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Tue, Jul 16, 2013
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Feminism means making your own choices
by Rachel Chang

Once in a while, there are women who resign from the newsroom just after they get engaged or before they get married.

Most of the time, one has nothing to do with the other - they've just happened to realise they hate their jobs around the same period as choosing a life partner.

Still, the pattern can lend itself to uncharitable conclusions: that like a good Jane Austen heroine, they had found themselves a husband and therefore no longer needed a profession or identity of their own.

An older colleague of mine, of the generation of women who struggled against this pre-determined path, lamented this as a regression.

Her friend, a lifelong homemaker, had raised a daughter who, now in her 30s, said that her goal was to be just like her mother: a tai-tai. "And this girl has a master's degree!" she tutted, dismayed.

It reminded me of something that the glorious Stevie Nicks, of the band Fleetwood Mac, once said about being single in her 60s.

In the twilight of a full, accomplished and inspirational life, she was always being asked: Aren't you lonely?

In a New York Magazine profile last year, she said that "my generation fought very hard for feminism, and we fought very hard to not be labelled as you had to have a husband or you had to be in a relationship, or you were somehow not a cool chick.

"And now I'm seeing that start to come around again, where people say to you, 'Well, what do you mean you don't have a boyfriend? You don't want to be married?'

And you're like, 'Well, no, I don't, actually.

I'm fine.' And they find a lot of reasons why you're not fine."

Both these women were lions of their generations, trailblazers in their own, different ways.

What bound their disappointment, it seemed to me, was that we - the women who are supposed to enjoy the fruits of their struggle - were instead clinging stubbornly to the old, patriarchal fetters.

For a long time, a woman was not supposed to have any ambition but to be a wife and a mother.

Now, we know many girls who want that the same way women used to yearn for the right to vote, to lead, to be paid equally.

And no matter the progress, a woman is still not judged "complete" until she becomes a wife and mother.

And being financially dependent on another, being fully occupied with providing for others' needs, is not just accepted, but valorised.

Is the fact that so many young women pre-emptively choose this, in this day and age, evidence of how deeply rooted and insidious our gender social constructs are?

Instead of bras, should we have burnt the children's books that told girls to wait for a prince to rescue them?

Or is this just Woman reverting to her natural, biological state? After the feminist dust has settled, was the great victory to know that the silent majority was actually always fine with the way things were?

I struggle to parse my own reaction whenever I meet someone my age whose lack of professional ambition I reflexively judge.

Is it envy? I don't think so because while I do want a husband and children one day, I have zero desire for that day to be now.

Is it disgust that such women exist today? It can't be, because many of them are intelligent, wonderful human beings whom I respect.

That leaves me with insecurity, always the root of over-reaction to someone else's comment or action. What makes us respond is a lack of confidence in our own choice.

But that, in a way, makes us daughters of the same movement, simply because we share in the common possibility of choice.

To choose which path we want to take, and feel at times insecure about that choice due to the diversity of paths women can now tread - that's freedom, though it may feel like competition.

The wonderful Caitlin Moran once wrote that it's difficult for women today to know what the feminist position is on issues such as pornography and Lady Gaga.

Hence, a good rule-of-thumb is to ask: Are the men doing it? If they are not, like in the case of full Brazilian waxes or being judgmental of promiscuous behaviour, then women who engage in such behaviour are letting the sisterhood down, she wrote.

I think that's a good marker to apply here. Are the men doing it? Are they worried that other men making different choices somehow undermine the progress of Men in general? Do they judge one another harshly for choices that don't mirror their own?

I don't think so, simply because having a plurality of life choices is not new to them.

Perhaps this is my generation's mission.

Our mothers gave us freedom; it is up to us to wear it lightly.

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