I’ve been thinking a lot about women lately, about the hands we’re dealt in society and they way we’re portrayed in media, and about the very strong (often violent) emotions that underlie most discussions about gender relations in the US. It’s stirring up strong emotions in me, too–ones that aren’t entirely new or unfamiliar.
Most people who’ve met me in the last couple of years probably don’t know or wouldn’t guess that in a former life I was a rather vocal third wave feminist anthropologist. I researched marginalized and alternative genders in prehistory and published books and articles on the ways that society (and feminism itself) needed to seriously reassess the way they were conducting business. I launched myself out of a prestigious Ivy League university with a PhD, hell bent on becoming a tenured professor who would change the system and make a difference.
That was 7 years ago. Today I’m happily married, teach part time, keep house, cook, and write fantasy and science fiction novels. My life bears almost no resemblance to what I imagined it would. All I need is a passel of well-behaved children, some cocktail onions, and a frilly apron and I’ll be a modern day June Cleaver.
This transformation could be viewed as a series of compromises and sacrifices made because of my gender. Alternatively, it could be seen as choices I made based on the way my dreams for the future and ideas about what constitutes happiness were evolving.
The latter is a lot closer to the truth than the former.
No one forced me to abandon pursuit of a career in academia. I chose to. But one of the reasons was because the way forward seemed untenable. To succeed, I’d have to made sacrifices that were personally unacceptable (e.g. take a job somewhere horrible, live apart from my husband, extend my field seasons past what I wanted, etc). I know people who did choose to make those sacrifices and I leave it up to them to share whether they are glad or sorry.
I know I’m glad about the choices I made. I’m happier now than I was then and the decision to throw all our eggs in one basket and support my husband’s career has paid off. I am now afforded the space and time to pursue a new dream — that of becoming an author — and my husband could not possibly be more supportive. So it’s not as simple as it seems.
But just because my particular situation has come up roses doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t feel a tight, hard fist of rage in my heart at the unfairness of the world when it comes to gender.
Growing up, my dad always said that life isn’t fair. It’s the truest thing anyone has ever told me. Life is most assuredly not fair. But it’s extra unfair for women and there’s no clear way to fix that, no evidence it can ever be fixed, or that enough people (including plenty of women) even want to fix it. Though there are, of course, exceptions to this, many men, even very liberated and progressive ones, are reluctant or unwilling (when push comes to shove) to make career/ambition-related sacrifices when they have a women in their life who can make them instead. And that pisses me off and makes me sad in equal measure.
A couple of things have got me thinking about this stuff lately. A recent discussion about whether women can really “have it all” (which is a stupid phrase anyway because no one can ever have it all, male or female), some debates within the F/SF community about male privilege and the portrayal of heroines, and interaction with the young women in my life — in particular my nieces, aged 1 and 4, who I’m headed off today to spend some time with.
They are being raised in a loving and progressive household. They will be taught, as I was, that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to and work hard for. And they will discover, just as all women do, that there is an unspoken caveat attached to that, a set of invisible shackles that may not fetter them when they’re young but will appear and begin to pull harder and harder as they age and make decisions about career and family. Those sacrifices and decisions their gender will force upon them aren’t always (or even ever) bad. Sometimes they’re wonderful and lead to lasting happiness.
But they exist for women in a way they don’t for men, and that sucks, and to pretend otherwise is a lie.