Make a cup of tea, this may be a long one.
*I should qualify this post by stating something that may alienate most of the feminists in the room: I love men. Most of the men in my life have been (and are) emotionally intelligent, progressive, thoughtful, supportive and respectful to women. 21st century Renaissance Men, unashamed polymaths who cook, clean, read, travel, play music, view women as – well, as other humans (novel, eh?). I was raised by my Dad, who believed (and still does) that I could do anything. Be anything, He never pushed me into a mould. I have three large beardy brothers who treat their partners like queens and equals, and have always simultaneously defended me and refused to take any shit from me. I grew up in what I suppose you could call a benign patriarchy. I didn’t grow up damaged by how men viewed or treated me. It is true that I had no good female role model growing up (the less said about that the better) and so struggled with my ‘femininity’ in the sense that hair, clothes, makeup, all that stuff – was very alien and I felt for decades like an impostor in the world of girls. So it’s small wonder that now, at the age of 40, I am still on the fence about whether or not I should be a feminist. Do I really have to?
This all started at 8am this morning on twitter, when my friend posted a link to a blog post about unpaid ‘Emotional Labour’. The cliff notes are: “Women tend to be the ones in relationships who do the birthday shopping, arrange family get-togethers, all that jazz. This creates an emotional burden on them – why should women do this alone, with no help from men?… etc.”
True that women do this stuff more often. But rather that jumping on the feminist bandwagon, I wonder, really, just why that is the case…
Whilst admitting that certain gender stereotypes are genuine and not just perceived, I find it hard to believe that men prioritise these things as highly as women do but simply want women to do it because they’re either lazy or because they don’t see why they should. I seriously doubt that men are telepathically organising things in some sort of conspiracy to make us buy and write all the birthday cards. So if there is no conspiracy, then why do we women adopt this burden if it is perceived by so many of us as an unfair one? In my mind, it has to be for one of two reasons:
- They are doing it in spite of not wanting to. They are buckling to self-imposed social pressure, largely put upon them by other women. The same reason they need the latest fashion, gadget, car, whatever. They are conforming to a media-induced state in which they are oblivious to the fact that they are both the producers and end users of the same concept of ‘normal’ life/womanhood. In a self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand, they choose a life of constraints, of insatiable feelings of inadequacy, and of guilt. This is the 21st century, and in our western society, we really are pretty much free to be who and what we want, and women who are stuck conforming to what their husbands think they should be doing/wearing/cooking have it in their own power to vote with their feet. It’s not always been this way, and it’s not this way everywhere, but it is here. It is now.
- They are doing it because they want to. I certainly fall into this category. I don’t feel ’emotionally burdened’ by remembering birthdays and buying presents. It gives me pleasure. I like remembering the birthdays of my friends and family. It bonds us. I like it when they remember my birthday, too. Because I value it, I help to perpetuate the practice in my tribe, in my community, even in my digital community. The things that leave a bad taste in my mouth – I don’t take part in. For example, I very rarely buy or send christmas cards. Because it’s bullshit. It’s wasteful (resources, money, air/road miles) and also it affronts my inner rebel – I will buy you cards all damn year if I see ‘no reason’ cards that remind me of you – but I’m not buying cards because it is what I ‘should’ do in order to be ‘normal’. My closest friends and I exchange gifts at christmas and birthdays, but this makes me happy. I value that particular tradition. That is a personal choice. I think if I never bought a gift for a friend ever again, they would feel no less loved, no less admired by me. I certainly hope so anyway. I suppose growing up with very little money, as we did, love and esteem was shown in words, deeds and time spent with each other. Isn’t that the way it should be?
My husband does not really value social gift-giving. He’s far more introverted than I am (not shy, just less of a social creature) and as such he doesn’t value social bonding, interaction and the rituals that enhance those interactions as much as I do. And that is his prerogative. He is a grounding force in my life – a touchstone in an insane world. I value his sensibility, his humour and his rationality, which balances out my tendencies toward neuroticism and rebellion. He’s kind of awesome. But he doesn’t remember people’s birthdays (except mine – I’ve beaten that into him!), buy presents and cards, etc because that stuff just isn’t in his landscape. Deal breaker? Hardly.
Admittedly, the pressure is perhaps a bit less for the two of us than it may be for most people to socialise, fraternise and interact in a socially acceptable way, as neither of us have family close by. So, I admit that perhaps I don’t have direct experience of how huge the pressure can be to do all of these ’emotional burden’ tasks. Am I over-simplifying to just say ‘don’t do them unless it makes you happy’? Is it really that hard? I’d genuinely like to know what people think – do you, like me, just opt out of the traditions that people expect of you if you don’t like to? Am I being naive?
I once told my therapist how I had spent a long time knitting a scarf for my mother, and within a week she had given it away to her sister, and my feelings had been deeply hurt. His reply was that I should ‘do it with love or don’t do it at all’ – meaning that if I was giving a gift and expecting gratitude, I shouldn’t be giving it.
To give without risking emotional injury, a gift needs to be given freely with none of your OWN emotional attachments. Of course it makes me happy to see people enjoying something I have given or made, but those are perks. The purpose of giving is because it makes you happy to do it. Additionally, when you truly give something to someone, it is now theirs to do with what they will. And thinking about it rationally, whatever her reasons for giving away the scarf were (perhaps her sister needed it more, perhaps she felt she was ingratiating herself to her sister, or perhaps she just didn’t like or need it and was passing it on) – it was hers to give away because I gave it to her. Would I prefer that she kept it hanging around, causing her guilt or stress if she didn’t like it? Absolutely not. I let go of the scarf and learned my lesson. And it feels great.
So if you give something – be it a card, a present, or your time, if you do it for the right reasons, you’ve nothing to fear from feminists who think you’re conforming, selling out, or whatever. The sweeping conclusion that every woman buying cards and presents is conforming to masculine, patriarchal, outdated ideals puts just as much pressure on women!
I was a vegetarian for 15 years because I felt that I should be, as a conservationist/environmentalist. I compromised my lifestyle be cause of well-meaning, yet overwhelming pressure from my peer group. And likewise, I feel under extreme pressure to call myself a feminist. If I enjoy my freedom to work, be educated, vote, live, travel, express myself freely, choose not to have children, love freely and think freely, shouldn’t I be a feminist? If I don’t call myself a feminist, am I sending the message that I’m ungrateful for sacrifices of women who fought hard for the recognition of my equality? I hope not. But I’m just not ready to put on the t-shirt.
Ism ism ism. What would John Lennon say?