Let Me Be a Feminist

My husband spun our friend Kim’s two-year-old son in the air while she and I sat at the kitchen table to enjoy a few moments of respite from Thanksgiving dinner preparations. As I bit into a reject cookie, burned on the bottom, squeals erupted from the living room.

“Faster! Do it faster!”

Kim squeezed my forearm and exclaimed, “Someday he’s going to make a wonderful father!”

Before I could reply, my eighteen-year-old brother-in-law, who was visiting us in Virginia for the holidays, walked by and interjected, “Pfft, that’s never going to happen.”

I sighed and sipped my coffee. How did this follow me here? To a hippie farm in Virginia? Mainstays of this social circle include heavy doses of National Public Radio and biodynamics, clothing optional solstice parties, forty-year-old first-time parents, and progressive views on gender identity and performance. Sometimes it is too much. Sometimes it is stifling in its smugness and self-satisfaction—like I’m living in a Portlandia episode, but the ideology is the opposite of what I grew up with, and for the time being, that is enough.

Never. Going. To happen. The words reverberated in my mind as I brushed pie crusts with melted butter, stirred a boiling pot of cranberries and opened jars of beets, green beans, and pickles we had canned earlier in the summer.

Maybe it wouldn’t happen. Or maybe it would. I fumed at my brother-in-law, who had moved to the couch and was scrolling through his phone.

Why the hell are you so certain? I thought. You’re only eighteen. What do you know?

My anger at him soon evaporated though. He had left home for the first time and was determined to get out of town and have an adventure.

Once, when his mom exclaimed, “You’re not going to live in a bachelor pad forever, are you?” in response to his arguments about mowing the lawn, he grumbled, “Yeah, hopefully.”

I tried not to think about it, but I wondered what the family was saying about me when I wasn’t around. I never explicitly told them I was a feminist and I definitely did not tell them about how my social-justice friends and I would yell “smash the patriarchy!” when drinking and playing board games, but it was obvious. I was nearly thirty years old, had no children, worked at a college, and went to weird places where weird-looking people yelled about weird things. Definitely a feminist. And everyone knows feminists hate babies.

I didn’t always emasculate men, stomp on family values, eat babies for breakfast, or do any of the other things conservative radio personalities are convinced that feminists do—once upon a time, I was a gender complementarian and essentialist. Traditional gender roles and identities were ordained by God. A submissive woman was a happy woman. I devoured Elisabeth Elliot’s Let me be a Woman and Passion and Purity. Any woman that complained about inequality just hadn’t embraced her true identity in the Lord. I felt sorry for those power-hungry career women and the children they dumped off at daycare. If they even had children. I tried to ignore the uneasiness I felt deep inside. I tried to be extra submissive—to be of an extra gentle and quiet spirit. I thought that if I tried hard enough and prayed hard enough I would feel peace about the limits God designed for me and other women, but I just felt frustrated and confused.

In college I learned that gender and sex are not the same thing. I learned that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender performance are distinct multifaceted concepts that occur on a spectrum and are non-binary. While I shrunk back when I encountered these ideas in textbooks because they shook my foundational beliefs, I could no longer ascribe to Elisabeth Elliot’s treatise on gender—“Femininity has its limitations. So has masculinity. To be a woman is not to be a man”—once I began listening to the experiences of friends and colleagues who were marginalized by traditional definitions and expectations of gender and sexuality.

Around the same time, I began to realize that the Mennonite women I knew back home didn’t even fit into their own prescribed traditional gender roles. They not only sewed, baked, and cleaned, but hoed cotton, harvested pecans, mixed concrete, and butchered pigs. Hell, even my husband’s very conservative oldest sister drove an ambulance and cut people out of vehicles between playing the piano at church, homeschooling three kids, and making dinner. No one I knew was the embodiment of delicate biblical female virtue.

I carried my new ideas with me into marriage, nervous that traditional gender expectations from friends and family would now become much more pronounced. In our first years together, my husband and I lived in an apartment near downtown El Paso, Texas—so close to Mexico that we could see electric coloured buses and houses in Juarez from our mailbox. When my mother-in-law visited us for the first time, she eyed a busy intersection leading to a freeway on-ramp through our window bars.

“What will you do when you have children? There isn’t really a place for them to play.”

I decided not to give her false hope by mentioning the neighbourhood kids who ran up and down the stairs and ramped their bikes over cracks in the sidewalk, or the shouts of “¡Ven pa’ aca! Get back here!” from apartment kitchens when the garbage truck rumbled into the parking lot.

“It might be a little while. We might not be living here then,” I answered, not daring to say that “a little while” might actually be never.

For the most part, I don’t discuss my fundamentalist Christian past and all of its baggage concerning gender, but, when my husband and I visit our hometown, suddenly it is everywhere. I decline invitations to “ladies meetings” focused on “biblical womanhood,” “headship,” and “child rearing” as politely as possible. I dodge conversations about gender essentialism that feature my niece and nephews—never suggesting that their behaviour is socialized and not just “hard-wired.” I nod slowly and then ask about the progress of gardens and the latest batches of kombucha.

Once, I visited a friend from high school who was pregnant with her fourth child. As we sat down on the couch and sipped our coffee, she grinned, “I’ve had to cut down to a half a cup a day with this one.”

When I asked how she was feeling she looked puzzled and frowned, “I’m feeling really good actually. We’ve always known we wanted a lot of children.”

I just wanted to know if she still had morning sickness, but she felt judged.

How do I navigate these spaces? No one is fooled by my evasion and silence. Is avoiding conflict the only solution? Is it even ethical? Am I trying to blend into the background with my cis and straight privilege, or am I trying to meet people where they are? When I come to visit, do I exude judgment just by existing?

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up. I thought I left all this. I’m a feminist. I believe in egalitarian relationships and intersectionality. I don’t believe in gender roles or binaries. I’m trying to learn how to be a good ally to queer and trans communities. I believe that justice involves breaking down gender stereotypes and proscriptive gender roles and identities, but I also believe that women should feel empowered to make their own choices even if those choices seem “not feminist enough” or “too feminist” to others. Where do personal decisions start and socialization end? How can I integrate my past with a progressive future? I’m not sure, but I’m trying.

I can still bake and can and compost and garden and crochet. Not because there is some mandate from God that I should because I’m a woman, but because I want to, because I believe that these domestic skills can hold creative and subversive power. And if one day my husband and I decide to have children, it will not be out of some divine or social obligation, but because we want to and because we’ve decided there can be joy and a creative and subversive power in that too.

While cleaning up after dinner with all the Klassen women (and my husband) last Christmas, my husband’s twenty-four-year-old sister poked at her bicep, which was growing more muscular by the day from CrossFit training, and a tiny cylinder appeared under her skin.

“It’s an Implanon,” she laughed, “It’s supposed to be good for three years. I love it. Sure beats taking a pill every day.”

She’s been married six years and has no children. In the spring, she started work on a master’s degree.

I laughed too and glanced over at the men congregated in the living room. Completely escape the traditional gender roles from my past? Never going to happen. But at least I’m not the only one.