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"Yes, and": Familyism, Feminism, and Full Participation

After I wrote about children at a faculty event, reader maepress wondered if this new inclusivity was “familyism” rather than feminism, if it had more to do with shifting generational values, or with dads’ greater interest in spending real time with their children and less to do with gender.

I got to thinking: is “familyism” understood this way distinct from feminism?

I don’t think so. But I thought I’d share my reasoning with you to see what you think.

First, I think today’s feminism is something different from first wave feminism (become recognized as persons) and second wave feminism (gain access to realms of public life previously only open to men, kinds of behaviours previously only open to men). If first wave feminism strategically or earnestly deployed “femininity” to soften the terrifying prospect of extending rights to women, to show it wouldn’t turn them into me, it seems to me that a lot of second wave feminism busied itself rejecting “femininity” (and oh, hell yeah, I’m using the scare quotes deliberately …) as inherently discriminatory in order to win greater autonomy for women: no bras, no babies, no makeup, no housework, so that we can be sexually and economically and psychologically empowered! Both sets of feminists have accomplished huge social good: I like having the vote, and my life would be the poorer in more ways than one if my mother’s generation of feminists hadn’t pushed so hard for pay equity legislation, for example.


As it turns out, some women want to have babies, and most children benefit from present, nurturing parents. Some women like to wear makeup. Some women have no interest in high-power jobs in male-dominated fields like politics. Of course, other women gladly chose lives without children, discard much of the culture of dress and style and feel the freer for it. Some become university presidents.

And it’s feminism that makes all of it possible.

In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey outlines the rules of improv, and they’re excellent rules for life and, I think, for feminism. First, the fundamental principle is “Yes, and”–that is, you take the premise that your improv partner starts from, and you build on it, in a positive way. So if someone points a finger fun at you and yells “Stick ’em up,” you don’t say, “That’s not a gun, that’s just your finger.”You say … something like … um … “Okay okay geez you can have the last courseware package. I knew letting guns onto college campuses was a bad idea.”

That’s my feminism, I think: yes, and.

For me, feminism has as its aim the assurance that women can participate fully in the world, to have all the options open to them that they wish to pursue, without prejudice: to work, to love, to play, to travel, to be ambitious, to have leisure, to raise children, to live alone. And the world in which that is possible is one where dads are involved with their children, where women in families and women on their own created networks, where it’s socially acceptable to eat in a restaurant alone, where we all have real choice and real agency and real support. That party with the children’s craft table? I wouldn’t have brought my daughter with me unless my husband came too, because I just can’t network at the same time as I am gluing foam starts onto foam door hangers. In real ways, I can’t be the person I want to be without my husband being a different kind of man than most of our dads were. I can’t be the person I want to be without government programs supporting maternity leaves. I can’t do it without the unions and faculty associations that have taken women’s compensation issues into their purview.

Perhaps your supports are different: maybe you are not a tenured upper-middle class married white straight woman. Your feminism might include other kinds of equity considerations around race or religion or sexual orientation. But surely, as we all, we women, become ever more integrated in the full complexities of human social life, our supports become more subtle, more diffuse, the battles and hurdles no less daunting but maybe a good bit more individuated and less sweeping.

I generally resist totalizing statements and blog posts like the one I’m creating here. But a student just asked me last week if it was okay for a feminist to want to get married. I was floored, but this is not an uncommon belief. There’s a lot of stuff that still needs work, but we don’t all have to march in exactly the same direction, to the beat of exactly the same drum, to cross all those finish lines whose ribbons are still tautly strung.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a total relativist. I think some kinds of choices are overdetermined and not really ‘free’, and so I’m not above judging others’ behaviours as unfeminist. I am wary of the cooptation of the idea and the ideals of feminism, nicely captured in this Saturday Night Live skit, with Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton, discussing what it means to campaign as a woman on the national stage–read the transcript, it’s fantastic.

For me, familyism is feminism. And single-ism is feminism. If it aims to increase and broaden the kinds of participants and the kinds of participation in the full range of public and private life, well, for me, that’s feminism.

How about you?

5 thoughts on “"Yes, and": Familyism, Feminism, and Full Participation

  1. Hear hear. When thinking about the presence of children in public spaces they would previously be excluded from, I also like to remind people that the separation of work and home (and the gendering of those separate spaces) is not natural but was part of a process of subordination. And that challenging that separation, in whatever way you do it, is something feminists have been doing since before they were called feminists.


  2. Being an unmarried, upper-middle-class white woman about to have a baby (by choice!) while continuing along in my non-tenure-relevant university library job, I'm particularly keenly aware of the truth of what you write here. As terrified as I sometimes am of being able to “make it” as a single working mom in academe, I do think that it's possible, and what makes it possible could be called both familyism and feminism as you describe them.

    And boy, am I ever grateful.


  3. From Rebecca Sullivan, who had trouble posting this directly:
    I would certainly agree that a big part of feminism is demonstrating how shaky and tenuous the line between work and family truly is. In the absence of large, structural changes from governments and businesses (private sector's mat leave policies are crap, 1/2 day kindergarten gives parents nervous breakdowns, to name only a couple), sometimes we gotta make the personal political by dragging our kids into the workplace so we can “have it all.” As someone who does it regularly, I'll be the first to say it's an inelegant and sometimes downright uncollegial solution. I completely respect and insist myself on the right to “adult space.” Some times and some events simply aren't kid-friendly and no one should be put in an uncomfortable (or even less comfortable) situation because I'm either (a) too cheap to get a babysitter or (b) too disorganized to get a babysitter. On a weekly basis, I have to bring my son to the office in order to facilitate his extra-curricular activities and limit my travelling hither-and-thither. I'm lucky to have very supportive colleagues (admin and academic) and an adorably precocious child (I say that empirically, without any bias). And a chosen career where these sorts of arrangement can be respected as a personal-political commentary on the gendered biases of the work-family divide. That makes my situation rare and precious, and the envy of my corporate mom friends. But I do want to emphasize TIME and PLACE and SENSITIVITY to colleagues who may want to attend the plonk-in-a-paper-cup reception without someone grabbing at their ankles and gobbling up all the cookies. Or use the photocopier without having to let someone else hit the buttons.


  4. If I recall correctly what was in the stuff being written when I was growing up, a secondary goal of second wave feminism was also to open up new options for men. Second-wavers certainly had more diverse goals than the mainstream press remembers them for. It was certainly feminists of some sort who made it respectable for men to be involved in new ways in their families, including the people like my mom who said “Damned right I'm getting a job now that the kids are in school”, forcing their dear hubbies to learn to cook and do laundry and get funny looks from the other guys at the church group. As a white haired middle aged man, I'm nervous about using the word “feminist” to describe myself (at least out loud—because it sounds pretentious for one thing), but I'm definitely grateful that I don't have to be the kind of man my dad was forced to be, and I credit feminism for giving me that option, too.


  5. I absolutely agree that familyism may be a result of second-wave feminism and the ability to celebrate again those things that are “feminine” (like knitting!). And not only to celebrate one's ability to choose that life, but also to celebrate one's choice not to partake in them. And I agree with ddvd, that this extends to men as well. Men who are now in their 30's were raised in every bit as much of a feminist society as we were, and it shows – not just through their ability to respect women, but also in their ability to celebrate THEIR “femininity” as well. Certainly the rise of the metrosexual has something to do with that. It's a great point, that we can't really “have it all” without also having a support system in place to allow it.


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