Monday, August 22, 2011

Feminine and Feminist Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

An acquaintance of mine - a white woman and an ardent feminist - recently gave birth to a baby girl. When she did, she seemed to feel the need to explain to me why she gave the girl what is considered in our culture to be a feminine name, and why she wanted to dress her in cute, ruffled pink outfits and decorate her room in what we would think of as feminine colors and themes.  

This is not the first time that a self-identified feminist has practically apologized to me for suddenly doing a flip-flop on her views about traditional “femininity.” It seems to happen when baby girls are born (or less frequently, when a new beau appears - I'm old enough to remember the outrage and sense of betrayal in some feminist camps when Gloria Steinem got a new boyfriend and started wearing heavy makeup). 

I guess I can understand why my friends feel the need to offer some explanation for their sudden support of conventional gender expression - I am a long-time advocate of relaxing, or even eliminating, specific gender roles and expectations. But I have never knocked “traditional.”  

I think that, even if society did get rid of its long-held gender expectations, there would still be people - both men and women - who kept to the old traditions. This is where they are most comfortable, and there's nothing wrong with that. My problem comes in when “traditional” is simply another word for “unequal,” and “gender roles” is simply another term for “controlling personal expression.” 

Ruffled pink outfits are fine, as long as: (a) they are not seen as frilly, frivolous, and less-than, and (b) everyone who wants to gets to wear them - girls and boys.

Makeup is fine, as long as: (a) it is not seen as vain, vampy, and less-than, and (b) everyone who wants to gets to wear it - girls and boys. 

I have no problem with raising a child with a traditional set of gender expectations, as long as the child also understands that: (a) we as a culture have “gendered” various human characteristics because, as a species, we use labels and categories to make sense of our world, but all those characteristics are equal in value and anyone can possess any combination of them, (b) anyone who wants to adopt traditional masculine or feminine gender expression should be able to do so without repercussions, whether that person is male or female, and (c) if the child should decide to reject the traditional gender expectations that he or she has been raised with, it is perfectly acceptable to do so. 

In my opinion, it is important for parents to raise children with a variety of different options for gender identity and expression. It's important for them to be able to say, “This is how we chose to raise you, but there are other choices out there, and you are free to decide for yourself.”  

And I think it's important for feminist women (and men) not to apologize for embracing traditional femininity - for their children or themselves. To do so is to imply that there is something “wrong” with femininity - that there is something inherently “bad” about pink or ruffles or dolls or makeup, a taint that can then easily extend to so-called “feminine” characteristics, such as compassion, community, empathy, and nurturing, as well as to women themselves. It's not traditional femininity that's the problem. It's the denigration of it - the lessening of it in society's eyes. 

I don't think that “feminine” and “feminist” are mutually exclusive (I'm not going to address womanism, because it is not my place to do so, and I don't have the perspective). In fact, I think that the division that sometimes exists between these two concepts can create more problems than it solves. 
To embrace traditional “femininity” as one out of many ways to be - no better and no lesser than any other - is to take a step toward equalizing all the human characteristics that exist and are possessed in varying degrees by all men and women. And there is no need to apologize for being human.