It seems in recent years, the fact that I am female has become both less and more important to me. Less because I have realized I am not necessarily defined by the set of reproductive organs I happen to posses, and more because other people choose to define me in that manner only.
As I sit in my local coffee shop (where they've gotten to know my order, by the way), I am immensely and intensely aware of the amount of privilege I have just to be here in this spot.
The fact that I am wearing jeans and a hipster v-tee (complete with old man cardigan) is entirely the result of the work of women who came before me.
The very fact that I can choose to have a (hopeful) career as a writer rather than stay at home to take care of kids is the direct result of people who came before me - Virginia Woolf. Emily Dickinson. George Eliot (yes, a pseudonym). Jane Austen. The Brontes. Any number of voiceless, nameless female poets and authors who never got the chance to take credit for their work.
At the same time, I cannot help but feel that my fight is not over. Though I have, for the most part, had numerous opportunities, I have still experienced and lived in a culture in which I feel like my every contribution is evaluated on the basis that I am a woman. There are many, especially in theology, who will not even listen to me because I am a career-oriented female. I have been told on numerous occasions that I need to take care in planning my future around possible children - even directly after I have told said person that I have absolutely zero desire to have children or even to be pregnant.
The most searing of these memories was a kind of watershed moment in my feminism, and it's high time I discuss it openly. I may have mentioned it in passing on the blog, and there's not a liberal friend of mine who does not know this story. But I fear that not everyone in my audience does.
I have a very conservative extended family. As in, so far right that they made me uncomfortable even when I was a conservative (yes, there was a time). As in, when I was a junior in high school and mentioned "My friend Chris, who is a Democrat-" my uncle from this family interrupted and said to my dad, "You let her be friends with Democrats?" Yes, that type of conservative.
Needless to say, I love this family, but I don't always enjoy time spent around them - I feel like I have to bite my tongue a lot to keep the peace, and have only recently become more open and more brave about "coming out" as a feminist. Maybe, the reasoning goes, my actions can shake up their worldview.
This particular moment came just over a month after I returned from my study abroad in Oxford, England. I was all kinds of jazzed on academia - I'd just spent four months in a city that revels in it, after all. The smell of old library books, the feel of bricks older than my home country, and the click of cobblestone under my feet were still very fresh memories and elements of my life that I missed dearly.
In June of 2007, I was in a strange spot, in between worlds, as it were. I was looking ahead to post-graduation - plans for the future and so on - and looking longingly backward at my favorite place on Earth. At the time, I was considering a few different options, and all of them involved more school, and all of these schools were far, far away from my hometown of Sioux Falls, SD.
That month, I also took a trip with a friend so that he could visit his girlfriend and so that I could get out of the city. My conservative family lives up there, and so I stayed in their basement guestroom. It was, overall, a fun weekend - I got to reconnect with a friend from my Oxford time and see family whom I rarely get to see.
On my last day there, my uncle was getting ready to leave for work and we were talking in the kitchen. Naturally, the question of what I was planning on after graduation came up and I told him my genuine thoughts at the time - that I was considering graduate school back in England. He asked me if I had the opportunity to live there long term if I would. High on the sadness of having just returned from the best four months of my life, I replied honestly and succinctly: "Oh absolutely, no question."
"Well, what are you going to do when you get married and start having kids?"
"I don't know if that's in my plan. I want to work for a long time yet."
And then the bomb dropped: "What? You know, Dianna, that's something you should do. You need to have a bunch of Christian kids because the Muslims are reproducing at a faster rate than the Christians are, so we need good Christian families."
While in the four years since the exact wording has been lost, the sentiment was exactly as reported. It is my duty - nay, my calling - as a Christian with ovaries to have Christian children. Because of "the Muslims."
To my uncle, this was probably just another conversation, one that he probably doesn't even remember.
For me, it was a watershed. I have thought about it over and over again in the years since, especially whenever someone challenges something I do because I am a woman (and as a theology major in undergraduate and an English major in graduate, both at a conservative Christian schools, this happened far more than I would like to think). And each year and each new rethinking of the situation has brought a new level of horror upon that statement.
As I became more progressively liberal, I realized the completely ridiculous idea that just because I am Christian that my kids would also turn out to be Christian. Indeed, in my experience, those in my life with parents who were the most militantly fundamentalists are the ones who turned out to be the most militant atheists in adult life. And my own experience: my parents are a pretty conservative bunch.
As I became more aware of the foster care and adoption problems in the US of A and elsewhere, I realized how entirely selfish it would be for me to produce lots of children when millions of kids are going hungry and need a loving home.
As I got to know some Muslim friends in graduate school, I became much more aware of how entirely stupid it is to think that Christians and Muslims are somehow at odds, especially so much so that we have to worry about their population.
Each subsequent reflection on this statement has only served to reinforce how much I don't want to follow that preset path, that "You have a uterus, so you should have children" mindset.
Having the ability to shove a watermelon out from between my legs does not mean I have a godly duty to do so.
And mindsets like this are why my job as a feminist is not finished. And why I come across as a "feminazi" - a term that denigrates not only the legitimate protests and complaints of feminists but also the suffering of millions upon millions of people...the only people who should ever be called "Nazis" are Nazis.
And this, in a nutshell, is what the modern feminist discussion is all about: The desire and ability to be recognized not merely for our ability to produce children, but for our ability to be great contributors to society in of ourselves. Pinning a woman's worth onto the children she may or may not have (which, despite protestations to the contrary, is what that mindset does) turns her into an incubator for her progeny, makes her worthless as a human being, and fails to recognize her as an independent person with thoughts, goals, hopes and dreams all her own.
And that is what our fight is about: to be recognized as human, to be known for what we can contribute - to math, to science, to literature, to theology, to art, to ... life - not for what we can reproduce. My fight, my fellow woman's fight, is to be known for who we are, not for the little runts we might possibly take care of.
And we do so by telling our stories, by changing the narrative with our lives, by living in a way that contradicts and tells everyone in the past who has told us no: "No, you are wrong."
Disclaimer: This post is in no way meant to downplay or negate the great contribution of mothers to the world. Encapsulated, my thought is this: Being a mother is a wonderful thing. Being forced or expected to be a mother, simply because I have a uterus, is not. There is a distinction.