What Kerouac’s mom taught me about feminism.

I’ve been working my way through Jack Kerouac’s brilliant On the Road. I adore it. I could read it forever, and with every new sentence, I want to write something, anything. I’m inspired. Mixed in between the random dialogue and cross-country road trips are moments of pure genius. They seem even more amazing because they are so effortless and raw, as if Kerouac didn’t even know he was doing it, but they came about naturally.

One sentence that I find myself coming back to repeatedly is this:

My mother once said the world would never know peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read it four days ago. I’m not quite sure why. Something about it grabs hold of me and asks me to listen. There is power in it. Conviction. Honesty.

Men and women. Women and men. So much conflict between two beings that were created to be partners, lovers, and friends. Women kind of screwed it up from the beginning, considering we ate the apple first and all that. Men, well, you were punished for letting us eat it, and I’m sure you’ve never really forgiven us. Then you were put in charge of us. And we sort of resented you for it.

Satan’s ultimate victory was in pitting men and women against each other. We still feel that tension, even in our modern, progressive, forward-thinking, open-minded, everyone is equal society. We just can’t let that fight go. We allow patriarchy and feminism to battle against each other, and no one ever wins.

I have a love-hate relationship with feminism. Love because, well, I’m a woman after all and I like having rights. Hate because it tends towards extremes and divisions, which make me uncomfortable. Feminism in it’s truest sense is about choice; about women being able to choose their lifestyle, career, and future for themselves. But that’s the feminism we read in gender studies historiographies; the ideal. In our society, feminism has become the banner under which we lay our protestations and grievances at the feet of patriarchy, demanding they be heard, recognized, and solved. Feminism can turn into everything men have done wrong, even if they didn’t do it on purpose. Feminism can become showing female superiority.

One of my favorite lines from the play The History Boys is given by the female history teacher and goes:

Can you, for a moment, imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.

Women were relegated to standing behind men, to watching without being able to do anything.(There are of course key exceptions.) Century after century, men started wars. Men massacred whole races of people. Men created the nuclear bomb. Men were educated while women were not. Men were able to dabble in various arts and sciences while the women stayed at home. Men saw women as a bearer of children, the keeper of the home, a way to gain money through marriage. Men used women for sex and pleasure, even if the woman said no. Men voted on behalf of women, dictated to women, condescended to them.

So when Kerouac’s mother says men everywhere owe their women an apology, I get it. Women have had a pretty hard time of it. We want that apology. We want men to get on their knees and finally ask us for something, maybe even beg. We want that recognition from men that men messed up.

But ladies, we need to be willing to accept the apology. We need to be willing, finally, to forgive. We need to be able to go down on our knees with our men, take his face between our hands, and say. “I forgive you. I finally forgive you.” And we need to mean it. We need to be able to let it all go. We need to stop punishing the men in our lives, in our time, for the sins of their fathers. We need to stop holding a grudge and take his hand in ours, walking into a new future. We need to choose that other path. Because as much as we hated being pushed behind men, it isn’t fair to shove men aside with disgust for things they haven’t done.

{Granted, some men will continue to treat women poorly. They will never open their eyes to the fact that God didn’t create women as something less, but merely different. They will remain in ignorance, because they choose to. We will always fight against that.}

Feminism should not be at the expense of men. It should not be to spite men, or even in spite of them. Nor should it be about creating lines of distinction between men and women Feminism, if it is truly about choice, should be about choosing to put the past behind us and move on. It should be about uniting for a future of equality and peace between the sexes.

Because that’s what men and women are: equals. God didn’t make one better or worse. God saw that man was lonely and created Him the perfect partner. But He did create us both differently, for distinct and unique purposes.Purposes that blend together into one life. We aren’t meant to be separate, at odds, fighting each other for an elusive something. We were created to work together.

Maybe once we finally realize that, then we can have peace and Mrs. Kerouac can rest in her grave. Maybe once we forgive each other, we can live our lives with passion and conviction, for the glory of God.

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How French are you?

Subtitle: Feminism, Part Two (ish)

{Preface: This is not actually about French people… per se…}

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog was about Christianity and feminism. I would say go and check it out, but after reading and rereading it, I’m going to say that it wasn’t my best work. I hadn’t even thought about that post until one of my very dear (and rather educated and out spoken) friends mentioned that he was a bit disappointed in some of the views I seemed to be espousing concerning women. My first thought was, “dude, please,” followed quickly by “wait, what did I even write?” I tend to write like some people talk: quickly, fluidly, but without much thinking ahead of time; its kind of in the moment. Sure, I read over what I’ve written when I finished, but usually just for grammar and such. But the content, the ideas, those I rarely edit. So I went back over it, and I wasn’t all that impressed. It started out well and muddled in the middle, like our best intentions.

The lovely thing about writing? I can issue an addendum or corollary or clarifying statement. I’m not going to take back what I wrote, because I don’t think it was all bad. But I want to make it better. I want to make it more me.

To be completely honest, I probably wouldn’t have even written this if I hadn’t come across two articles and had one heartfelt conversation. Since all three came on the heels of my friend’s thoughtful criticism, I figured I would just go for it.

Important event #1: One of my roommates showed me an article on the new line of LEGO’s that caters to young girls. The new LadyFigs (because they aren’t boxy like the LEGO men) can play in “a hot tub, a splash pool, a beauty parlor, an outdoor bakery and a ‘cool convertible,’ as well as an inventor’s workshop.” Feminists were displeased, to say the least, due to the hypersexualization of the figurines’ shape and the stereotyping of the activities girls would prefer. Others, however, question why its wrong to provide these sort of traditional girl-focused toys for the consumer. Shouldn’t the parent have the right to decide if they want to purchase traditionally masculine or feminine toys for their kids? {My thoughts: nothing is more hypersexualized than a Barbie doll; LEGO dolls are the least of my worries.}

Important Event #2: In an uncharacteristic move, I bought a women’s fashion magazine (Marie Claire to be specific, because I watch Project Runway and two of their editors have appeared on the show). I don’t like fashion magazines, because its all pictures with few articles. But I picked it up out of boredom and read out of curiosity, and I came across an interview with French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter on her new book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. (Sidenote: good title; you can’t really pass that without wanting to know what the heck she’s talking about.) Her first point, “motherhood is a choice, not an obligation.” Second, women shouldn’t give up economic independence or sacrifice their “intellectual dowry” to stay at home with their children. Third, it is better for children to have a mother who works. Four, something about breast feeding (I’m not all that prepared to weigh in on that one). And five, French women can be mother’s without losing their identity as a woman (a sex life is key to this, apparently). {My thoughts: mostly I don’t agree; she talks first about women needing to make their own choices, then tells women why choosing to be a stay at home mother isn’t the best idea; also, who says the French have mastered any of this… seriously.}

Heartfelt Conversation: Today I was riding home from work with my close friend (who really is more of a sister), and we were talking about all of these things. She is married, works full time (probably more than full time to be honest), and wants to have children. I told her a bit about the article I had read in the magazine and my own thoughts on women and motherhood and marriage, and asked what she thought. She said she was tired of being told what to do. She was tired of people telling her that quitting work to be a mom was a stupid idea. She was tired of other people telling her how to live her life and what was socially acceptable. It was her life, her choice. {My thoughts: I agree… yeah, that’s it.}

We live in a society that knows things. We are educated, aware, capable of learning just about anything because of the information technology at our fingertips. With that knowledge eventually comes the feeling that we know best. That we know what everyone should and should not do. We know your mistakes before you make them and have no problem saying “I told you so.” We like to be involved in everyone’s personal business. We like to know what’s going on.

So we, as a society, love to tell people how to live their lives. We love to look at women and say, “This is what you as a woman should aim for. This is what you should want. This is what you need to have.” We have society, tradition, religion, philosophy, education, and history all telling us different things. We are torn, pulled in all directions, without really being able to sit down, take a breath, and decide which path is best for me. Which path mirrors what I need. Which will make me happy.

My friend who was less than impressed with my writings on women reminded me that feminism is about choice. It is about women deciding what they want to do and choosing to do it. It is about giving women the power to act on those choices. Its about me choosing to be a mother or choosing to pursue a career. Its about me choosing to go to school or stay at home. Its about me choosing to be on my own or to share my life with a partner. Its about me choosing to be my own person or to be what everyone tells me I should be.

So when the ultra French Mme Badinter says that motherhood is a choice not an obligation, I agree. Motherhood is a commitment; its difficult, messy, and stressful. But many also say its fulfilling, meaningful, and a blessing. Women who choose to take that on, who want that life shouldn’t be looked down upon, mocked, or ridiculed because of that choice. Its their choice, not society’s or Badinter’s.

Likewise, women who don’t want that, who don’t need it, who look at motherhood differently shouldn’t be shunned for their choice. Women shouldn’t feel that they have to have kids, that they have to give up their career or education to stay at home. If its not something that you want, something that will make you happy, it isn’t worth it. Some women aren’t even able to have children. Their identity isn’t determined by their reproductive ability. Its determined by what they make of their life, what they choose to do with the gifts and talents they have.

I hope that nothing I’ve written in past implies that woman should take the traditional role in their lives. I don’t believe that women need to have children and stay at home to be a woman. They don’t need to get married young, or ever, and settle down to have kids. They don’t have to give up their academic dreams or career goals. They don’t need to be anything other than what they are. A woman’s purpose isn’t being a mother or being a housewife or being a businesswoman or being an intellectual. Its about being you, full time, no matter what society tells you.

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male nor female

Today is International Women’s Day. God save me. Please do not misunderstand, I’m not against the holiday or the sentiment behind it. As a woman, it would be a bit ridiculous if I was. But I think I may disagree with it in principle.

During the year I spent in grad school (before I realized the potential job opportunities for a history grad student did not balance the loans it would take to achieve it), I immersed myself in British history of the 1800s. This time period, from Regency to Victorian, is my passion. I adore it. I’m not particularly sure why, but I believe it stemmed from my love of the literature of the time. And as books often reflect reality, I wanted to know the reality of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and so on. In grad school, I was finally able to focus on that passion. The more I studied, the more I found myself looking into the lives of women during that time. Their struggles, frustrations, advances, and successes were interesting to me. My advisor nudged me towards feminist and gender historiography, and I loved it.

As someone who is not a feminist in the contemporary sense, I had avoided feminist and gender historical theory for as long as I could. I didn’t want to hear historian after historian whine about how women were underrepresented in history. We already know this. You only need to take one American history class in high school to realize there is an obvious lack of women in the history books. So while my grad student self may have been leery of feminist studies, gender studies were welcomed. My favorite part about gender studies? It wasn’t limited to women.

Feminist historians claim that there are specific experiences in history that only affected women. Certain circumstances, whether political, social, or economic, that were particular to the lives of women. I would agree. The sexes operated in their own worlds, kept separate from each other. But if this is true, wouldn’t it also be fair to say that there were some experiences that were particular to men? A feminist who says no to this obviously needs to do a refresher course on history from any time period and any region.

I’m not saying that women’s history should be ignored. I spent months studying, researching, and writing about it. I believe it is a viable and necessary topic in history that often is pushed to the side. But the problem I had increasingly was that many believe that women’s history needed to be separate from men’s history. That in order for the plight of women to be understood, men needed to be removed so women could shine.

Any time you begin to remove specific things from the historical record, anytime you begin to reorganize the facts for a specific story, you are revising history, but not in a good way. Feminist and gender historians absolutely hate when women are taken out of history books, narratives, monographs, documentaries. Women hate when their stories are ignored. Might is be a bit hypocritical then to favor the removal of the men in favor for the women’s story?

The implication that men and women cannot tell their history together is frustrating. The suggestion that one is more important than the other is untrue. And the society that cannot reconcile the two, that cannot allow the history of men and women to live in harmony, is failing.

God created man. He saw that man needed a partner, so He created woman. Woman was created second, but she was not less important. God never told her she was less than man, an after thought, an extra. She was created with purpose: to end man’s loneliness on earth. In this way, man and woman were to come together, to marry and become one flesh (Gen 2:24). Man was not supposed to become part of the woman, not was woman to become part of the man. They were to become part of each other, to live as one in harmony and equality.

The idea behind International Women’s Day is that women need a special day to celebrate being women. We need to raise awareness of issues that affect women. We need to show our support for the women around the world who are in need and need relief. We are come together on this day and work together and see how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve accomplished. We invite the men to celebrate with us and see what we’ve become.

Did you know there is an International Men’s Day? I was blissfully unaware of this fact until I looked it up this morning out of curiosity. Such a day does is exist and takes place on November 19, the day Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address. Men also have a day to celebrate them. But are we aware of it? Is it widespread, acknowledged, appreciated? Do women take part, recognizing the many things men have done in history? Or do they call it sexist, unnecessary, superfluous?

In Galatians, Paul urged the people towards unity saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). We are one, one body in Christ meant to serve and honor and glorify Him. We are all people, equal in His eyes, and our sex or gender doesn’t matter to Him. Why why does it matter so much to us? Why must we have a day to celebrate ourselves, but to do so separately? Why must our history be separate, our literature be separate, our art be separate? Why would we purposefully create more divisions between us, when it is clear such divisions were not intended?

I am a woman. I am proud to be so. I am proud of what women have accomplished and how far we have come throughout history. I am proud that we can come together to help those of us who need support. I am proud to be a part of it. But I am also proud of men. I am proud of they have accomplished throughout history. I am proud of what they have had to take on, because society demanded it of them. I am proud of both men and women. Why must we designate one day to dwell upon it? Shouldn’t everyday be a reminder of all of the things we have accomplished and achieved on earth? And shouldn’t we celebrate together, not separately? Shouldn’t we be proud of each other? After all, we are all just people. Let’s celebrate in unity the accomplishments of the entire human race, rather than half.