How Feminism Fails Us
Feminism fails us.
Over the past few months, as I have gotten more involved with feminism, I have become increasingly convinced that the movement fails women in ways it never intended to. In ways that can be fixed. I’m not going to tell you to talk away from feminism. I certainly am never going to say “I believe in women’s equality, but the heck with the feminist movement!” If you truly love a thing, love it enough to make it better.
But that said, there are ways that feminism fails us. I think many of us know that white cis feminists dominate the movement-~-and white cis feminists could probably stand to be more sensitive and to incorporate more intersectionality into their understanding and their advocacy. Absolutely. That doesn’t mean we need to vilify white cis women. White cis women have problems too. Feminism is not supposed to be a contest about who is “more oppressed” and therefore “right”, it’s supposed to help all of us. So we know there are problems with the movement.
There’s another problem too, and Anne-Marie Slaughter called it out perfectly in Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. And while the world was busy whining that men don’t have it all or that women are delusional for wanting both a career and a family, they missed one of Slaughter’s most important points: feminism makes women feel like failures when they don’t “have it all”. Feminism makes young women feel like there is this ideal empowered woman they are supposed to strive to be, and when women can’t or just don’t fit the mold or the expectations, they feel like they aren’t good enough women, or good enough feminists. And that’s a load of nonsense.
I’m not the exception to this. Not by a long shot. I started out in the sciences-~-five years ago, if you asked me what I wanted to be, I’d have said I wanted to work in environmental science. I now work at a foreign policy think tank. Obviously, some real changes occurred in my life. But five years ago, I had all the resources I needed to go into the sciences. I was in honors science and honors math in high school. I was in my school’s science research program and I had all the support and encouragement I could want, and far more than many girls receive. I had male friends who were planning to go into engineering, who challenged me but who also helped me. There was never a time when I was told that girls couldn’t do it or that I couldn’t because I was a girl; I was told that I was good at science, that I would do well in science.
And I STILL dropped out of the sciences. But it’s not because I was driven out, and that’s the difference. I didn’t leave because I couldn’t handle it, or because the competition was too much, or because I was sick of being in a room where I was the only girl, or because people didn’t take me seriously. Those things NEVER happened. If there was ever a girl who was socialized to go into the sciences I was probably that girl. But I am numerically dyslexic, and complicated math frustrated me when you added in time constraints on tests. I was losing interest, or maybe more accurately I found things I was more interested in-~-social justice, international development, global health. And so I shifted from the hard sciences to the social sciences.
The consequence is that now, when I talk about women in STEM fields and the fact that STEM has proven to be a leaky pipeline, people who know this about me will point out that I dropped out. Who am I to talk? Or they will say that I am the stereotypical girl who left the sciences, and I sometimes feel like that is the case. But it isn’t. I left because I have other skills and other dreams, things I am better at, where I can do more good.
That’s just my story though. Over the years, I have seen that feminists are not always willing to accept things like women who choose to stay at home with their kids instead of working. This makes no sense to me as a feminist. As far as I am concerned, feminism is about choice: it is about expanding the range of choices available to women, to ALL women, and increasing their ability to access these choices, to access their rights to their choices.
Feminism fails us, and we fail the spirit of feminism, when we fail to recognize women’s choices as valid even when these women choose not to access the paths we have fought to open for them. Ultimately, when we vilify women who CHOOSE to stay home, or who CHOOSE to leave the sciences (in my case, to go into a different leaky pipeline field, just one we discuss less), we are straying away from this fundamental tenet of feminism. We are not respecting women and their choices. We are not respecting that it is possible for a woman to not be good at something, not because she is a woman but simply because no one is good at everything.