I have never defined myself as a feminist. It is simply an identity I embraced, whilst still in my teens, without truly evaluating its significance during those formative years. What I knew about feminism was gleaned off a brief and fairly vague description of the movement in a history book. From those short chapters at the end of text books that seem like fillers and teasers all at once, which left me with just enough knowledge to be able to state aphorisms with convincing confidence, but not enough depth to hold a full-fledged discussion. I knew that the feminist bra-burning protests of the sixties drew attention to the Women’s Liberation movement; but I did not know that the suffragists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, who pre-dated women’s libbers by a good century, began a protest that was the precursor to the discontent exhibited by these ‘rebel-rousers’ – as patriarchal societies deemed the women’s liberation movement at the time.
The issue of equality was a non-issue in my teens and long into my twenties. There were simply no barriers to be wary of. I would go to university, I would get a job, I would marry, if I so chose, and start a family, and I would continue to work. Feminism? No, this was just the path expected of me.
At twenty-eight I had my first child and subsequently went on to become a stay-at-home mom, not by design as such, but as a result of a company that was downsizing. Shortly after, my husband’s job saw my family relocate abroad for a year. On our return, I went back to work, but a subsequent relocation five years later saw me once again revert to that SAHM role. Reluctantly, I might add. The following seven years were spent defining, as eloquently as I could, what it was I did. I would see eyes instantly glaze over the moment I declared my stay-at-home-mom status. I also invited that disinterest in the way I would apologise for my SAHM status. “Just a stay-at-home-mom” diminishing its very value. A friend of mine, who like me was struggling with being a SAHM , after years of being a working mom, told me how she would always begin with an extensive preamble of what she used to do, with her current status being just a footnote in introductions. We were wholly unprepared for our role, because the role itself had never been an option. But no matter how much we dressed up our SAHM status to be something other than what it was, the real world had a way of forcing you into that very box you were trying to escape. Literally.
Filling out forms, for anything, became a nightmare: Those tick boxes were very specific.
Employed: Yes or No.
Profession: Well, I am a qualified economist right? It was my chosen profession at some point. Writer? That is what I do now right?
Occupation: What on earth is the difference between the two?
On one occasion, going through Ghana’s immigration desk I simply left the latter blank. The immigration officer was quick to call me out on this one.
“Occupation Madame?” he yelled through the glass, “What do you do for a living?”
“I don’t work” I whispered back, feeling unexplained shame at this.
“Are you a housewife?” he insisted.
“Well, yes…Uh, I stay at home” I stammered, not quite ready to claim the “housewife” title yet.
“Then fill in housewife, Madame, you are a housewife!”
It took me weeks to recover from this one. Here I was, still uncertain in role, and I had just been relegated a title that was a throwback to the fifties.
Then my daughter became a teenager and started, in her own way, defining her path. And suddenly it became imperative that she see me as more than just a SAHM. I wanted to be her role model. Her working, striving, achieving mom. Not her picking-up, dropping off, always accessible mom. Don’t get me wrong, there were periods when I relished being the latter mom, but on the edges of this contented image of school pick-ups, of taekwondo, of swimming and of music lessons, would be the grey tinges of not feeling completely fulfilled. It didn’t help when women writers would pen articles about how women who stayed at home were letting the side down, making me question the choices I had made. Every so often a study would emerge comparing the happiness levels of Working Moms versus SAHMs. There would be discussions on whether children raised by one camp versus the other were better achievers at school or not. The essays, the articles, the TV shows were endless. My discomfort was now evidenced by my need to not be defined by a moniker that was about as non-feminist as they come.
Then a month ago I read Judith Shulevitz’s New York Times article “How to fix Feminism” and thought: Good to know I am not alone in this one. There were parts of it that resonated with me on so many levels I felt could have written it. I, too, did not embrace the fact the that the ‘coterie’ of women who were in my life, over the years, were my anchor ; that I should have been more present, and not just accessible; that after years of pining for the career I did not have, I could have spent more time building an entirely new one.
But now, after many years of not feeling like I had a right to call myself a feminist given the role I had, I feel more like a feminist than I ever have. Now, I tell my daughter that she can be whatever she wants to be. That it is in having that choice, when she grows and chooses to have children of her own, that feminism has worked for her. Growing up, I believed in the ‘having it all’ story, to the extent of eschewing the ‘either’, ‘or’ options – a dichotomy, yes it is a dichotomy, which was never lauded as feminist.
So instead of emphasising the everything implied by feminism, my emphasis is on anything. I guide her to make choices now that will ensure that she will always be independent in the future. I tell her that she can have it all, and in equal measure too: family, career or both. But most importantly, I stress that when the time comes, and she makes her choice, she should embrace it wholeheartedly because it is only when you firmly believe and trust in the choices you make, can no one else make you question them. Yes, I am a housewife; a SAHM; a writer; a blogger; a sometime editor, and definitely a feminist.