Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why I Vote the Way I Do--Part 3

Doxy's beginning note: This one is ridiculously long, and I would have separated the two if I could. But, for me, they are two sides of the same coin. As always, you only have to read what you want to...

****************************************

I am a feminist.
Discovering feminism was like breathing for the first time. All of a sudden, the world finally made sense.

I could finally understand why I felt compelled to seek male approval—even to the point of erasing my own self. (Didn’t necessarily stop me from doing it, I’m sorry to say—but that’s another post…) I could see the social expectations that worked against me in the classroom and the workplace.

Becoming a feminist changed my life. Probably much more than becoming a Christian did, to be honest. Claiming my identity as a feminist propelled me into political activism for the first time in my life, because it showed me exactly how politics could improve my life.

Most important—becoming a feminist opened my eyes to the way that laws and social structures perpetuate inequality. The list was long:

  • Unequal pay
  • Discrimination against married women, pregnant women, and mothers in the workplace
  • Domestic violence laws that favored batterers
  • Rape laws that allowed the “justice” system to put the blame on women—or allowed husbands to rape their wives
  • Attitudes that sexual harassment was just “boys being boys”
  • An assumption that government could intervene in women’s reproductive decisions in ways that would never be tolerated if men were the ones being affected
  • Attitudes that taking care of children and home was “women’s work” (and thus underpaying anyone who does those things professionally…teachers, daycare workers, domestic laborers, etc.)
  • An economy that rests on the unpaid work of women in rearing children and keeping their homes going

I have never been able to look at advertising, religion, politics, economics, relationships—anything—the same way that I did before I become a feminist. Feminism made me look hard at all those things and clarify to myself what it was that I wanted out of life—and what I was willing to do to get it.

Here’s what I decided. I want a fair and just society. I want a society that doesn’t constrict women’s choices around careers and motherhood.* I want a society that recognizes the important unpaid work that women do—and that doesn’t penalize them economically for taking time out to care for their families. I want a society that recognizes women as mature moral agents, who do not need the government or other unrelated individuals telling us what we can and cannot do with our bodies.

I probably did it backwards from most people, but becoming a feminist is what made me a liberal. Feminism made me aware of, and angry about, the injustices in this nation that prides itself on the idea that “all men [sic] are created equal.” Becoming a feminist opened my eyes to ALL injustice.

I cannot tell you how mentally and emotionally exhausting that was.

You see, it was easy being a conservative. When I was a conservative, I was able to compartmentalize things very neatly. In the conservative world I used to inhabit, there was no such thing as institutionalized injustice. There were “people who made bad choices and had to pay the consequences.” In my little conservative head, that meant being born into the wrong family and attending inferior schools, I guess. Each single issue had its own cause and nothing was connected to anything else. That way, it was easy to assign blame and offer facile “solutions” that weren’t solutions at all—certainly not solutions that cost ME anything.

There was never any recognition that I was just “born lucky.” (See my last post on that one…)

When I became a liberal, I suddenly saw the web of connections between EVERYTHING. Sexism was tied up with racism and poverty. Discrimination (against minorities, LGBTs, the poor) was tied up in misogyny. Racism was used to divide the very people who should unite against those who would exploit them economically and politically.

Life suddenly became a very intricate spider web, and I couldn’t put things in neat little boxes anymore. Solutions got a lot more complicated—and expensive…both personally and politically.

Becoming a feminist and a liberal wore me slap out.

It still does—it requires enormous amounts of energy to keep at the fight, day by day, year by year. But I’ve been doing it for nearly a quarter of a century now, so I’ve learned to keep focused on the end goal. Feminism—although it presents itself as being about improving life for women—is ultimately about improving life for all of us. And that goal can only be reached by refusing to give up or give in to people and policies that maintain discrimination in any form.

I’ve learned when to take a news break and read some poetry—and then I get up and go to a rally, or volunteer for a progressive cause, or write on my blog...or vote. Because I’ve learned that life is complicated, but politics can make it better for a lot of people—not just for me.

********************************************************

I am a mother. I vote progressive because I want the world to be a better place for my children.

Now every mother--progressive, conservative, or somewhere in-between-- says that. But I believe that the world will only be a better place when EVERYONE has a decent place to live, enough to eat, and a good education. I do not believe I do my children any favors by trying to construct a world in which they achieve at someone else’s expense—or live in luxury while children on the other side of the world literally starve to death.

Every day, nearly 30,000 children die of poverty-related illness and starvation.

Read that again.

30,000 children. Dead. Every. Single. Day.

I keep coming back to faith here, but combine it with motherhood and I’ve got no choice. How can we live with ourselves, knowing that this is the case? How—in the name of God—do we justify this?

The answer, of course, is that we refuse to think about it, because addressing it would mean we had to give up our own privileged consumerist habits to change things. We tell ourselves that we cannot “fix” things in Somalia or Darfur because they are too far away. Or we blame it on “those people” who starve their own for political purposes (never asking ourselves about the hungry children in our own backyards).

Or—worst of all—we assume that people in other parts of the world are “used to” losing their babies and children to death, and that they don’t feel the loss the way we do. (I’ve actually heard people make this argument…)

Now this is not all about starving children in Africa. I know that our ability to bring about change in other parts of the world is limited (see Iraq). But as a progressive mother, I believe I have a responsibility to push for domestic policies that safeguard the children here in my own North Carolina community—and international policies that have an impact on children all over the world.

When my children were toddlers, I spent a great deal of time teaching them to share with their peers. In my world of neighborhood playgroups, there was a lot of parental disapproval aimed at those children who, after the age of 2 or 3, wouldn’t share their toys. The last thing you wanted was for your child to be the one the other parents talked about when you weren’t around… (and believe me, they DO talk!)

Unfortunately, sharing does not seem to be natural to human beings—but the earliest humans realized that they would not survive unless they could pool their resources. And small children, when they have proper guidance from the adults who love them, learn this too. They figure out pretty quickly that their time with their friends will be much more pleasant (and last longer!) when they share, than if they are grabby and selfish.

I have difficulty understanding why this concept is so hard for most people to grasp. If you teach your children to share when they are small, why not expect them to keep doing it when they are grown? Why turn greed into a value once they leave preschool?

Voting for progressive politicians and policies is my way of sharing what I have. It is an acknowledgment that the values I taught (and am continuing to teach) my children—the need to share and play well with others—are values worth living by.

Voting the way I do is a way that I live my motherhood outside the boundaries of my own home.

************************************************

* Doxy’s ending note: I have made the argument elsewhere that one of the reasons I dislike Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is that I believe she did not consider adequately the needs of her family (special-needs newborn and pregnant, teen-aged daughter) when she accepted the nomination—and therefore, I do not trust her to care for my family.

My criticism could certainly be construed as being anti-feminist (as, indeed, some have done). But that assumes that there is only one kind of feminism—and that career and choices in and for the public arena are the only choices a “true” feminist is concerned with.

Obviously, I disagree.

I believe that parents (not just mothers) have an obligation to put their children first, once they have chosen to bring them into the world. Sometimes the direction that such choices will take is not obvious—as those of us who are divorced with children know all too well. Palin may very well have decided that being Vice-President WAS the best way to put her children first. I believe I can disagree—and still hold tightly and proudly to my Outspoken Feminist card.

There are many branches of feminism—liberal feminism being the one that most people mean when they use the word “feminist.” While I am grateful for the hard work that liberal feminists have done, I am not a liberal feminist (though I am liberal and a feminist!). Call me a cultural feminist, if you like—one who believes that the values often attributed to women (nurturing, relational, connected to family and community) are values to be encouraged in the public sphere.

(You can read the “cultural feminism” article at Wikipedia if you like, but I can promise you it was written by a liberal feminist and does not accurately reflect what I’m talking about. One more thing to add to my To Do list…)

Liberal feminism, in my view, basically sought to give women the right to be men (i.e., to give them political and economic power, as well as bodily autonomy), and little else. It has tended to be disdainful of motherhood and family relationships—focusing on ensuring that women have career and political options, rather than on ensuring that society respects the choice of women to be mothers, wives, lovers, and community activists, in addition to being business executives, Congressional representatives, and Supreme Court justices. It takes our cultural standards of success—power over self and others and wealth—which have traditionally been hallmarks of masculinity, and accepts them in toto as the things for which women should strive.

I believe that liberal feminism was absolutely the right place to begin. Changing laws and politics was, and is, necessary—and I am deeply indebted to all of those women who have worked so hard to bring those changes about. But I think changing hearts and minds to value family, children, and a kind, more caring, and less competitive society is the next step.

You see…I want it all. I want open doors for anything that I, or my daughter, can dream and do. I want laws to protect my rights and my autonomy, AND I want a community that supports women and their families.

I want a world I know that I will never live to see this side of the Eschaton—but that does not absolve me of the responsibility of doing my part to create it.

I am a Feminist Mother. And I vote.