Or maybe what I really want to know is: Who am I ? Am I a feminist?
Most of the time I’ve got a pretty clear self-image, subject to no more than the usual distortions of vanity and my particular forms of perfectionism. I’m a human being, and a woman: nature makes this blessedly clear through the requisite forms of biology and subjectivity. I’m a mother, wife, daughter and sister: social obligations, some acquired by choice and some by chance, supply the specifics here. I’m part of the white middle classes, courtesy of certain social structures of race and class largely outside my control. I’m an American and a Mormon: cultural heritage provides these crucial narratives of self. I’m a Latter-day Saint, and a stay-at-home mother: personal choice and voluntary identification give me these. I’m smart, reasonably well-read and well-written, a hard worker, responsible, and a dappled host of other things (many not as complimentary as those I’ve listed here, of course) by personality and inclination. I’m also a feminist, I think. But who or what acts as the guarantor of my feminism?
I’ve considered myself a feminist since I was in high school, long before I was introduced to formal feminist theory. In college, on my mission and in graduate school the strength of my identification with feminism waxed and waned, depending largely on my social context and its effect on that streak of contrarianism I’ve always had: the fewer the feminists around, the more likely I was to self-identify as one, and, conversely, the more feminists there were around, the less likely. I read and understood academic feminist theory, I learned about and occasionally participated in feminism as an American sociopolitical movement, I consumed and analyzed feminist cultural objects—but none of these really made me a feminist. I called myself a feminist, I think, simply because the women’s voices with which I felt the strongest personal identification almost always called themselves feminists. This didn’t always mean that I agreed with everything I heard. When I read Mary Wollstonecraft, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Adrienne Rich, or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, or Kristine Haglund Harris, I found plenty to criticize or correct—but I identified with their perspectives and their ways of living gender so strongly that those critiques and corrections felt secondary to the shared fact of our feminism.
So when I recently encountered an article about mothers and nannies by Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly, I was thrust into an identity crisis (of admittedly rather small proportion) to find that while I identified strongly with her approach, she identified herself as not-feminist. I didn’t agree with every one of her claims, and her style put me off occasionally, but her basic approach—her eyes-opening, dogma-questioning, piety-probing, self-implicating method—rang like a bell as I read. She seemed to enact everything that had attracted me to feminism in the first place, and yet she wasn’t a feminist. And by the transitive property, if a=b, and b=c, then a=c, right? Could this mean that I wasn’t a feminist either?
I’m still not sure, but it was freeing to contemplate the possibility. In some ways, the question is doesn’t need to be answered: whether I choose to retain or disavow my identification with feminism—and it won’t be an all-or-nothing thing, in any case—my attitudes toward gender and my approach to living as a woman won’t change. And I think there are really compelling sociological reasons for those women (and men) so inclined to self-identify with feminism: feminists, and particularly Mormon feminists, can open up lines of inquiry and relationship that other people can’t; feminist voices are of the right timbre to participate in the conversations about identity politics that, like it or not, shape public attitudes; and feminism can provide motivating narrative and enabling resources for women’s personal lives. But to think that I might not be one of those women—well, that was about a 4.1 on my personal richter’s scale.
So who are you? I’d guess that there is a whole class of descriptors that, like feminist, one assumes more by a felt process of identification than by a deliberate process of rationcination: environmentalist, conservative, attachment parent, liberal, vegetarian, libertarian, mystic, positivist, communist. The truth is, I don’t really want to know whether you think I’m a feminist or not, and I’d rather not turn this thread into a referendum on feminism. But I do want to know who you are, and why.