After writing her piece on being a Fun Feminist, to which I was responding in my Confessions of a Cool Chick on Tuesday, Jill got some flak which then prompted her to write this defense which explains who she is and what her feminism is. And it just made me all kinds of irritated. Not what she wrote, but that she had to write it.
You know, I've always understood feminism to be about legitimizing a variety of choices for women, and I've never believed that only those choices that were deemed empowering or otherwise feminist-approved were deserving of our support. A woman who makes a conscious decision to wear make-up and high heels and remove body hair specifically to be attractive to men* is about as antithetical to my personal aesthetic as it gets, but I don't view my role as a feminist to impose my aesthetic, but to contribute to the creation of a society where both of us can coexist, and neither of us feel compelled to compromise, because we have access to equal opportunities irrespective of our individual philosophies. The problem is not that there are women who conform to a cultural expectation of "perfect womanhood" imposed on women, but that a cultural expectation of "perfect womanhood" exists in the first place, rendering other expressions of womanhood "less than."
There are those who will argue that as long as women conform to a traditional expectation, it will inevitably be perpetuated. I'm not so sure this is true. If women who consciously design themselves for men have to become extinct for women who don’t to be conferred legitimacy, the accomplishment is rooted not in changing dominant cultural paradigms, but in having simply removed the preferred option. That’s a success by default. Equality is achieved when variations are considered just as legitimate as the original norm, thereby leaving no norm at all. For my choice to remain deliberately childless to be considered viable, all other women didn’t need to stop having babies and being mothers; we simply needed to expand the definition of womanhood. Expanding a definition doesn't require the annihilation of the original, but instead making room for legitimate and respected alternatives.
In my view, it isn’t the job of feminism to dictate to women how they should live their lives, but first to create a culture that has room for legitimate and respected alternatives to traditional definitions of womanhood, and second to educate women conforming to traditional definitions that they don’t have to, because the culture no longer requires it nor gives it preference.
Creating such a culture will necessarily entail critiquing, and often criticizing, the venues through which the accoutrements of traditional definitions are marketed, but rightfully condemning a glamour magazine for purveying unrealistic beauty standards or giving women 101 Ways to Please Your Man doesn’t mean we must simultaneously condemn women who pursue a beauty standard or try to please men. It’s decidedly inconvenient, I admit, that there are women who steadfastly embrace traditional definitions of womanhood, but even among those who do, many of them don’t reject alternatives, viewing my childless, no make-up wearing, jeans-clad fat ass as just as perfect an expression of womanhood as is theirs. They make room for me; feminism ought to make room for them.
And it can. The measure of feminism’s tolerance should not be how well one conforms to any particular aesthetic, but how willing one is to embrace a myriad of aesthetics. A woman who wants nothing more than to be a beautiful bride with 2.5 kids and a suburban estate worthy of Better Homes & Gardens, but also totally digs my personal groove, isn’t my problem. A woman who thinks there’s only one definition of womanhood and one correct way to express it, whether she calls herself a Concerned Woman for America or a feminist, is.
All that said, there should always be room for other feminists to question why I or Jill or anyone else make the choices we do, to challenge our models and the trappings we employ and all the rest. Suggesting that we expand our definitions is not just a fancy way of saying every choice is equally good or wise. It is simply to say that the moment we flatly refuse to champion a space for women whose aesthetics differ from our own, we veer dangerously close to the inflexible dictates of the dominant culture we mean to change. I didn’t become a feminist to assume the very role I despise.
* I'm not saying at all this is how Jill was describing herself, or how I see her. I'm specifically talking about a woman who deliberately and without conflict uses these things in pursuit of a male partner.