Liberal or conservative: these are the mainstream options that are available for Americans to describe their personal philosophies and politics. These two options come to define everything about you: what you wear, your taste in film, who you vote for, and virtually everything else.
Today we use these terms to make quick judgments about people and their agendas. The use of these two terms seems to make sense because of the two party system that is present in American politics. However, I would argue that many of the problems of the world stem from people being forced to place themselves and others into false dichotomies, or choices between one side or the other.
This is a serious problem I see in feminism today. In much of the feminist writing that I read, the use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have come to mean liberal= good, conservative= bad. Conservative has in fact come to mean more than just “bad” — it has come to mean evil.
Conservatives now represent what we as feminists hate most about modern life: patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, homophobia, transphobia, rape culture, and many other things. However, if we stop and think about where this line of deduction will take us, I think that we will agree this is not the place we want to go.
A few weeks ago I had some of my feminist friends over to have a night of fun and conversation. As we were going out to dinner I remarked that I had spent most of that day gardening. My friend turned to me and said, “How domestic of you.”
Even though it was a joke and she in no way was being demeaning, this comment got me thinking. This is the kind of joke that I have made many times in my life, about myself and others. But when I thought about it, I realized that a certain ideology was informing this joke. The idea that women who choose a “domestic” (conservative) lifestyle are somehow fundamentally different from us as feminists is central to this kind of joke’s humor. If we equate housewives with conservatives, then we are, perhaps unconsciously, labeling them as an other and alienating them from feminism.
I would argue that feminist housewives (they exist) are some of the most radical feminists of all. They know what they want from life and they are not afraid to go after it, even though some of their feminist peers might look down on them because they believe that their desires are too “conservative.”
I was raised by a housewife. My mother home schooled my sister and me through my junior year of high school. Even though she is a woman with a college degree, she decided to stay home with her children and teach us herself, because she recognized that the American school system was broken and that we would not be pushed to our full potential in that system. My mother taught me many valuable lessons. Most importantly, she taught me that just because I was a girl did not mean that I was limited in life. She told me over and over again that I could do anything I wanted if I put my mind to it.
When my father made sexist comments to us, or told us we couldn’t go into certain professions because we were girls, my mother spoke up for us and told us that this philosophy was wrong.
My mother is a conservative. My mother and I have many differing opinions, but she believes in many feminist ideals and she did her best to pass those along to my sister and me. I could say that my mother is a politically “bad” person because she is a conservative, but I don’t believe that’s true. As much as we would love life to be black and white, to be easily explainable, it is not. Life is extremely complex.
When you choose to look at life through all of its complexities, you are choosing to fly in the face of most people’s beliefs, whether they are liberal or conservative. Choosing to view life as complex is a hard path to take, but I believe that it’s worth it. As feminists, we cannot choose what is simple or what is easy. If we took the easy path, we would not have had the right to vote in the last election.
Being a feminist is about being the person who calls everyone out on their bullshit; it’s about being the person who makes people uncomfortable because we refuse to buy into false dichotomies.
We know that both people and issues are complex and they cannot always be split into two opposite sides. Therefore, as feminists we cannot rely on terms like “liberal” or “conservative” because then we bring the level of discussion down to the lowest common denominator and feminism cannot function on the lowest common denominator, we have to bring everyone up to the highest common denominator.
Written by Abigail Sorensen