Thursday, September 28, 2017

My family, simultaneously feminist and not

Recently during one of our class discussions the conversation turned to the topic of our own family figures and family history. This led to me to a moment of self-reflection where I noticed the strange ways that my family is simultaneously "feminist" and "traditional/non-feminist." I continue to reflect on this even now, weeks since the class. I wonder whether outsiders would view my family as more feminist than non-feminist or vice versa. I will leave that for you to decide as I share a few facts about my family.

I will begin with my grandparents. My maternal grandparents were very much a traditional Mexican couple. My grandfather focused on tending to the farm, handling the animals, and bringing in the money while my grandmother focused on cleaning, cooking, and making sure everything in the house ran smoothly. One experience I shared in class involved my first ever trip to Mexico to visit my grandparents. I am not sure exactly how old I was but I know I was still a child, not even a teenager yet. Every morning my job was to accompany my grandpa and cousins to the farm to tend to the cows and other animals. I enjoyed it the experience but after a few days I was no longer thrilled about it. One day I decided I would much rather sleep in and help my grandmother around the house instead of accompanying my grandfather. My grandparents were okay with it; instead of accompanying my grandpa I stayed back and helped my grandma clean the house. When my mother found out she was very upset. She asked me why I rather stay in and work like a woman instead of going out with the men. Not only did this upset me, it confused me. I did not understand why it was considered improper for me to help my grandmother instead of my grandfather. When I looked back on this experience later in life I realized that my mother had simply grown up in a very traditional family where traditional gender roles were very much the norm.

My paternal grandparents were a bit different from my maternal grandparents. They were still very traditional; my grandma was extremely religious and probably would have been a nun if she had not married and had kids my grandpa. My paternal grandparents, however, ran the family quite differently from my maternal grandparents. On my father's side, it was quite clear that my grandmother ran the show. She certainly seemed like the head decision maker. My grandmother also worked outside of the home. There are a few things that I believe explain this. For starters, my paternal grandparents moved to the United States before I was born. My grandmother worked out of necessity. Additionally, my grandfather battled many demons throughout his life which caused him to be absent. This forced my grandmother to step into the role of head of household. While my grandma was a very strong female leading a large family, often on her own, she was still held very traditional beliefs about modesty and gender roles.

Moving on towards my parents, they are an even more perplexing mix of feminist and non-feminist. My mother is a business owner. Her and my godmother have owned and operated their own hair salon for almost my entire life. My mother is a dance instructor, she teaches Zumba lessons at various places throughout the week. My mother partakes in various workout classes that require her to leave the house daily around 5 a.m. My mother is a very powerful authority figure in our family, she makes makes important decisions for the family on a daily basis. When my father lost his job, and had to wait nearly two years to find quality work again, my mother continued to work as much as she could to keep the family afloat. On the flip side, my mother is still typically the one who cooks for the family every day. My mother does all the laundry, cleans the house, usually washes the dishes, and still believes that certain tasks are meant for women while other are meant for men. This does not mean that my father, brother, and I are not expected to clean, wash dishes, etc. but I believe that she sees these kinds of tasks as predominantly her and my sister's responsibilities.

Much like my mother, my father also exists in ways that are outside of traditional gender roles. My father often cooks for the family, including big holiday meals. My father does plenty of household chores around the house every day. My father defers to my mother on many important family matters. At the same time, my father has always believed that outdoor work is for the men to take care of. I know this because on many weekends I was forced to help my dad with all sorts of outdoor tasks for hours on end. To this day whenever we have people coming over I am assigned to clean up the backyard and do all the outdoor work while my mom and sister cook and clean inside. Both of my parents certainly empowered my sister to stay in school and become a professional like they did with me and like they are doing with my younger brother. At the same time, they have often treated my sister differently from how they have treated my brother and I. While both of my siblings and I were pestered about eating healthy, exercising, and not being lazy, my sister certainly received the most criticism. She was especially expected to be slim and not eat too much fattening food. She receives certain criticisms about being unladylike that my brother and I never received. It feels like my parents have different expectations of my sister than they do of my brother and I.

Three of my grandparents have passed away. I never got the chance to ask them about feminism. I also have not asked my remaining living grandmother about what she thinks of feminism or gender. Surprisingly, I also have not had conversations directly on the matter with my mother or sister either. While I have not had these conversations, I have never once heard any of them mention a connection to any larger feminist movement or philosophy. I have never heard any of these women in my life say they do things which objectively seem "feminist" because it makes them feel empowered. I also have never heard my grandfathers or father say they consciously break gender stereotypes because they believe they are wrong or because they believe in empowering women. I do not want to attribute beliefs to them which are inaccurate and based on assumptions; I do not know why anyone in my family acts the way that they do. I simply find it fascinating that many of the women and men in my family, perhaps subconsciously, do not conform to traditional gender roles in a way that could be described as "feminist." Certainly, many of the gender roles that my family does subscribe to were socialized into them but what about the feminist ideas that they seemingly unknowingly follow? I highly doubt my grandmothers or mother studied feminism in school or read feminist theory, yet they exist in many ways that can be classified as feminist. Ultimately the question I am most curious about is how the decisions were made and lines were drawn regarding what traditional gender ideas these women were okay with and which ones they tossed out the window. Perhaps these were conscious decisions, perhaps they were fueled by necessity, or perhaps this is all simply one big coincidence.


B. Williams said...

You and your siblings' experiences growing up mirror the experiences of my brother and I. While I had occasional "outside" chores, I was more likely to be assigned inside domestic responsibilities like vacuuming/dusting. My appearance, exercising and eating habits were also much more highly scrutinized than my brother's. I was also (and still am) held to a higher standard than my brother when it comes to helping out when we are all back at home, censoring my language (I'm terrible at it), and generally being more conscientious when it comes to taking on responsibilities or making sure everyone/everything is taken care of.

I've also definitely noticed my mom wanting me to engaged in activities that she engaged in with her mom, particularly sentimental activities like cooking/baking around the holidays. I generally like these activities, but I have always been slightly resentful at being relegated to the kitchen during family events while the guys get to drink gin and tonics and watch sports/movies. I sometimes abstain, but I hold onto some guilt while doing so because these feminine activities are so tied to tradition and bonding with the other female members of my family.

I still think of my parents as feminists, but these experiences are certainly a reminder of how ingrained cultural pressures/traditions are into our family psyche and history. It's definitely hard to consciously move away from, regardless of how socially progressive we are.

Aoife Mee said...

Hi Omar,

It was so interesting to hear more about your family and their relationship with feminism. Looking back on my own childhood and family experiences, I would say that my parent's approach to raising me was pretty feminist. My parents have a very collaborative marriage in which they share the cooking, cleaning and other household tasks. I was always encouraged to be help both of them with all types of tasks around the home, whether it be cleaning, gardening, decorating or handy work. I was never made to feel like I should only do certain tasks because I was a girl. I have fond memories of doing "traditionally male" tasks with my mum, such as painting and decorating, or repairing things around the house. Likewise, I remember my Dad teaching me to cook some of his favourite dishes. I believe that their approach has made me a far more independent and multi-skilled young woman who could put her hand to anything.

I guess you argue that my parents were "traditional" because my Dad was the full time worker while my Mum worked part time so that she could look after me when I was young. However, when I asked my parents about this in the past and they told me that the only reason they decided that my Mum would reduce her hours was because she earned less. They reassured me that, had my mother been the higher earner at the time, my Dad would have been the one to reduce his hours. So, I always associated this arrangement with practicality, rather than tradition.

It was really only when I started interacting more with people and institutions outside of my home that I encountered gender stereotypes. Indeed, as I started to study gender issues and feminism in school, through Sociology, and then in some gender modules in college, both of my parents were so interested and loved discussing these issues with me. Even now that I am studying Feminist Legal Theory in Davis, I still ring home to talk to my parents about the different topics we have discussed in class to get their ideas and opinions.

Joterias! said...

Thank you for sharing your family’s story. I agree that although persons may not identify as feminists, they may engage actions that could be regarded as feminists, and lead others to label them as feminists. I, too, grew up in a household full of strong women, who navigated a conservative milieu in their own feminist ways. For example, while my maternal abuelito (grandpa) allowed my tíos (uncles) to get the equivalent of a high school education, he didn’t allow my tías (aunts) and mamá to do same. He figured that anything beyond an elementary education would make them less attractive to suitors, and detract from the household chores that were preparing to be good wives. But one of my tías loved learning. So she devised a compromise: she would attend a technical nursing school and become a nurse. My abuelito hesitated at first, but he approved because he regarded nursing as a feminine endeavor. Yes, my tía compromised—as many women are expected to do, but she did so strategically and to her benefit. She paved the way for her nieces so they would have an easier time seeking higher education, and also garnered the respect of my tíos along the way. In short, because her actions were feminists, I would call her a feminist in her own respect.

Your story about your mother being a powerful authority figure in your household while still cooking for your family every day also resonates with me. It reminds me of Arlie Hochschild’s concept of the “second shift,” which describes the disproportionate amount of household work that women are expected to complete–and do complete—upon returning home from their private sector jobs. In my family’s case, on days when my mamá works just as many hours as my papá (dad), she still cooks for my seventeen-year-old brother, and cleans up after him. I’m not sure why that is, when she’s the primary financial manager of the household. Admittedly, I contribute to the problem when I visit my parents and ask my mamá to make me some chilaquiles. As a feminist, I feel bad for putting more on her plate, but her dishes, especially her chilaquiles, are just too delicious. I guess that we can all be “simultaneously feminist and not.”

Suzanne Connell said...


I loved how personal your post was and I could really identify with what you were saying because like you, my family is simultaneously feminist and not.

I was brought up in a very traditional familial construct in terms of gender roles and expectations. My father was and still is the "breadwinner", while my mother chose child rearing and domesticity over pursuing her career. My mother's role in the household has taught me to respect the importance of domestic work and child rearing as it's so commonly brushed over due to the lack of monetary value that society attaches to it. My parents, in particular my mother, were fortunate in that these were distinct choices i.e. she wasn't forced into this role as a result of some ultra-conservative social construct looming over her, nor was there any financial pressure forcing her back into the workforce. Now that my siblings and I are older, I have asked my mother whether she regrets not going back to work after having us and whether domesticity had isolated her over the years. While she agreed in part to the latter, she always maintains that she's happy she was there for us all the way growing up and still today, since we all know that parenthood doesn't cease at age 18.

In spite of this seemingly 'traditional' framework I have been brought up in, the prospect of me working and having children, or even not having children at all while rejecting the constrains of domesticity isn't frightening to my family. While my parents fulfilled stereotypical gender roles, I was never told growing up that I cannot do something merely because of my sex, which is why I have come to the same conclusion as you, that my family is simultaneously feminist and not. I have discovered my feminism organically and it is an aspect of my identity that will continue to grow throughout my life, however when I look back on my parents traditional gender roles and the parts they played in my upbringing, I don't in any way demonise them for not representing the feminist ideal. I respect them and have admiration for the choices they made much like they respect and support the choices I will make throughout the landscape of my life.

Taylor Foland said...

Hi Omar,

I don't know you personally, and this comment is coming long after your original post, but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your introspective blog post about your family. Like many other commenters, I found similarities between my family and yours. Like some of your grandparents, my maternal grandparents were farmers. My grandpa would drive me around the farm with my male cousins, brother, and sister and show us the farm. He taught us how to shoot BB guns, and then actual guns together as a group. My sister fell out of the routine with him sooner than I, but I stuck around. I loved being the only girl in the group learning my grandpa's skills. At one point in my life I dreamed moving to South Dakota and helping to run the family farm with my male relatives. However, as I became a teenager, my interest began to wane. I opted out of trips with my grandpa for cooking and house prep with my grandma.

My grandpa recently passed away, and I often look back on these moments and my transition into the homemaking with my grandma. It upsets me for several reasons: I wish I had spent more time with my grandpa, and I feel like I "gave in" to the expectations of my gender. But, I felt more validation in the traditional female role. I received more praise (and received it easier_ when I made a dish for everyone (something that came naturally to me) than when I hit a target with my grandpa (not something I was naturally good at). It makes me think now, was he disappointed in me? Did he expect it? Does he think less or more of me because of my choices?

Unfortunately, I will never be able to ask him these questions, and I still don't know how I would answer them myself. I am thankful I am in the feminist legal theory class because it is forcing me to confront instances like this in my life, times I "give in" to the expectations of my gender and how I feel about that. I hope to unpack this further this semester. Until then, your blog post reminded me how personal this class is, and how integral feminism is to my identity. I appreciate your vulnerability. Sharing personal experiences is scary, but it is impactful. It allows people to relate and reflect. Thank you!