One of my earliest memories associated with feminism was a TV commercial that admonished parents to not buy their daughters tea sets but to buy them chemistry sets instead. It was an attempt at shaking up the status quo, to introduce science to little girls who otherwise wouldn’t have thought to ask for it because it had never been modeled for them, and to broaden the career horizons of many young women. That commercial infuriated my mother.
“But what if your little girl wants a tea set??” she screamed at the TV. As a young girl myself who hadn’t yet learned of the history of women’s suppression and lack of opportunity, my first inclination was to agree with my mother. After all, I had once asked for a tea set (one where the plastic teacups turned a darker shade when in contact with hot water to simulate the appearance of tea), and if my parents had given me a chemistry set for my birthday instead, I’d have been really disappointed, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten much use. At least by me.
My perspective started developing more at university where I was introduced to various feminist philosophies, as well as in-depth Christian Bible study. I gravitated toward what they had in common: that women have equal value to men and ought to be given equal opportunity, something Jesus seemed to exemplify in his ministry.
I lamented (and still do) the stereotypes of being male or being female instilled in most of us since infancy. Especially the stereotypes that hold us back from opportunities and reaching our fullest potential. I wondered what I would have been able to do or become if I’d been introduced to the wonders of science and technology at an early age, before the envy of other little girls’ tea sets had set in. I began to regret the hobbies I’d developed like sewing and baking because they were stereotypically feminine which seemed the antithesis of equality and opportunity. I felt the pressure of fellow feminists whose suggestions (to support equal rights in the ways they supported equal rights) felt more like demands. I either caved to their expectations or felt guilty for not being “feminist enough.”
Until I met my feminist therapist. Her feminism went something like this: Figure out what YOU want, and do it. (I might add, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.*) Whether it’s what you want to do for a living, or how traditional or modern you want your wedding to be (if you so choose to get married), or how you want to spend your weekend, or whatever choices are set before you. Women have been taught for centuries to suppress their desires in order to fulfill everybody else’s. Feminism (in the “equality” sense, not in the “women deserve more than men” sense) gives a woman the freedom to know her own heart and mind and the right to voice it (or simply to embody it without explanation). Even if what she wants resembles something traditionally feminine, and even if it goes against what another feminist says is good or right.
It doesn’t matter if what you like (if you actually do like it) developed out of lack of opportunity to do something else. Who we are develops out of a conglomeration of opportunities, inopportunities, and wisdom gained from both. You may be a feminist who (if financially able) chooses to stay at home with kids or ailing parents rather than work for pay. You may be a feminist who isn’t that into comic book super hero movies so you choose not to go to the movies on opening weekend of the most anticipated feminist movie of all time.
If you have a strong anchor of who you are as a feminist you won’t be carried away by the manipulation of some who will try to get you to “do feminism” in a certain way. Don’t let anyone else shame or guilt you into liking or doing the things that will advance their purposes or their cause. You are not a pawn in someone else’s game.
So as it turns out, I do actually agree with my mother, with a slight modification. Let little girls have some of the girly things they ask for, and introduce some non-girly things into the picture to expand their horizons. Take the pressure off to choose what you’ve chosen, and bless them to become women who know who they are, know what they like and want, and are empowered to go after it.
*I will also add that if you are married, it’s not a good idea to haul off and do whatever you want. Some of us need affirmation that our desires are just as valid and worthy of expression as our spouse’s; others of us need the exhortation to stop believing that our desires are more important than our spouse’s. Marriage requires communication and compromise from both parties so that both parties may find fulfillment and satisfaction, not just one.