“Deeds not words.”
– Suffragette slogan
Becoming aware of how much criticism is heaped on women for their life choices is depressing. Becoming further aware of how much of this criticism stems from other women is downright devastating. For me personally, realizing how guilty I used to be (and occasionally still can be if I don’t watch myself) of this behavior was humbling.
I grew up in a culture that has highly defined gender roles and a lot of codified expectations for women and girls. I’ve written about the dress codes here, which also touches on the expectation that women “should stay home,” that they should be the primary caregivers to children, and uncomfortable echoes of rape culture. I’m no longer in this culture or ascribe to a lot of those values in the same way. But being out here in wider society as opposed to a small religious group isn’t necessarily easier when it comes to the pressures heaped on women.
Unmaking a lot of the lessons I’d been taught about gender and femaleness from a young age took and still takes a lot of work. In either constructing or reconstructing my own views on gender and the female experience, I’ve had to critically examine not just the views I was raised with, but also the knee-jerk reactionary views I sometimes developed in response to opinions that reminded me of my childhood culture. As fiercely committed as I am to supporting other women and claiming my feminism, I still have a lot of work to do.
Unmaking your own critical tendencies is a hard line to walk. I have just as many opinions about how to live as anybody, but what I have made a dedicated effort to do in the past few years, is simply decline to judge most women’s life choices. From sex to education, childbearing to careers, I’ve come to the conclusion that how other women choose to order their lives is almost entirely none of my business. Where another person’s choices do not affect me, or does not impact my ability to make my own choices or my legal rights, what I have learned and try awfully hard to practice is the age old wisdom of keeping my mouth shut.*
I’m not talking about politics or policy in this post, what I’m speaking of here is the personal criticisms or judgement we casually fling at women who chose to work full time, stay home with children, hire help, use professional childcare, ask family to babysit regularly, have multiple sex partners, practice celibacy, eat paleo, eat vegan, eschew social media, take selfies, wear short skirts, wear hijab, read Talmud, read romance novels, do bodybuilding, not exercise at all, go into military service, go into nursing, have an abortion, decline to practice birth control, grow their hair long, wear their hair super short, be atheist, pray at the Wailing Wall, have tattoos, cover their skin from neck to ankle…
The list is quite literally endless. It often feels like we can’t win for losing!
Instead of picking apart, examining, or even stressing about other women’s choices, what I’ve committed to is supporting their choices better. They may bear no resemblance to the choices I’d make for myself, my marriage, my family, or my career; I may even disagree outright with her positions. But where her choices work for her, break no laws, and cause no harm, the onus is on me to stand up for her decisions the way I’d hope others will stand up for mine. The world is still plenty hard on women. I’m convinced it will get a bit better if we are easier on one another.
And the only control I have over that goal is starting with my own behavior. I like to think I’ve gotten better, and I like to think I’ll get better still.
Amy Poehler popularly summed this up in her book Yes Please with the phrase, “That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me.” This idea is full of generosity and, dare I say, grace.
*I separate this from political activism/engagement, it’s worth noting. I put my money and my time where my values are.