Keepin It Real: Women and Self-Advocacy

For the past week, heavy-duty feminist issues have preoccupied my conscious mind and roiled around in my subconscious while I sleep.

My subconscious preoccupation began with my most recent post, which was one of the ones that felt like it wrote me instead of the other way around.  I am used to this feeling—it is part of being a creative writer—but it can be emotionally and physically draining.  So I probably should have taken a break, and let the flotsam and jetsam of social and political change float on by for a while.  But I seem to be hooked.

I want to understand the social moment I am in very much, as well as the history of feminist thought and activism, so that—if possible—I can add my voice to the voices of others, both past and present.  This was always my aim, but it has grown exponentially over the last nine months, as I have been reading and writing, analyzing culture and living my everyday life.

What fascinated me last week was the debate between our government and the Catholic Church about contraception.  I think I was fascinated because I didn’t know what my own position was.  As you’ve probably figured out by now, I am both passionate and opinionated, and to be unsure about something—especially something that had a ready-made feminist platform (to force church-affiliated universities and hospitals to provide contraception to their employees)—was disconcerting.

After thinking through the issue and gathering information, I reached the same conclusion that the Obama administration did:  we cannot allow the state to force the church to do something against its own doctrine.  In my mind, this is the flip side of a coin that I hold very dear:  we cannot allow the church to use the state as a vehicle for its doctrine.  So, in the end, this one is a no-brainer, separation-of church-and-state wise.

So why did it take me so long to reach this conclusion?  Here are the main reasons:

  1.  I think contraception is an absolute necessity—it is the best and safest way to prevent unwanted children from arriving in this world.
  2. I was worried that if employers didn’t provide contraception, the government would want to—and then we would hear cries of socialism echoing throughout the land, and a whole bunch of women and their unwanted children would be filling the gap between church and state.
  3. As I mentioned earlier, many powerful feminist groups were advocating for this legislation.  While I am not generally a “joiner,” I don’t like to alienate myself from like-minded groups.  So I felt some peer pressure.  (Hey, don’t judge.  I’m new at this.)

Eventually, I recognized that my reasons were based on my own political desires (and apparently some latent conformism) and I calmed myself down.  I am very happy with the solution the Obama administration found—although I intend to keep my ears open, as I am hearing some dubious pundits who suspect that the insurance companies will find a way to pass on the cost of contraception.

All this preoccupation with one social issue really got me thinking, trying to figure out what my positions are and why I hold them.  In some of my posts—especially the more artistic ones, where my inner poet shows up in her fancy dress—I tend toward an idealistic vision, one in which women and men live in full equality, each recognizing the merits of the other.  I believe this equality is, and should be, the goal of all feminist work.  I also know that that work began, depending on how you count and measure feminist thought, around the late eighteenth century.  So…not a short-term goal.

Which means that some of my positions, politically as well as personally, tend toward realism.  Some of my realist thoughts over the past week have been:

  • The struggle for gender equality is, at its core, a struggle for power.  Historically, women haven’t had any (and in many places of the world still don’t) because society decided to magnify biology, so that a woman is tied to her biological cycle and the children it produces.  Meanwhile, men are (sometimes) held financially accountable for their unwanted children, but are not held emotionally and physically accountable.
  • While there are many men who support full equality of the sexes (and there have been from the beginning, when people of both genders began to write in favor of women’s rights), there are many men who are violently opposed to this idea.  In other words, misogyny is real.  In many places, misogyny is codified, so that it is legal to commit hate crimes against women, and to use women’s bodies against them.  In other places, misogyny is merely overlooked with a wink and nudge.
  • The relatively recent (historically speaking) objectification of women in the media is just the latest example of using women’s bodies against them—rather than codifying this example into law, we have enshrined it in profit.
  • There are elements of the debate over unwanted children that are more about power than children.
  • The major feminist groups know all this, and function as an advocate for change with the assumption that they will meet great resistance to change.  They are right about that—but that doesn’t mean they are right about every position they take.

All of this realism—which, I’m sure you have gathered, can slide into cynicism lickety-split—has left me with this thought, and I believe it is one of the most uplifting and empowering, truths I’ve discovered:

Women must be our own advocates.  Always, and in all ways.

Self-advocacy by women got us the right to vote, to attend universities, to wield intellectual and political power.  Self-advocacy established sexual harassment laws and the right to choose if, when, where, how, and with whom we would have children.

For this reason, defining self-advocacy—what it looks like, how it should be used, where it steps over the line by ignoring the valid perspectives of others—is becoming one of the cornerstones of my thought process, a way in which I walk the line between idealism and cynicism.

Although the past week has been intellectually exhausting, I wouldn’t trade it for anything—it’s allowed me to move forward in my thinking, which is, and I believe should be, a goal of all work that seeks to empower the self and others.

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