It was one of those identically boring end-of-summer nights, and two of my friends and I had resolved to watch “Sex and the City” DVDs. Everything was going in its usual, uneventful manner until Kevin asked my roommate and myself what we thought of the show. Kevin’s boyfriend had recently told him that he thought “Sex and the City” set feminism back a generation, and he was curious to hear our opinions.
“First of all, I’m not a feminist…” It was as if a stranger has moved into the bed next to mine. “What do you mean, you’re not a feminist? Do you think you’re inferior because of your gender? Are you turning your back on everything the women’s movement has been fighting for, these last 200 years?” I wanted to shout at her. I was beyond confused; this wasn’t the first time that one of my educated, confident, ambitious friends had used that phrase, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
“Well, first of all, I’m not a feminist, but…”
More than anything, it was that “but” that baffled me, because it invariably introduced my friend’s steadfast adherence to several of the feminist movement’s basic tenets: the woman’s right to make decisions for their own lives; the crippling unfairness of a system that celebrates motherhood, but where there is no such thing as maternity leave; the frustration of working your ass off, only to realize that almost every guy in the joint is not only getting promoted faster, but also makes a full dollar to your 73 cents; finally, the stupidity of a university health care plan that covers pretty much every drug under the sun except birth control (a big “thank you” to AU for taking care of this).
So what is it about feminism that turns people off? My roommate says that “feminist” sounds too much like “radical.” But darling, what is radical about wanting to get paid for what you do, and not what you look like? What is radical about wanting to walk down the street without being cat-called by truckloads of greasy-looking scrubs? What is radical about wanting to watch cable Convention coverage without being told by some pompous commentator that foreign policy and national security are “male issues,” and that as a woman all you (should) really care about is education and the First Lady’s haircut? I listed issue upon issue, and couldn’t find a single one that my roommate would qualify as “radical.”
Then, my roommate said that she didn’t like labels in general because she isn’t an activist. Well honey, I certainly am no activist either. I’m a registered Democrat, but haven’t been to a single College Dems meeting in two years, and I delete most of their e-mails the second they land in my in-box. I’ve never been to a protest, whether against the IMF, the war on Iraq, or the Federal Marriage Amendment, despite caring very much about these issues. Politically engaged doesn’t mean being out there, on every issue, all the time; we all have lives here. Being politically engaged, or “wearing the label” means standing up to your smelly old Uncle Bob’s asinine comments about women’s place being in the kitchen; it means contradicting your favorite AU professor when he or she says something really tree-huggeresque; it means fighting the good fight, whatever it is, in your own life.
I don’t know how so many of my favorite words came to acquire such a negative connotation - like “feminist,” “liberal,” and “Washington insider.” Somehow, I’m inclined to blame Reagan, or possibly Jerry Falwell. Too many of us at AU are so concerned about our future careers that we’re afraid to breathe, just in case it turns up in our records someday. It’s a legitimate concern, and one that I share, but all labels aren’t bad. It’s trite but true: stand up for what you believe in, and put the label back where it belongs: on your sleeve.