Last summer, I — like countless others — read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” and had several reactions to it. Aside from the class and racial issues I had about Slaughter’s article, it did raise interesting questions about feminism and work. Slaughter had the opportunity of becoming a powerful woman leader, at the peak of a political career in Washington — but she gave it up to spend time with her kids (and, you know, remain a Princeton professor). At the time the article came out, I was interning at Beacon Press, a non-profit press that promotes equality. When talking about the article with my (wonderful) supervisor at the time, she commented, “Isn’t this a step backward?” Back at the birth of feminism, women were trapped in the housewife role and wanted real careers. Now Slaughter was claiming that women still couldn’t be the mothers they wanted while having these powerful careers? I saw my supervisor’s point.
Yet the past few months, I’ve been grappling with the conflict between feminism and my own desires. While I initially saw how Slaughter’s article could be anti-feminist, my recent struggle with feminist theory and my life have allowed me to better understand Slaughter’s claims. Feminist theory has fought against old ideas of what women can and cannot do — it has allowed women to join the workforce side-by-side with men. But feminism has now shaped what we expect a woman’s goals should be. It has created restrictions again on the definitions of a woman. Really, feminism should give women the freedom to choose their goals.
I am supposed to be one of the privileged and educated women Slaughter was addressing. But I didn’t come out with a powerful job — in fact, I’m still pretty lost as to what I would like to do. I really enjoyed my summer internship, but as it drew to a close, I had to face a looming question.
After my internship, where would I go?
When I was younger, I never understood when girls (and boys) would choose colleges based on their current sweetheart. I arched my eyebrow in disbelief. How could you base such a significant decision on a person — especially when you are so young and naïve, and love was more a summer fever than a lasting commitment? I watched couples crumple under the pressure of “exploring” in college. Long distance was a whimsical dream that no one truly believed in. The younger version of myself swore that I would never make such decisions based on a man.
Fast forward to today. I met someone and I fell in love. He is the first person who made me happy. This month marks our two-year anniversary of the day we kissed on a bridge in the midst of a hurricane. However, I’ve never been one to blindly fall into the rose-colored glasses of romance. While a romantic at heart, I’ve always been more of a “woefully practical romantic,” always seeing the potential problems in relationships. But while some of my friends have offered many practical pieces of advice, I simply nod because my current relationship doesn’t really fall into any of the generalized categories. While people often tell me that every relationship requires work, I never really felt this way in my relationship. Everything has always been natural, and we have always been on the same page every step of the way. The dilemma lies in the fact that my boyfriend is pursuing a PhD and will be essentially tied to one location for the next four or five years. We have already spent one year doing long distance, and we both want to live with each other.
Yet the thought of moving to a specific place for a man alone? My inner feminist balked at the idea. That’s not ok, it ranted and raved, you need to put your career before romance! I certainly felt pressure from everyone who asked me what my plans for the future were (especially the week prior to my move). Whenever I told them I planned on moving in with my boyfriend without having secured a job, there would be a slight — almost unnoticeable pause before they smiled at me. I was on a roller coaster of emotions, one moment feeling good about my decision, the next terrible.
My boyfriend was much the same way about the move-in. When his mother said to him that we would have to make sacrifices to live with each other, his own inner feminist rebelled (even though what she said is true on both sides). The last thing he wants is for me to make any sacrifices for his sake because he prioritizes my career and happiness. He tried to justify the potential move by sending me link after link of job openings. This, while sweet, only compounded my other anxiety about not yet having a job.
In all truthfulness, the move-in actually makes a lot of sense. #1: We want to be together. #2: I don’t have any job offerings. #3: The only “sacrifice” would be limiting myself to one location (that does have plenty of job opportunities in my field). #4: Economically, it would benefit both of us because of reduced/shared living costs. #5: We are happy together.
However, despite these very reasonable pros, our understanding of feminism has ingrained us with a sense of what women should and shouldn’t prioritize — or even want. As a woman, I feel that I cannot “truly” be a feminist if I want something that goes against the grain of being an independent and successful professional woman. But feminism isn’t really all about having a leadership role in Washington D.C. or being a COO of Facebook (yes, tipping my hat to you, Sheryl Sandberg). Feminism is about creating equality between genders. And what is equality without respect for our individual desires? Why should we women have to choose between feminism and femininity? And let’s face it, if a man were in my shoes and chose to be close to his girlfriend, we would think it “adorable,” “sweet,” and “committed.” For a woman? It’s un-feminist. (On a side note, my boyfriend’s choice of graduate school last year was influenced by my geographical location.)
Perhaps what was most “unforgivable” about Slaughter’s article wasn’t that she needed to be with her family — it was that she wanted it. Slaughter wrote, “One of the most complicated and surprising parts of my journey out of Washington was coming to grips with what I really wanted. I had opportunities to stay on, and I could have tried to work out an arrangement allowing me to spend more time at home. I might have been able to get my family to join me in Washington for a year… But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home.”
Our understanding of feminism today tells women that they shouldn’t want anything that goes against becoming a powerful professional woman who is equal to her male co-workers. Femininity (love, family) be damned! After all, women in the sixties fought to be free from their housewife duties — and because Slaughter wants to be with her family (a “housewifely duty”), she is supposedly in the wrong. This fact seems to blind most readers from understanding only what I recently came to get. Yes, maybe we dislike this woman who has all these opportunities for a vibrant career turning it all down to be a mom — but shouldn’t she have that choice? Shouldn’t we all have that choice, male or female? Feminism should stand up for allowing women to achieve what they want, even if it’s a happy household rather than a name on a building.
Feminism made me feel really bad about prioritizing my feelings and my choices — but the truth is, this is what I want. Yes, I want a career, and I care immensely about finding what I want to do in my life — but I also care about who I do these things with. Part of being my own feminist means respecting myself and the life I want to lead.