Who calls themselves a feminist anymore? For starters, only 24% of American women according to one CBS poll (even fewer according to another). Among men the number is 14%. Ever stalwart Women’s Studies departments and plenty of interesting blogs notwithstanding, sometimes it feels like the only thing to do is give the term a decent burial and move on.
Ask my mother what she thinks of feminism and you’ll get a shrug in response. She’s pro-choice, politically conscious, and hyper-allergic to right-wing nuttery, but having spent second wave feminism’s formative years behind the Iron Curtain, she’s hard-pressed to identify with the terminology of identity politics. But I’m a feminist (male feminist, feminist supporter, whatever). And probably have my mom to thank for it.
My parents met in graduate school for engineering, at a Moscow-based institute dedicated to preparing mechanical engineers for the Soviet Union’s aviation industry. Engineering was a mass profession, just beginning to open up to women; anyone familiar with the Russian-American community will know that every émigré computer programmer, male or female, probably began their career as an engineer. Steel, mechanical engineers, and bullshit economic statistics were always COMECON’s chief exports to the rest of the world.
(Blogger’s mom & dad. Homosexuality being a serious crime in the Soviet Union, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was unavailable to help my father make better sartorial decisions.)
Standardized curricula – Soviet primary education was predicated on the idea that one could walk into any classroom from Leningrad to Vladivostok and find students in every city simultaneously turning the pages of their primers to the same page; higher education was hardly more liberating – conspired to place my parents in the same classes. True to gender stereotype, my dad was good at math, horrible at drafting. Though dad had a good excuse: forcible retraining from left- to right- handedness will cripple most people’s handwriting (thanks again, Soviet education). My mom did his drafting homework, he helped her with math. They got married – 39 years and counting – and went to work for the same rocketry firm.
Stephen Jay Gould, in the process of debunking eugenics, wrote, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Though he was concerned with race, class, and the misuse of intelligence research, I always return to that quote when thinking about the stark reality of gender inequality: women hold only 17% of US federal legislative seats, only 25% of the seats in state legislatures, 22.5% of statewide elected posts (PDF), earn 77% of male wages, and much too often experience life-altering sexual assault.
My mom had the chance to exercise her talent, to the benefit of herself and everyone she ever worked with. How much skill and intelligence is being wasted? How much poorer is America, and the world, for at times ignoring the abilities of half of humanity? To restate Gould, I’m less concerned with the secret of Hilary Clinton’s success, than I am with the certainty that millions of more talented women have spent their lives in household drudgery and subservience.
(Mom at work)
The feminist credo, that women are the equals of men, is deceptively simple. It’s the implications of that statement that are controversial, but liberating. That people like my mom could be engineers and wives, professionals and model parents – or stay at home moms, or unmarried workers, or married without kids! - are among the consequences of equality. For my young niece, my friends, women I’ve never met, I wish for nothing less than endless possibilities, for even more opportunity than my mom has enjoyed. Which is what makes me a feminist.