I recently got married. I have two children. I own a house, and I have a full-time job. At first glance, none of these circumstances may strike you as remarkable. In fact, maybe you share in many of them. But if I had been born even 50 years earlier, I wouldn’t have many of the rights that I have now to love who I love, make choices about my body, and own property.
I don’t want to bore you with a long history of feminism, first and foremost, because I don’t know the long history of feminism, but I do know this: Without it, my life would not be possible. In the mid-1800s, women in the U.S. earned the right to own property. This might not seem like a big deal, but at the time women WERE property. That’s right. The husband or the father owned the wife, the land and the money. If the husband died, sometimes the wife was allowed to own his property, but she wasn’t allowed to do anything with it. It just had her name on it, which was actually his name. The whole point was to keep the property – the woman and the land and the money — in the family or owned by the brothers, the sons and the fathers. This had far-ranging implications.
It still forms the foundation of many of our current arguments about pro-choice and abortion. It still impacts the laws that we have about who can marry and why. It’s the reason that we objectify women’s bodies and have fathers hand off daughters, literally, to their husbands during wedding ceremonies. But here is how it affects me.
After I graduated from college, an idea that only made sense if I was going to contribute something to society besides children and clean laundry, I got a job. My job paid me money. I used that money to pay my rent, go out to eat a lot, and gain 25 pounds. I did what I wanted and got fatter. But it was my fat ass, built with my own labor. This is the first way that I enjoyed feminism. Feminists of yore thought it mattered that a woman could live without the sponsorship of a man. In other words, that we could go out on our own, feed, clothe and house ourselves without needing to have all of these things paid for by a father or a husband. Thank you.
While eating more than my fair share of blue cheese and paying my actual fair share of rent using money from my new job, I met someone and fell in love. This person also happened to be a woman with her own paycheck, her own cheese, and a house that she had purchased by qualifying for a loan at a bank. After a little more than a year of dating, we decided that we wanted to be together forever, but we couldn’t get married because there was no history of laws describing how a woman could own another woman. In fact, the idea that two women would want to merge households was a concept that had been overlooked, entirely. There was no law for it. And no law against it. Just blank space.
So, we did the next best thing: we bought property together. We also got a joint checking account. And for many people, including our employers but excluding our government, this demonstrated enough commitment to each other that we could get other benefits, like paying for each other’s health insurance and getting a couples discount at the gym. We still got asked if we wanted separate checks at restaurants, and when I bought a car, the dealer suggested that I talk to my husband before I made a final decision, so I went shopping elsewhere. We suffered these indignities with stoicism and sarcasm, and then 10 years and four dogs later, we decided that we wanted to have children.
This, again, is where property, in the form of cold, hard cash, came to bear. I bought blood tests and lab results, medical procedures and tissue donations in the form of human sperm. Most of this was not covered by our medical insurance, in spite of the fact that I had a very generous plan and a supportive employer. After three years of credit card loans and psychological torture, I gave birth to a baby girl. And almost two years after that, I had another one.
In the eyes of the law, I was the parent and my spouse was not, so she adopted our children. What does this mean? It means that we paid someone, social services, to evaluate our house, our relationship, and our circumstances to determine if she was worthy to be a parent. It means that I went to court and testified that, yes, the woman I would marry (if the law would allow such a thing) was the other parent to my children and she was not coercing me for the opportunity to live with them, wipe their noses, and badger them about picking up the pieces of their Barbie playhouse. She was, in fact, in love with them. She was there when they were born. She got up in the middle of the night to comfort them when they are sick and defends them with the ferocity of a wild animal when anyone, even I, was mean to them.
And then, one day, months after my oldest daughter had started kindergarten, and I was taking the youngest back to daycare after a visit to the dentist, I got a call.
“The Attorney General is issuing marriage licenses,” my spouse said.
“He is? How ironic!,” I said. “Do you want to get married again?”
“No, do you?”
“Not really. But if it’s important to you, I will.”
The week before, we had flown to Chicago without friends or family and without much warning to tie the knot. We were waiting to see if a “gay marriage” law would pass in Colorado, but it was the end of September, and we were running out of time that year. So we bought plane tickets, made a beeline for the marriage license office, enjoyed a day in the city, said “I do,” and came home.
It’s been a tremendous amount of work exercising the rights I’ve been granted and being responsible for the property I own. We have bankrolled the entire thing with 76 cents on every dollar that a man would have had for the same job done. We have filled out forms and jumped through hoops to take what might have been granted easily or celebrated more if we were a man and a woman with jobs, a house, and children. But I’m still tremendously grateful for what I have. Many people have much, much less.
So when Nicki Minaj, Shailene Woodley and Carrie Underwood are not sure if they are so “extreme” as to be feminists, I would suggest that they have another look at the string of diamonds, the mansion, or the record contract that drives their privileged lifestyle and ask themselves if they would like to have all that freedom and independence transfered to their father or their brother because women shouldn’t own property–they should be property.
Your choice. And that alone — having the choice — is feminism.