May 27th, 2014

planet

feminism, women's choices, and why I ended SWE bake sales

There's another article going around about why Lean In is too pushy - in this one, a woman spells out her reasons for walking away from $750,000 so she could garden and play clarinet duets with her son. A lovely sentiment but holy privilege batman... all I could think was MUST BE NICE. I mean people say Sandberg's book was a rich white woman telling people what to do, but its overall message is that the media is doing some serious anti-woman fear mongering, and that's something I think women of all classes need to hear. They do NOT need stories about how making 3/4 of a million dollars is just so darn inconvenient it messes up your whole music lesson schedule! If you doubt me, try telling the single mom working three jobs at minimum wage that she just needs to "lean out" and see what happens.

So that's my take. I already wrote about the Lean In Hate Bandwagon once... I said I was going to stick with Sandberg. As always, that will get me labeled as a "pushy feminist" who doesn't respect stay-at-home-moms... it was bound to happen. It always happens. Any time a woman says anything, I think the anti-feminists go searching for other women to disagree with her so they can say we're catfighting. Or that we have "mommy wars".

It's this HUGE FEMINIST DIVIDE, they'll say. Women just can't agree on anything!

Ladies, can't you just smile politely?

No, I say. Here's why.

First, I think women and feminists definitely deserve the right to disagree with one another. Men do it all the time. We don't compare the lives of male CEOs to stay-at-home-dads and call it "daddy wars" - it's not even an issue. Men disagree in business, in politics, in sports, and it's okay.

Second, I do not think feminism is about supporting every woman's choice. A lot of choices we make really do not matter... this is something Jessica Valenti made me realize. Do I feel like wearing mascara today? Is that a STATEMENT? Did society pressure me to do it? Or did I make my own empowering choice? Or wait... do we all have better more important things to think about?

Third, some women's choices really should be questioned. Nobody makes decisions in a vacuum - is there something sexist about the way we're raised that conditions us to do certain things? If so, should we try sometimes to look for other options, or defeat that stereotype?

And here's where I'm going to tell a story about the bake sale.

My sophomore year of college I was elected president of our Society of Women Engineers section. Women engineers, as I've written before, are frequently un-feminist: my evolving theory has now gotten to me thinking it's a defense mechanism, they act "gender-blind" to fit in.

Our section had held giant bake sales twice a year in the tech center. We weren't raising money for anything terribly specific... there were conference expenses, but I realized we could get department money for that, ask local businesses, there was a keychain project from a few years back, etc. So I talked to the board and said I strongly believed that as women engineers we should not be having bake sales. It played into a stereotype - I was weirded out. Yes it was lucrative but shit ladies, why not just set up a laundry booth to iron guys' pants for them? I couldn't totally put into words what was wrong with the bake sales, but even the guys I talked to thought it was sort of ironic... that said something!

Was I disrespecting femininity? I don't think so. I wasn't going to hold some kind of anti-bake sale or make a huge deal about it. I know lots of people like to bake. I bring cookies into work these days myself... although I spent my first few years as an engineer shunning the social committee junk to ensure I'd be taken seriously.

Basically, I thought that the feminist thing to do was NOT to go with the easy first choice.

This was American college students, too. If we can't make a stereotype-busting choice sometimes, how are we asking girls in distant countries to risk their safety walking miles to school?

Feminism isn't about being "supportive", it's about asking questions. It's about talking, getting conversations going, and not letting anyone tell us to accept that things have to stay the way they always have been.