Friday, May 30, 2014

Feminist Mother

This is the text of the sermon delivered at  Unitarian Universalist of Indianapolis, May 18, 2014

Sojourner Truth
Ain't I A Woman?
Delivered 1851
Women's Convention, Akron, Ohio 
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Those who know me on Facebook know I have an addiction to quizzes. I have a hard time not taking them and posting my results. I am, apparently, a hipster parent, and if I were a mythical creature I would be a dragon. Any quizzes, even the ones like “which Rap Star are you?” So when I saw the quiz labeled “are you a bad feminist” I’m sure you realize I HAD to take it.  Had to. And I was more annoyed by that quiz that I was about anything that whole week. Because my results were that I am a “problematic” feminist. In other words I’m not feminist enough for “some” feminists in this country. Because I answered yes to questions like “do you wear makeup?” and “do you shave your legs” and no to questions like “have you ever done roller derby.” Really? I’d be a better feminist if I were a hairy legged roller derby player? I’d be the worst roller derby player ever, but that would determine my politics? (My next quiz should probably be “what would be your roller derby persona”)

How can I be a “bad” feminist? I believe in and support the right for all women to vote, to own property, to determine her role in life, to work. To be treated equally and fairly in the workplace and society at large. Is that asking too much, to be given equal status? Some people think so. They think Feminism is damaging the minds and souls of our children.  Feminists kill children, they emasculate men, and apparently are jack booted thugs, since they gets called Feminazis. According to author and Fox News guest Nick Adams, Feminism is even damaging National Security. That’s the next quiz I’d like to see, “how much are you personally damaging National Security?” Pretty sure that one would get me on an NSA watch list.

Some people are so threatened by the idea of women having any rights in society they will go to horrifying extremes. These are the people who still have women in a powerless position, and want to keep them there.  This past spring, in West Africa, a group calling itself Boko Haram, which translates to “Western Education is Forbidden”, has famously kidnapped over 200 girls, ages sixteen to eighteen, and still holds them. Whether they are rescued or released or never get away from their captors, Boko Haram has at the very least disrupted their educations and their lives. That there has not been more done towards securing their return is a shame to all who have the power to do so, and do not.

Not even two years ago, a fifteen year old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by a Taliban soldier for having the temerity to speak out in defense of education for girls. This is a sign. A fifteen year old girl with a book is so terrifying to some men that they would try to kill her. She survived, and has become a figurehead for the movement to educate all children, all over the world.

Malala names her mother, Thorpekai, as the anchor of her family, the source of her strength. Her mother, who does not speak in interviews she attends with her daughter, who does not herself read, who never attended school supports her daughter’s right to an education.

I’m sure that Thorpekai wouldn’t call herself a Feminist, but she is.

Lest you think that an educated female population is only frightening to Muslim extremists, consider that there is a strong movement in America to give girls, and boys, incorrect information on basic reproductive health. In the hopes of preventing girls from engaging in sexual activity before marriage, Abstinence-only education teaches that condoms don’t work, birth control pills are a health risk, and only sluts use birth control anyway. Even more horrifying to me, they teach girls that their moral compass is somehow tied to their reproductive organs. Elizabeth Smart, the woman who at the age of 14 was abducted from her Salt Lake City home and repeatedly raped by her abductor, has publicly blamed abstinence only education for her not trying to escape. In her mind, having been raped, she had been spoiled, and no longer had any value as a person.

The abstinence-only movement has only led to increases in teen pregnancy in the states which used the method. That means more women, barely more than children, becoming mothers.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day being signed in as a National Holiday in the U.S., at the same time that the Suffrage movement to gain women the vote was gaining traction. One hundred years of honoring mothers across the country. One hundred years of honoring the women who created us, who raised us, who cared for us, who didn’t leave us by the side of the road when we were being pains in the butt (thank you, mom, I appreciate that). One hundred years ago, those mothers could not vote in America, could not get birth control to delay or limit the number of children they had, they could be excluded from work based merely on gender, or fired from work for their marital status.

Things have changed a lot for mothers in our country. All women have the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to not BE property. We can file from divorce from an abusive marriage; we can demand equal pay, equal respect, equal rights. The battle for women’s rights in America is over, we’ve won. We can sit back on Mother’s Day and bask in our successes. We can be mothers and we can be working professionals, right? Feminism has done it all, so now it’s time for it to retire and go the way of the Suffrage Movement.

Last year Michelle Obama, Princeton alumni, lawyer, First Lady, and, like me, mother to two daughters, found herself under attack as being “A Feminist Nightmare” because she isn’t tackling “hard issues” of gender inequality as the First Lady. She apparently is a problematic Feminist as well, because she is spending too much time on her family and on issues of feeding children healthy food, instead of lobbying for women’s rights.

What about mother’s rights?

I never intended to be a stay at home mother. But when my first child was born I discovered how difficult it was to find reliable, affordable care for an infant. Nearly impossible. My spouse and I managed to work out a schedule between his full time but unconventional schedule and my full time academic teaching load that had one of home nearly all the time, and the two days a week both of us worked we hired a college student to look after our two month old. When we finally made it to the top of the wait list for a decent and reliable day care that would take infants I found out that my contract with the university would not be renewed. With only one income, the cost of the daycare would be a third of our annual salary. One third. More than our rent.

Unemployed and with a six month old baby, it was natural that I stayed home while also hunting for another job. But after a year of emotionally draining job search, and limited in the amount of research I could continue to produce, I decided to remove myself from the academic job market. That was 9 years ago.

I had it easy. I’m educated and middle class with secretarial and book keeping experience, and I knew that if I needed to work just to put food on the table, I could with relative ease get a job, any job, that would pay somewhat above minimum wage. Many women in this country do not have that luxury. I have a devoted spouse with a full-time job that provides health coverage. 65% of households below the poverty line are headed by single women. And for many of those women, daycare for small children is the largest obstacle. Daycare is very expensive, and though low-income families can get vouchers to pay for it, much of the daycare in our country is of low quality. Church-run or ministry daycares, which are common, don’t have to adhere to the strict standards of private daycare. Much daycare is provided under the table, by completely unlicensed providers.

And of those women who do work, who do manage to find decent care for their kids, what then? The media still loves to whip up the manufactured debate between working moms and stay at home moms. And it is manufactured.

Some would have us believe that staying home is a betrayal of Feminism, but how is this? Stay at home moms don’t just sit at home and eat bon-bons. Many are on school boards, and working on home businesses. They are learning new skills at school or raising livestock and running households. My daughters understand that I have multiple jobs, of which Mom is one. I’m also an artist and a marketing assistant, jobs which are rewarding in different ways. I’m lucky, I have an employer who is understanding and a job which allows me a great deal of flexibility in my hours, so I can be a stay at home mom and a working mom simultaneously. I’m glad I was able to stay home with them while they were younger, to play with them, to cuddle them. Now they are in school, I can still make an impact in their lives, but I can do so by being a foundation, as well as a role model.

I’m not a cupcake-making Pinterest mommy, keeping an immaculate home, making all organic meals, keeping bees, and gleefully embracing the New Domesticity, but so what if I were? It wouldn’t make me less a believer in the equality of women. The only thing that could damage my political beliefs is if I were to do something to actually put women’s equality on the chopping block, like trying to force women to marry, denying them access to education, giving blatantly wrong reproductive health information, or limiting access to child care and health care. Oddly, there are women in this country who think that women don’t deserve or need the gains of Feminism. Most of those have money and privilege, so they aren't worried about their own rights being denied, but they would limit the rights of women who are without power. They don’t see us as their sisters, but competitors for the scraps.  I bow out of the competition.

Some feminists criticize women who choose to stay home, as if this is a betrayal of feminism. The fact is, some women stay home, some work. Many, too many, don’t have the choice of whether or not to work. But what we do have the choice of is what we pass on to the next generation. We can choose to teach our children about the struggle that has gone on for women’s rights. Teach our daughters to be strong, to follow their vision, and not be afraid to ask for help from their sisters. We can teach our sons to respect all women, not just the ones who are “good girls”, to look past the surface and treat women as they would themselves want to be treated. To teach our children, both our sons and our daughters, that all people are deserving of love and grace.

When I look at my daughters, I want them to have more options. I find many of those options here, in this place, in the form of Unitarian Universalism.  Our youth participate in sex education that is real, factual, comprehensive information about respecting and protecting themselves and their future partners. No lies, no shame.

Our youth participate actively in helping the community, including a Habitat for Humanity project each year, to learn to help those less lucky than we. I want these things for my daughters, for your daughters and sons.

I want them to be able to build the world in their own image, the world they imagine it to be – just and beautiful. I want them to find people who love them completely and without reservation. Who believe in them. I want them to have the strength of vision to look into the future and make it come to us.