To be honest, I didn’t know until recently that March was Women’s History Month. I’m not sure what rock I’ve been living under, but that’s the truth. So I can’t really tell you any glowing stories about what this month means to me. What I can tell you is that, at the ripe old age of 26, I’ve embraced a brand of feminism that is centered on choice.
I have a complicated relationship with the word “feminism.” I grew up in Mississippi, the only child of a Connecticut Yankee mother and a Southern Californian father, both highly educated. They were together quite awhile before they had me, and my mom kept her last name when they married. I learned to read early and attended public schools somewhat as a matter of principle. I always assumed I would go to graduate school. I never dreamed about my wedding day. Of course, I thought, I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. Of course, it seemed like I
ought to be a feminist.
And yet all of the women I came to admire were traditional Southern women who looked nothing like what I figured a feminist to be. They baked for the church bake sale, they fixed casseroles as if it were as easy as breathing, they called their fathers “Daddy” no matter how old they were. These women mothered me, in different arenas than my own mom, who is also amazing. They did my laundry for me when I went to boarding school, they mediated fights between my high school best friend and me, they made pallets of their grandmother’s quilts on the floor when I spent the night with their daughters. The picture of who I wanted to be when I grew up looked a lot less like a career and a lot more like a mom.
On top of that, I married my college boyfriend at 21, a mere four months out of school. This hadn’t been on my radar. We didn’t feel like we had to. But we loved each other, and we were sure of what we wanted for the rest of our lives–each other. This act marked me in a certain way as well. It marked as more like that traditional Southern woman than as a feminist.
So I got a bad taste in my mouth for the word “feminism.” I didn’t think it described me, or the me I wanted to be.
I recently re-watched the entire series of Gilmore Girls. In season 1, when Rory is dating the strapping Dean, she and her mother invite him over for one of their Friday movie nights. This particular evening, the show of choice is The Donna Reed Show. Rory and Lorelai can’t stop poking fun at Donna, cooking dinner for her husband in her apron and heels, making sure it’s on the table by the time he’s home from work. Dean has the audacity to say to them, “I don’t know, it all seems kind of nice to me…families hanging together, I mean, a wife cooking dinner for her husband. And look, she looks really happy.”
They’re ruthless in their response:
LORELAI: She’s medicated.
RORY: And acting from a script.
LORELAI: Written by a man.
RORY: Well said sister suffragist.
DEAN: What if she likes making donuts and dinner for her family and keeping things nice for them and…[seeing Lorelai and Rory staring at him] Okay, I feel very unpopular right now.
He shuts up and the scene shifts. So imagine his surprise that weekend when Rory invites him over to where she is cat-sitting and he finds her decked out in a 50s housewife dress and apron, complete with pearls and headband. She’s cooked him dinner. Rory did a little research on ole Donna and found out that she was an uncredited producer and director on her TV show, one of the first woman TV executives, and she’s impressed.
Fast forward a few seasons of Gilmore Girls, and we find Lorelai and her mother talking, over drinks one night. Emily is a little tipsy, and she’s panicking that Richard (her husband) might die, and she’ll have no idea how to handle their finances. Lorelai is teaching her to use Quicken, but Emily is waxing rhapsodic.
LORELAI: Mom, you know how to do things by yourself. You are totally capable.
EMILY: Sure, I went to Smith, and I was a history major, but I never had any plans to be an historian. I was always going to be a wife. I mean, the way I saw it, a woman’s job was to run a home, organize the social life of a family, and bolster her husband while he earned a living. It was a good system, and it was working very well all these years. Only when your husband isn’t there because he’s watching television in a dressing gown, you realize how dependent you are. I didn’t even know I owned windmills.
LORELAI: Mom, now you know, and you know how to right-click.
Even though Emily raised Lorelai, and Lorelai watched her mom running the home and organizing the family’s social life, she adopted a much different approach. And now the tables have turned. Emily has realized how limiting her worldview has been, and she’s wishing she were more like Lorelai. More like….dare I say it? A feminist.
I went to a liberal arts school myself, and was an English major, but I never wanted to teach or go to law school or do any of those things that people assume English majors want to do. I didn’t set out to get married right away either, but that’s the path life had for me.
And I’ve loved it. I love being a wife. I love channeling Donna Reed, and my Southern other-mothers. I cook dinner almost every night, I do all the laundry in our home, I take care of the grocery shopping, I make the bed. When friends have a baby, I do my darnedest to make them a casserole. I like to “entertain.”
It’s very different for me than it was for Donna Reed (at least on her show) and even for Emily Gilmore. Rory realized it, too, when she argued with Dean, who still thought the whole picture was nice and idyllic. What wasn’t “nice” about it to Rory was “the having to have the dinner on the table as soon as her husband gets home and having to look perfect to do housework and the whole concept that her one point in life is to serve somebody else.” And show-Donna “represented millions of women that were real and did have to dress like that and act like that.”
Maybe the Southern mothers I idolized growing up felt some of her discontent too. I may never know. But I do those traditional things because I choose to. In fact, I’d venture to bet that part of why I enjoy them so much is the very fact that they are a choice. I feel fulfilled when my home is neat and smells like a fresh baked pan of brownies. I’m pretty okay with the idea that my point in life is to serve someone else–a lot of someone else’s, Jesus’ “the least of these,” my husband, my friends, my family. It’s much more satisfying to me to spend my energies out. I have something
maternal deep within me that manifests itself in household service. But my husband doesn’t expect that from me. He thanks me–but he doesn’t expect it.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but it was realizing that being a housewife was a choice for me that helped me embrace feminism. Feminism doesn’t have to be radical and loud and outward. We wouldn’t be where we are today if there weren’t women who felt called to that. But just because I like to wear pink and find pleasure in wifely duties doesn’t mean I can’t be a feminist too.
And it’s thanks to the countless women who were forced into these roles that I’m able to make the choice to be a quintessential wife. The ones who quietly read The Feminine Mystique and cheered inside. The ones who burned their bras. The pioneers. The Southern mothers who also fight valiantly for equal pay for women.
I don’t know all their names. It sounds like Donna Reed was one of them. But to them I say, “Kudos to you,” and I raise a glass.
Of whatever I want.
Because no one tells a woman what to drink these days.