Feminist by default?

Categories: The Juggle, Working? Living?


I am Gen X through and through. Born in the early ’70s, came of age in the ’80s, started my career in ’90s, started a family of my own in the ’00s.

Growing up, I never, ever heard that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. Because I was too young? Sure. Because power tools are dangerous if you don’t know how to use them? Absolutely. But because I was female? Never.

Does that make me a feminist by default?

Now, granted, I also never tried out for the football team, joined the armed services, or wanted to be a Freemason. And I will admit that I am probably speaking from a place of privilege — I was a prep-school kid in a college town who missed out on grunge because it was against my school’s dress code. But still, my greater point is this: I’ve never felt like I had to prove I was “as good as a guy” because I was an adult before I was even aware that my gender could be an issue.

I think this is why I don’t really relate to the whole “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” school of politics; I think that getting the best candidate for the job into the White House is more important than having a woman in (or a heartbeat away from) the Oval Office. I also think that being a stay-at-home mom is a career choice, not a moral imperative, and that just because a woman can do anything that a man can do doesn’t mean she should.

I think that my children are even more removed from the feminism question than I am. Two of our three daughters have played on football teams; the third doesn’t because she’s in preschool and only wants to know why footballs get thrown (”Why don’t they only get footed? I mean kicked?”). They may learn about a time when women weren’t considered equal to men, but, thankfully, they have never experienced it.

I hope they become feminists by default, too.

How do you define feminism? Has your definition changed over the years?

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23 comments so far...

  • Thank goodness for girls sport! I think most women are feminists by default - what woman doesn’t want to the same pay for the same work as a man?

    MWW  |  September 18th, 2008 at 11:10 am

  • I read a study that may explain this point of view in your generation. Because I must say I felt the same way when I was a bit younger.

    Basically, young women just don’t believe in the glass ceiling. They believe that women who don’t make it just aren’t working hard enough, educated enough, taking the right attitudes, doing the right networking.

    Then one day in their mid- to late-30s or so, they feel this really hard “bonk” on their head, look up, and say, “crap, it’s true!”

    OK, I paraphrased a bit, but that’s the gist of it.

    I have worked with younger women who refused to believe that gender discrimination still exists in the professional world. They ignore and disrespect older women because they are so sure they are making lame excuses for their lack of achievement. I know exactly what is in store for these women. Trust me - or don’t, and just wait and watch.

    Younger women are appreciated in the workplace because they are bright and responsible and detail-oriented and get the job done. But that doesn’t mean they are viewed as potential equals of the men at the top. Sure, they will be told they are - that is how they get recruited, that’s how the bosses keep them quiet and satisfied for the time being, that’s what keeps them from getting bad press and lawsuits. But the numbers speak for themselves. Even if you remove variables such as time taken off to be with young children, education, etc., there is still a clear bias toward males when it comes to the higher-level promotions. There are exceptions in specific companies and industries, but that doesn’t make the trend any less real.

    SKL  |  September 18th, 2008 at 11:12 am

  • I come from the exact same generation, and I’m jealous of your experiences, or lack thereof. While my upbringing certainly consisted of “you can be/do anything” messages, there were plenty of people outside my family who treated me differently ONLY because I was a girl, including teachers, male classmates, and employers.

    Having witnessed, researched, and personally experienced sexism, I have absolutely no doubt that it exists in our society. I’m extremely skeptical that my daughter will be free from experiencing sexism herself or the effects thereof.

    I’m shocked that your children have never run across someone who is sexist or at least exhibits some sexist attitudes. I’d like to know what super-enlightened part of the country you live in and move there immediately.

    I also don’t think that one person’s lack of awareness or experiences of the extent of sexism in our society means that it doesn’t exist. People should be careful not to generalize from their own experiences, but rather look critically at research on the subject and examine the stories of others who live in different contexts from theirs.

    I’m just as shocked by hearing someone say that sexism doesn’t exist as I am to hear someone say that racism has been eradicated. It seems both naive and myopic.

    Robyn  |  September 18th, 2008 at 12:19 pm

  • Lylah,

    I know what you mean. I am from the same era, and I grew up knowing how to use power tools and doing pretty much whatever I decided I wanted to do without thinking about it. The way I see it, the ceiling is a lot higher than it used to be. Another way to look at it though, is similar to an article in Harvard Business Review a few months back - it is not really a ceiling, but a labrynth. And, I think that our moms and grandmas and other women have mowed down a lot of the obstacles - like use of power tools and sport and the idea that a woman can be a “boss”, but I do *partially* agree with Robyn that there is still a long row to hoe. I started out in Construction without giving it a second thought, and the first five years were pretty easy from a sexism standpoint, believe it or not. But, now, i see that there are some really difficult twists and turns to make it to that C-suite that I just couldn’t see before. It might depend on your industry, but I doubt it. I think when you start looking at multi-billion dollar companies, the most complicated parts of the labrynth are alive and well, even if several of the first few obstacles are gone.

    But, let me go ahead and write a novel here: Something interesting that I have noticed recently is that the generation of men that have daughters in their teens now seem to see gender roles in a different light. I have seen this shift just in the last 5 years, probably. Here is my personal theory, which is completely debatable. Lots - okay most - of these guys I work with have been divorced. They have seen their ex’s try to make it. They understand how important it is for women to have a career, and to take care of themselves, not necessarily to be able to have someone take care of them. As their daughters come of age, they are seeing women’s roles through different lenses, and it reflects in their view of women in their workplace. This is purely anecdotal, and subtle, but I find it interesting.

    Mom At Work  |  September 18th, 2008 at 12:57 pm

  • Mom at Work, I understand what you mean about men with teen daughters. I have had that thought as well. Indeed, my mom told me that he never gave a hoot about equal rights until he started seeing his 3 daughters as future competitors in the corporate world.

    I’ve worked with these men. They will tell you they care. But the problem is that much of sexist thinking is subconscious. They act on it but don’t realize they are acting on it. A big example is the way they look at a woman employee’s shortcomings versus those of a male. The two can have the same background and make the same mistake, but the woman loses stature in the organization much more profoundly. The male leaders don’t notice or acknowledge trends that prove sexism. Out of 5 men and 5 women who start out at the same position with the same abilities, none of which has kids, 5 years later, 4 of the men remain and have been promoted once or twice, and all 5 women have left because they weren’t getting the same promotions or pay. No problem - there is a good reason why each of those women didn’t deserve it. But nobody notices that if men were held to the same standard, they would all have been gone too. I’ve had this very conversation with a male boss who had two teen / young adult daughters. He just could not see it.

    Think about it. Do your male bosses truly view you as someone who could be “their” boss someday?

    SKL  |  September 18th, 2008 at 1:35 pm

  • Er, I meant my mom said “my dad” didn’t give a hoot . . . .

    SKL  |  September 18th, 2008 at 1:37 pm

  • Wow. Great discussion…

    MWW: I was surprised to find that many women aren’t feminists by default — or maybe their definition of “feminism” is just very different from mine. In terms of equal pay for equal work, yes, but in terms of what women should or shouldn’t be allowed to do? Very different…

    SKL: I’d love to hear more about that study… I was thinking when I wrote this that perhaps feminism is generational, but wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it. I definitely think that glass ceiling exists — I mean, 16 out of 100 US Senators, 8 out of 50 state governors, and just 1 Supreme Court justice are women, you can’t argue that there’s a glass ceiling — but I think that younger women are more removed from it than their mothers and grandmothers were. For now, at least.

    I also think that I, personally, have been insulated from it for a long time. I belong to a union, for one thing, so I get equal pay for equal work automatically. It wasn’t until I was an adult that someone told me he (of course it was a he) didn’t think I could do something because of my gender (I blew it off and did it anyway). In terms of my own personal outlook, I’m unlikely to think I can’t do something because I’m female…

    Lylah  |  September 18th, 2008 at 2:27 pm

  • Robyn: Liberal New England! Come on over… Seriously, I’m sure my kids will experience it at some point, but I think they’ll be as likely as I am to pooh-pooh someone who tells them they can’t do something because they’re female. I’m not saying it won’t happen, I’m just saying that I think they’ll automatically think whoever tells them “no” is wrong. Our oldest daugher is nearly 15, the next football-playing girl is 12 1/2, and our youngest girl is almost 4. It’s a pretty wide range, so their experiences will probably all be different, too…

    Mom at Work: That’s a really interesting hypothesis. I’ve seen a little bit of that with friends of mine. But I wonder if, for those people, women having successful careers is now a viable option, but not the first choice? Do you think their daughters see independence as a given, or as something that they should strive for? Or do you think these young women still feel they need to “marry rich” in order to get what they want?

    Lylah  |  September 18th, 2008 at 2:32 pm

  • Lylah, I read an abstract of that article in some alumni magazine from Case Western Reserve University. I googled and found the title: “Women’s Career Development Phases: Idealism, Endurance, Reinvention.”

    The abstract hit home for me because I had just found myself in the “endurance” stage and I was really bummed. I had so much education, hours of work, business results, etc., and I used to think it actually mattered. I must re-read the “Reinvention” part because I guess that’s where I am now.

    I don’t want to be a downer, but I think it’s important that we be realistic about what is really possible for women. Of course I know that I can do anything a man can do, usually better. I have three brothers (and two sisters) who have reinforced this reality since I was born. But the question is, is anyone going to acknowledge it or pay me like a man for doing it? And at least as important: what do I tell my daughters about this? I still haven’t figured that out yet.

    SKL  |  September 18th, 2008 at 4:11 pm

  • This is a fantastic discussion! I really like the labrynth analogy as it really makes sense. And like most cultural changes, they happen slowly and over generations. The boomers did a great job of knocking down so many sexist issues in ‘every day’ life (like being able to get your own credit card or buy a house or car with a loan! my mother could do neither before i was born, and i am a gen X/Y-er). Eventually these changes have empowered women to do more such as even ASK and EXPECT to receive equal pay for equal work. However, as stated, there are still many many twists and turns the higher up the corporate ladder you go and those are the ones for the current working generation needs to fix. We are finally recognizing that we should help other working women and welcome other successful, smart, savvy women in our career ‘inner circle’ and as mentors. (there are some men who fall into that category as well.)

    also - do you think there are some industries where this is not as much the case? It seems that when there are women executives, most are in roles around Advertising, sales, communications, or other ‘touchy feely’ type executive level positions. thoughts?

    Kate  |  September 18th, 2008 at 5:39 pm

  • SKL: Thank you! I’ll look that up… I don’t think you’re being a downer, but I also don’t have an answer to your question of what to tell your daughters. I do hope, though, that by the time they are our age, that glass ceiling will be even farther away than it is now.

    Kate: Thank you for joining in! You make a great point about women learning that we need to help one another instead of feel threatened by one another. I do think there are some industries where the glass ceiling is even farther away, but I do wonder if that’s because those industries aren’t considered as powerful as things like government or finance? Or is it because some of those industries, union involvement helps level the playing field up to a point?

    Lylah  |  September 18th, 2008 at 9:38 pm

  • That’s it, Lylah. I’m moving to New England. LOL.

    Robyn  |  September 19th, 2008 at 1:47 am

  • Lylah, I, too, have recently been shocked by the number of women who don’t consider themselves to be feminists. Some of them really are feminists, but they just have a misplaced notion about the term “feminist” that has caused them to reject the label. That’s fine, I guess. But if you believe in the social, economic, and legal equality of women, why not call yourself a feminist? That’s another topic altogether, I’m afraid.

    However, not only do some of these women reject the label of “feminist,” but they actually seem to think that women are inherently weaker, less capable, inferior to men and SHOULD be restricted from attempting and accomplishing certain activities. The whole purpose of the existence of women, in their minds, is to keep house and make babies.

    It’s truly beyond my comprehension. Thank God.

    Robyn  |  September 19th, 2008 at 1:52 am

  • As far as women rejecting the term “feminist.” Yes, we do. The reason is that organizations such as NOW, that focus on goals to which many women are opposed, have taken over the word “feminist.” They have declared that women who don’t agree with them are the bane of feminism.

    I believe in democracy, but I’m not a “Democrat” because I don’t agree with the philosophies that underlie the current platform of the Democratic party. It’s the same concept.

    I feel it’s a flaw of the “feminist movement” that they knowingly exclude, undermine, and pretend away the existence of a large percentage of women. I think they are hoping that the younger generations will believe that pro-life women are anomalous freaks. Oh well, their loss, since we freaks are in fact a substantial voting bloc.

    SKL  |  September 19th, 2008 at 10:31 am

  • Robyn: That’s what I mean… I know some women who honestly believe that they are not as capable as men in things like business and finance and organization — I don’t mean they personally thing that they’re not, but that they believe women in general are not. While I respect their point of view, my mind boggles…

    SKL: You make a good point about the label “feminist” having been taken over in a way that excludes a lot of women. I guess that maybe my definition of “feminism” differs from that mainstream, then. For me, feminism is rooted in the idea that women are equal to men and deserve to be treated, compenstated, and respected equally. Then again, for me, “pro-choice” means protecting the right for everyone to make their own decisions (in India, where my mom is from, or in China, for example, pro choice would mean keeping the baby). So I’m on the outside when it comes to NOW and similar organizations, I guess.

    Do you think it’s posible for society as a whole to eventually redefine “feminism”?

    Lylah  |  September 19th, 2008 at 11:12 am

  • Regarding the redefinition of the term feminist to be more inclusive:

    At the risk of ruffling some feathers, here’s a parallel.

    Are you gay? Have you ever been gay?

    I mean, have you ever experienced gaiety?

    I have, but I had better never refer to myself as “gay,” because the term has been taken over by homosexuals. At this point, we have kids being punished in school if they use the word “gay” too lightly, even when they are not talking or thinking about homosexuality at all.

    OK, so hopefully you see my point about the word “gay.” How about the word “feminist”? If someone asks me “are you a feminist,” I’m pretty sure they don’t mean “do you think women are as capable as men.” So rather than say “yes,” I respond with what I do believe. I will not wear the “feminist” label now, and probably not in the future either.

    SKL  |  September 19th, 2008 at 1:01 pm

  • SKL: Interesting parallel… I can see what you mean. (I don’t think it’s ruffling feathers, though now I am itching to ask someone if they’ve ever experienced gaiety.)

    Lylah  |  September 19th, 2008 at 1:06 pm

  • SKL, do you think that might be a generational thing too? It’s strange because I certainly don’t think someone is required to be “pro-choice” in order to be a feminist. I went to a fairly liberal women’s college, and I don’t really remember anyone ever making that a criterion. My working definition of feminism has always been “the radical notion that women are people.”

    The whole “pro-choice”/”pro-life” dichotomy is artificial anyway, in my opinion. I don’t like the labels. They try to force people into restrictive boxes, and most people just don’t fit. It’s not a black and white issue. There are too many extraneous factors to take into account. Personally, I try not to define myself by either label, because, to be honest, I am BOTH.

    But as to the issue being a defining one, I think that many young, third-wave feminists reject that idea and truly believe that feminism means “are women as capable as men?” At least, that’s been my experience with the under-30 crowd. I think that’s the beauty of younger feminists; it seems to me that they are much more inclusive of women with different ideas.

    Robyn  |  September 19th, 2008 at 2:04 pm

  • Robyn, I hope that is the case, though in my experience it’s not like that. It would be great if the word “choice” really meant that too, since we’re talking about words. It’s a fair observation that pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean pro-abortion, just as pro-life doesn’t usually mean anti-choice. However, every time I state that I am pro-life, I am immediately accused of wanting to force women everywhere to walk around miserably pregnant with babies they don’t want. I mean, come on.

    From another perspective, I don’t understand the need for a word such as “feminist” if it is supposed to refer to all women who believe they have the right to do what men do. Although there is a small group of women who don’t believe this, I’d say upwards of 90% or 95% do, so why do we need any term other than “woman” to describe this group? Certainly it was different 100, 50, even 25 years ago, but today, it should pretty much go without saying that my daughters will be encouraged to try everything that I would encourage sons to try. (And then some, perhaps!)

    SKL  |  September 19th, 2008 at 2:56 pm

  • Even though racism absolutely still exists, it is rare to hear anyone, in celebrity status at least, saying anything that would be construed as racist. However, it is perfectly alright to still demean, make jokes and out and out hate women who are not defined by the “liberal” viewpoint. I actually heard Scott Haney make a demeaning remark about Sarah Palin and I believe he would never make a remark similar to that about Obama. Democrats need to rename their defining image. Liberal means “not narrow in opinion or judgment”, not “orthodox”. That is no longer the democratic party I grew up with and used to love.

    raven  |  September 21st, 2008 at 8:45 am

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  • I don’t really consider myself a feminist, but I have to say - anyone who thinks discrimination against women doesn’t happen in the workplace, or that there is no glass ceiling, is either fooling themselves, or forgive me, never got far enough in their career to test it. Old boys’ clubs still exist - I’ve had young boys out of school jettison past me in their careers because they are smooth talkers and crash the golf-n-cigars crowd of the senior partners (all males.) I know of many women who had to start their own business (including me) to get the title and respect and control over their own destiny that they deserved after decades in business. It may also be industry-specific: professional services (consulting), technology, and toolbelt-type industries are still controlled by men. Is there an every-now-and-again phenomenal senior female executive that everyone respects? Absolutely. But that doesn’t exactly tip the scales, if you know what I mean.

    Steph in ATL  |  October 9th, 2008 at 1:58 pm

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