My mother-in-law to be is a bit beside herself right now. It seems that both of her daughters, the only two children she has, have announced their engagement at roughly the same time. Novel though this situation is, I choose to write about it for a completely different reason. Here, in the example of the highly individual lives and personal decisions of two sisters, I’ve seen contrasting attitudes towards Feminism and its influence upon the lives of women. These siblings share the DNA of the same mother and father, and as a result are related more closely to each other than to either parent. And yet, as you will soon see, freedom of choice and personal preference can strongly separate even those closely related by blood.
If first impressions alone were what one went by, one could easily make several incorrect assumptions about my partner’s sister. Of the two of them, she is the strongest personality. Her attitude towards life is no-nonsense and to the point. Smiles are usually rare, but are quite genuine when granted. She is hard-nosed in her dealing with people and adamant about what she wants from life. Slow to warm to anybody, she holds her cards close to her vest and keeps strangers at arm’s length. Her own partner might be the only person who truly knows who she is, but that’s because he’s the only person she trusts enough to let down her guard. She’s stubborn, driven, and incredibly motivated.
Some of these character traits sounds like the sort presumably held by the stereotypical orthodox feminist. But she’s also far more traditional than she lets on. Quite unlike my partner, she wants to take her husband’s last name and prefers it that way. And as I understand the situation, many months of dropping extremely unsubtle hints were required before they were suitably and officially engaged. She expected to be proposed to in the time-honored fashion, by the man, with ring in hand, and it took a while for him to work up the courage. As for me, I did ask my fiancee to marry me, but did so informally, more as a open-ended question used to best measure where she alone saw the relationship headed than a literal rendering. When she asked me whether or not if I was serious about marriage, I replied that I was if she was. It turns out that marriage was something she wanted, though she, like I, would have lived together forever and been extremely happy without even bothering with the formal process.
My motives in writing this post were not to defend traditions or views which could rather plausibly be seen as not especially progressive. The woman who I will soon call my sister-in-law has a generally liberal political worldview in keeping with my own, my partner’s and, for that matter, with most feminists that I know. My intent, rather, was to talk about how easy it is to define policy and doctrine until real life intervenes and thoroughly complicates our best intentions. For example, my partner chooses to keep her last name after we marry and makes a political statement as she does it, though it’s now become quite socially acceptable to do so in many corners. It is such a non-issue with our friends that no one will give it more than thirty seconds’ worth of thought. Where I grew up, in the South, it was much more unusual. Scanning the class telephone directory handed out at the end of every year in public school, I can remember scanning through the names and phone numbers printed there, wondering why a classmates’ last name did not correspond with his mother’s.
By contrast, my sister-in-law has made a conscious, deliberate decision to take a more traditional stance, which in this context is more a statement of her own free will than anything else. My mother-in-law, I might add, has had a hyphenated last name for thirty years, and yet one of her daughters has entirely rejected the gesture in her own married life. Her mother waited until she was thirty-five to have children, and yet, completely unlike her mother, it seems highly plausible that she will probably have a child well before then, even with medical school looming in front of her. She may be tough as nails, but she evidently feels more comfortable adopting a few roles some might see as regressive or even oppressive. She was raised the same way as her sister, by the same two parents, and yet two more different sisters could never be found.
As for my relationship, my partner is possessed of opinions as strong as my own, but her passions don’t need the audience mine do. She allows me room to frequently pontificate on any and all subjects, knowing she can always get her two cents in when needed. She is also the first person I go to when seeking clarity or an accurate interpretation of how others are likely to perceive something I’m about to write, say, or do. And, she often has been an editor of posts I’ve submitted here. Those who don’t know the full story behind our partnership might think that I’m the one in control, or even that she puts herself last to serve my concerns. In reality, her views are no less forcefully expressed, though perhaps done more quietly, and usually without drawing much attention to herself. But she’s no less stubborn and intractable than me. She was going to keep her name regardless of what my preference might have been. We were not having kids, ever, even if I had actually wanted them myself. She knows who she is and who she is not.
I’ve always seen Feminism more as an ultimate fight for choice, in much the same way as a woman’s right to choose (or not to choose) to end her pregnancy, or a woman’s right to take (or not to take) birth control. The conservative feminists that have been written about recently all restrict choice in a plethora of different ways. Feminism does have much in the way of variety to it, but I am inclined to support each effort that is merely a similar permutation of the same basic desire for rights. In this situation, it’s easy to confuse allies of the same shade and antagonists of a wholly different breed. We are more alike than we may believe, but in the meantime, beware of grizzlies in sheep’s clothing.