On November 9th, I led services at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. The service focused on gender equality; previously, I posted my opening reflection, "What Would Geraldine Ferraro Do?" Here is the transcript for the sermon I shared in that morning's service.
A few months ago, I heard through my "family grapevine" that one of my kids was not a feminist, or at least he had been saying negative things about feminists. I was in complete disbelief and that night at dinner, I asked him about it directly.
Here's how the conversation went:
Me: "I hear you've been saying negative things about feminists."
Him: "Well, yeah. I mean, I don't get how they want to be treated better than men."
Me (seeing red, freaking out inside): "Feminists don't want to be treated better than men, they want women to be treated equally to men."
(at this point my husband and the other kids made some excuse to leave their half-eaten food at the table...)
Him: "I don't understand. Women ARE treated equally to men. These feminists want to be treated better."
At this point, I totally broke down into a rant about how women are NOT treated equally, citing numerous examples of bias and discrimination against women in general, but also bias and discrimination that I've experienced personally. I pointed out all of his privileged statuses (sex, gender identity, race, class, geography, able-bodied, apparent sexual orientation...he's at the top of the privilege chain). My son sat there wide-eyed and in silence, finishing his tacos.
I believe I ended with, "I can't believe you're MY son, you live with me, and you don't know that gender discrimination exists."
As I was preparing for this service, I recalled the stories shared last year when a group of women in our congregation who were having a decade birthday gathered in celebration. During one portion of the day-long event, we shared what life was like in different decades and I was struck by how much, but how little, things had changed for those of us turning 40 compared to those turning 50, 60, 70, 80 and even 90 years old last year. Some of the women talked about having to choose between having a career and having a family. Others shared how career options were limited to teacher, nurse or secretary. It was a day full of reflection and joy, and still I left feeling a little disheartened. For all of the progress that feminism has made in promoting equality, there are still so many ways we fall short.
Women still only make 79% of what men in similar positions make.
Only 29% of speaking characters and only 20% of employed characters in films are women.
Only 20% of Congress and the Senate are women.
Only 14% of top executives in the Fortune 500 are women.
Eroding abortion rights. Rape culture. Catcalling. Gamergate. Mansplaining.
Interviewing an all-woman team of astronauts and asking them about hair, makeup and men.
There are still so many ways, large and small, that gender influences your choices, opportunities and life experiences.
So why did my son believe that women are treated equally? And why, when I asked a female member of YRUU to share a reflection today, did she answer that she couldn’t share a reflection because she has never been discriminated against? Is the world that our kids are seeing more equal or inclusive than what the data would suggest?
One answer may be that we feminists have done such a good job of promoting equality that it has been ingrained in our children. My son truly believed that women are treated equally, and some of that I’m going to take credit for. He’s grown up watching me, after all: in his lifetime, I led and grew a very successful division of an agency, I started my own company, spoke internationally, wrote a book, and have been at various times the primary breadwinner at home. He’s also seen me speak on this chancel.
In fact, he’s seen a lot of women in leadership in our church. From Reverend Deborah Mero who led the congregation we joined while living in Pennsylvania, to Reverend Julia and Reverend Caitlin here at USSB, all but one of the religious leaders Jackson has had personal experience with have been women. And that’s likely true of a lot of Unitarian Universalist youth. Currently, almost 60% of UU ministers are women.
But even that majority percentage doesn’t tell the whole story. Although women are 60% of our clergy, they are still very underrepresented in the leadership of our largest congregations. Senior ministers of large congregations are overwhelmingly male. And maybe in part because of the size of the congregations they serve, female ministers still make less money than their male counterparts.
Still, all of this could easily be lost on a teenager whose mom has been instilling feminist beliefs into him since he was born, or on any children of highly privileged feminists who have only been told what equality should look like and not shown the inequality that still exists. My son looked around his world and seeing his successful mom and women in leadership roles all around him, made the assessment that this is what equality looks like.
Our current world, however, is definitely not my vision of what gender equality looks like.
As I’ve thought about it, I realized I have no idea of what it WOULD look like. What is my vision of a feminist utopia? How might it be the same or different from your vision?
Last month, a new book, The Feminist Utopia Project, was published. It is made up of short stories, artwork, and other depictions from 57 different feminists of what the world might look like if gender equality existed. Each of these stories focuses on an aspect of society that the author or artist is passionate about.
Digging into these visions, I started to notice a trend. In their depictions of what a feminist utopia looked like, it wasn’t just about gender equality. Their works painted a picture of overall equality: gender, racial, class...the visions incorporated what the world might look like if we were all treated equally, respecting our differences and providing for freedom of choice.
I have a confession: lately I have been struggling with the label feminist. As our family has been learning more about trans identities and the gender spectrum, the word feminist has felt too limited, too tied to the binary concept of male or female. I have always been a loud and proud feminist, and yet, I have felt a tension in fighting for equal rights for women when there are other marginalized identities that feel left out of that fight. There are even tensions among people who identify as feminists in how to advocate for women of color or trans women. And what about people who are agender, like my oldest child?
And yet, as I’ve heard celebrities recently claiming, “I’m not a feminist. I’m a humanist,” my reaction to that generalization is a strongly negative one, as has been my reaction to the #AllLivesMatter counter-campaign to #BlackLivesMatter. Doesn’t it make it harder to fight for the rights of a marginalized group when you don’t name them? Doesn’t it become easier to obscure the struggle of gender equality if it’s lumped under the label of human equality?
The label of feminist is unique in that no other group fighting for equality have a name. There is no name for people fighting for racial equality. There is no label for people passionate about equal rights regardless of your sexual orientation, or immigration rights, or for fighting against poverty. The only other social justice group with an identity label are environmentalists, and even that name has fallen out of style.
So what is a feminist like me to do?
Maybe the place to start is to embrace the concept of intersectionality, a term used to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc. are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. A vision of a feminist utopia wouldn’t be complete without addressing all types of discrimination, because our identities are not limited to our gender identities.
Feminism is meaningful to me as a starting point for thinking about equality because of the intersectionality of my identity and privilege. Perhaps for you, racial equality is where you start. Or accessibility drives you because of your disability. Wherever you start, whatever the inequality that inspires you to action is no more or less meaningful than what drives me or her or them. Much like how each of the pieces in The Feminist Utopia Project are from the author’s or artist’s particular view and perspective, so too will each of our utopian visions spring from our reality, our privilege, and what we feel passionately about.
For me, imagining what utopia looks like is still a struggle. As much as I want to be able to work towards a vision of what equality looks like, it’s hard to see it clearly through the day to day realities that obscure my view. If I can’t articulate my own vision of utopia, how can I explain the difference between the reality of today and my vision for the future to my son? In the introduction of The Feminist Utopia Project, the editors acknowledge the challenge we face in imagining a gender-equal world. They write:
“When we yearn for more - food, power, sex, love, time - we are gluttonous, egomaniacal, slutty, desperate, silly. To want less, to be less hungry, we are told, is to be “reasonable.” After long enough, we tell ourselves this, too. Sexism justifies itself by commandeering our logic and, quietly, the limits of what is constrict our logic of what should be. Misogyny comes to taste like air, feel like gravity: so common we barely notice it, so entrenched it’s hard to conceive of a world without it. So how can we propose new ways of living when misogyny fogs even our imaginations? And even if we tried - where and when would we organize not just to preserve what we have but to build a wildly better future?”
Where and when would we organize to build a wildly better future?
Where and when can we talk about, form, and challenge each others’ visions of what equality looks like? Where and when can we collaborate, support and inspire each other to reflect on our privilege and plan actions to move our world closer to equality?
Here. Now. And every Sunday.
Please join me in a few moments of reflection on what your vision of utopia looks like. Think about how we might think differently about gender, race, body size, sex, family or governance. Imagine about what equality would look like for you.
As we leave each others’ company this morning, hold on to your vision of equality. Share it with someone after the service. Share it with a friend over coffee this week. Write it down. Draw it. Know that it’s a work in progress. And as you go through your week, acknowledge the instances where reality differs from your vision. Name it. The only way for us to get to utopia is to work together today to build the path. Go in peace, go in love. Let us call out a blessing.