The whole point of feminism is the ability, and the opportunity to choose – not based on stereotypes, but on passion. To do what you want to do, wear what you want to wear, be who you want to be, because it works for you, rather than because it fits some notional checklist of who and what you are supposed to be.

How many girls are there who would be mad keen programmers, except that they have not been given the opportunity to even try, because that’s a boyish kind of thing to do? How many boys are there who would be the most amazing nurses, childcare workers, or primary teachers, except that it’s not manly, so they have been steered safely in the direction of something more… suitable? How many people are being robbed of the chance to discover their vocation because society is telling them they won’t like it, can’t do it, and are really not as masculine/feminine/predictable as they should be for even thinking about it?

Oh, but people aren’t put off that easily, you might say! They don’t believe all this guff about stereotypes. These outdated societal expectations don’t rule us, and they certainly don’t control our behaviour. It’s innate. Some things are girly, some are manly. That’s all there is to it.

But controlled we are. Manipulated, we are. Conditioned and boxed, we most certainly are. How else can you explain intelligent, well-educated women who believe that they can’t go out in public wearing shorts until they have shaved their legs? Shaved legs are not innate. I’m pretty confident I was not born with the fundamental belief that hairless legs are more feminine, and yet I’m damned if I can persuade myself that not shaving my legs is ok.

Hippy, greeny feminist I may be, but hairy legged I can’t quite bring myself to accept. And don’t even get me started about the impracticality of female clothing, or underwires in bras.

So if I can be so easily manipulated as to my clothes and my leg hair, what messages have I accepted about my career options? What things, moreover, will my daughters shy away from trying because they get mocked, or because they watch someone else get torn down for even thinking about it? How many girls resolved to stay the hell away from politics after watching what happened to Julia Gillard?

So here is what I want for my daughters, and my niece, and also for my nephews. In fact I want it for everyone: I want them to be able to try everything that looks interesting, until they find their vocation. I want them to know that no door will close to them, or indeed open to them, on the basis of gender.

Above all I want them to be happy pursuing the things that truly speak to them, that nourish their souls. The things that they are passionate about, and damned good at. Without pausing to wonder whether these things are boy things or girl things. Whether they are suitably feminine or appropriately manly.

This, to me, is what feminism is truly about – that boys and girls alike have the opportunity to be who they really are, and to do what they really love. Surely, in this, we are all feminists?

One thought on “Why we are all feminists

  1. Joe

    My 8yo daughter and 5yo son both play with lego and with the doll house in equal measure. Neither has any interest in dolls. (My son’s lego constructions clearly solve engineering structural problems I may say.) Both use lego to make a variety of animals vehicles people and buildings and then wrap stories around the things they make. Lego is a superb toy!

    (We don’t have a tv.)

    However I think it … odd … to try to imagine there are no naturally / inherent gender-biased trends (trends that overlap massively) in behaviour / personality. (Note that’s hugely distinct from supposing a relevant gender bias in capability or intelligence.)

    (a) we know that personality is significantly influenced by genetics
    (b) we know a wide variety of hormones significantly affect behaviour
    (c) we know we have less conscious control of our behaviour than we would like to think or hope, and
    (d) why should we be pretty much the only mammal that *doesn’t* have at least *some* distinct behaviour trends for males and females?

    It’s a complicated discussion space.

    But… no door should be closed on the basis of gender to someone who wants to walk through it, and no education framework should systematically lead people in a direction because of their gender. To the extent that any bias or trends exist, “it’s only trends”… in humans there’s certainly more overlap than distinction. And most of all, even if there are inherent (trend) differences that doesn’t make one less or more worthy than the other.

    (So I suspect I agree with almost nobody in this “debate” :-P )

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