I was seventeen when my mum first told me that she was a feminist. At the time I was baffled. I imagined feminists wore pantsuits and thought marriage was some oppressive ideal. How, I asked myself, could my mum be a feminist? She was thirty five when, after a decade of relative success at a beer company, she decided to leave working life to raise her three sons. My dad would go off to work each morning with an appropriate peck on the cheek while my mum would stay at home cooking, cleaning and looking after the children.
My mum seemed to embody what I believed to be the stereotypically oppressed woman. In my youthful naivety, I assumed that nine to five employment was the sole source of female empowerment and that my mum had therefore abandoned any claim to feminism. I told her all this, of course, and she proceeded to correct my assumptions. She told me that the idea that feminism is somehow incompatible with a woman's choice to raise her children is foolish. It was precisely this choice, she claimed, that made her a feminist.
At the time I didn't quite understand. I do now.
I was reminded of this little conversation - essentially my first lesson on feminism - while reading Laurie Penny'sUnspeakable Things. In the introduction, Penny recalls an incident that occurs in a university lecture hall in Germany. A young girl with 'princess hair' asks Penny a striking question: 'What do I want?' Penny is taken aback and asks the young girl to repeat herself. The girl with the princess hair elaborates:
You talk about what women want and what we are told to want like there's a difference. I know in my heart that I want to be free and independent. But I also want to be beautiful, and have a boyfriend, and please my parents, and do everything the magazines say. So how do I know that what I want is what I really want? And what should I want?
Penny ponders the question and doesn't provide her reader with a definitive answer. This isn't her place. She does, however, explain what women are supposed to want: romance, marriage, hard work and bland beauty. Those who don't quite conform to these ideals, Penny argues, face being ostracised.
My mother didn't care too much for beauty - in the sense that she rarely wore make-up or fancy Pixie dresses - and she didn't want to try and hold down a nine to five job while still raising her three rambunctious, ungrateful children. She did, however, want marriage and, thankfully, she wanted children.
Society, perhaps, would have preferred that my mum continued her nine to five job and conformed to the ostensibly liberating neo-liberal fantasy of feminism. According to this ideal, if a woman behaves well, if she becomes what Penny calls a 'good girl', then she might get a nice little underpaid job and should therefore rejoice at becoming part of the system. This, ostensibly, is feminism. Penny aptly explains that the notion that a woman's apparent vocational freedom represents the end point of feminist progress is an idea 'that needs to be done away with, and quickly.' My naïve young self foolishly believed in this idea. It's quite shocking that our current hegemonic culture somewhat conforms to the thoughts of an ignorant seventeen-year-old boy.
My mum didn't conform to the thoughts of her son or the neo-liberal idea of feminism. She was a woman who knew what she was supposed to want and knew what she actually wanted.
I'm not suggesting that my mum has somehow done women around the world a huge favour by deciding not to wear a pantsuit and engage in office politics. Nor am I suggesting that women should choose marriage and children above vocational freedom. I'm not trying to tell women what they want or what they should want. This is not what my mum or Laurie Penny have taught me. What I've learnt, rather, is that a woman's choice should not be dictated by what is deemed acceptable by society.
The reason I believe that I am the son of a feminist is simply because my mum refused to kowtow to society's conception of what a feminist should be. My mum didn't let 'stale old men' define her dreams or her ambitions and she refused to apologize for wanting to be a mother. My mum was independent. My mum supported and stood in solidarity with all those women who chose different paths. My mum made her choice, stood by that choice and expected that choice to be respected. This is what made my mum a feminist.