When I think about the core of feminism for me, I come up with this:
it is [recognising] that women are autonomous adults, capable of making decisions for themselves, of being rational and competent, of conceiving of a vision of the good life, and making choices in order to achieve that vision of the good life.
Or to put it in Stef’s fine words – being a feminist means that you are free to fuck up. Your life, your decisions, your responsibility. Just because you are an autonomous adult.
I’ve taken that from a post I wrote a year or two ago, about why feminists must be pro-choice.
Thinking in terms of autonomy means going further than just making choices. It means that a person has not only made a choice, but that choice is considered, it is unconstrained, it can be put into practice, in the longer term, it adds to her status as an adult.
But that’s all very abstract, very much a theorised position, rather than a guide to everyday living. How feminism manifests in my life is a different matter.
Part of the way it plays out is in the relationships I form with other people, which I try to base on respect. Respect for them as people, respect for their purposes. That respect can include criticising their choices, or approving of them. It certainly involves holding them responsible for those decisions. Only children and some people whose capacity to act autonomously is in some way diminished are immune from responsibility. Being up for criticism is part of being adult. Equally, those who criticise are responsible for what they say. There are no one way streets for adults.
Partly it plays out in listening to women’s experience, and understanding that if someone says that her experience is A, B, and C, then really, it is not up to me to tell her what her experience is, nor that her experience doesn’t matter in the light of my theory. Shut up and listen already is a very, very useful heuristic to live by.
Feminism sees me viewing everything through a gender lens. A gender analysis is my first approach to an issue. Does this affect men and women differently, and if so how, and does it matter? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it just doesn’t matter.
Feminism pushes me to think in terms of inclusion and exclusion, not just for women, but for anyone who doesn’t fit into the nicely fitted moulds of contemporary society. The teenagers’ reading room at the library is great for teens, but deeply exclusive for pre-teens who want to read the books held there. The ramp up to the first floor entrance to the library means that everyone can get into the library, but it’s a long way further to go for people using mobility devices. Sitting on a work table while lecturing may mean nothing to pakeha students, but it causes a jolt of discomfort for many Maori students, making the room a difficult place for learning. And so it goes.
Feminism means that I value women’s work. The first time I went to the Royal Adelaide Show, I was astonished to see displays of knitting and sewing and lacemaking, even tatting, baking and preserving, quilt making and embroidery. Well, not so much the quilting and embroidery, but the trays of ginger crunch and filled sponge cakes and jars of jellies amazed me. That one could enter a competition for such things, and get certificates. Very, very old-fashioned, I thought. And then I thought again, because it could be seen as a celebration of women’s work, of the things that so many women do so well, every day, but because it is housework and home care, baking and cooking rather than creating meals like a chef, it is not valued. My feminism values and celebrates that work.
And my feminism values women’s spaces. For some years, I belonged to a book group. We were a group of women ranging in age from early thirties to late fifties, we read classic works and every six weeks or so, we got together on a Friday night to talk about them. The conversation would start with the book we had all read, then move on to Jane Austen (of course!), and from there segue to work and family and children and current events and partners and on and on. Some of the women in the group were explicitly feminist, some were not, all of us enjoyed each other’s company, and we enjoyed the women-space. The group functioned differently from gender mixed groups I have been involved in, and I suppose it functioned differently from all-male groups, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you about that (pace Jane Austen and conversations between men). I couldn’t say that the all-women group functioned better than mixed groups I have been involved with, because that’s not the point. Nor would I describe it as feminist, although as a feminist, I valued the women’s space that it created, just as a place to be.
So is knitting feminist? No. Not in itself, and not every feminist knits, nor does every feminist like knitting and crafting work. (Though it’s hard to go past these daleks created by a feminist of my acquaintance.) But when a group of women get together, and knit, or bake, or garden, or read books, or engage in the slow conversation of blog posts, then with a feminist eye, I see the joy of creating space for women to be.
None of which means that men’s work, men’s spaces, are not valuable too. Nor that a group such as my book group must always be women-only. Nor that men can’t enjoy craft work. Nor that a blog tagged as feminist is necessarily a space only for women. Just that as a feminist, I recognise and value the way that women’s work and women’s spaces can enable women to flourish.