Feminism to Me Doesn't Mean a Choice to Not Work -- Here's Why

Businesswoman on laptop at window in morning sun
Businesswoman on laptop at window in morning sun

There is a narrative that has been quite prominent recently and has gained a lot of understandable support. It is on what feminism was or is intended to provide -- a freedom to choose to women between working, or not. To choose between being a full time mother and homemaker or having an earning.

I understand and sympathize with this narrative -- women are overwhelmed everywhere trying to bear the load of social and self-imposed expectations. And we as women try to be perfect in most things we do -- not just good enough. We analyze, criticize, and torment ourselves for most minor of failings. We often can't help that, and therefore, are stretched thinner than our male counterparts. So it is understandable that we express frustrations with what progress and rights have led us into -- an arena where punches are being thrown from all sides -- and we just don't want to play anymore.

But I feel I bit differently. I feel we do have a choice, but bigger is the burden of our responsibility to maintain and build up on the struggles of those who came before us that has allowed for this choice to be possible. For other women of the world who will come after us we need to safeguard our right to work and earn, and that can't be done just in theory. Numbers need to be built up still, not reduced, and it is the numbers, which when equal, will achieve true equality in all spheres for women.

Growing up I saw my mother exhausted beyond description trying to be the perfect hostess, the best cook, a good mother, a dutiful wife and keep working. I asked her why she couldn't just quit her job? My father worked and earned enough to sustain us. Everyone asked her to quit. A pediatrician my sister was taken to was confident and adamant that the high fever she had had to do with her mother being a working woman. So why did she have to work?

Her response always was -- "for you." "So that you grow up to understand just like men are expected to provide for the family, and define their identities by their jobs, women need to too. Equality, otherwise, can never be achieved."

I pondered a lot on this over the years. After all, didn't nature intend for us to be role specific biologically? In the animal kingdom, the females are nurturers and the males gather and provide. So much peace and ease could be achieved in theory if we could respect and abide the same. If each had equal stance irrespective of whether they earned or not. If the deserved monetary equivalent in value was recognized and respected for the efforts put into running a home which often allows the breadwinner to earn.

But I realized humans are different. We have moved beyond sustaining, and our excelling is controlled by financial independence. So having an income is what allows equality and independence in our society.

Maybe it is less evident in the United States in present day, but women have trustingly accepted their role as nurturers and homemakers for centuries. But the society, which men controlled and defined in lieu of the aforementioned, didn't keep their end of the bargain. So right to education, right to work, right to pursue a passion, even right to have an identity was mass erased. For my mother -- in my growing up years -- being a working woman was an anomaly -- a sin as if almost.

So her point was, if she didn't continue doing all, no one will take away her right to be a mother and a homemaker, or that of her successors, but same couldn't be guaranteed for their right to work. The needed numbers to make this an accepted norm will not build up in the society. The precedence that has been set, whatever has been achieved, will be lost.

Equality comes with rights, but rights can't be sustained without performing to the duties. If most men in the families, irrespective of the country of residence, suddenly said they want to choose not to earn or provide for the family, will that be acceptable to most of us? Will we rise up to the occasion and step into shoes of primary bread winners?

Just like we women concern and berate ourselves with the onus on us, men flounder under their burdens too. Indian men, and American men, have told me that whether or not to earn, get a job, provide, is not a choice for them even if they would like to be a full time father instead. If there is an opposite of feminism, men have their struggles too -- again both real and perceived -- in reaping the flexibility that should offer.

So I don't see feminism as a quest for choice in regards to being able to not work. Off course that choice should exist, for both men and women, in a case by case, family by family manner, to choose to be a stay at home father or mother. But as a society, we have a responsibility to not define feminism by availability of that choice for only women.

To me feminism is about equality of men and women in terms of power, access, and voice in social, political and economic matters. Which means, we need to keep holding jobs and keep earning -- no matter how little. We need to make sure we don't turn around what has been achieved, and need to keep on building up and maintaining our numbers in all fields.

So what to do about our overwhelming loads? I feel equality again is the answer. I am fortunate to have drilled into my bones the need to force task sharing, no matter how natural it feels for me to be inclined to some over others. We co-parent, co-cook, co-launder and co-work. And even if in some fields my partner in life and chores doesn't meet the standards I feel I could have, I have trained myself to be OK with that.

I define my identity by my role in life for my family, my commitment to my causes and my work ethic in my job. I don't want to stop working, even on the toughest of days, because I believe true equality means I don't have the choice to not provide for my family just like my husband doesn't. But more importantly, I feel like I can't stop working because I can't reduce the no of working women even by one.

I have seen firsthand how having a source of income and proving as the men has slowly paved the way for social equality and balanced the power equation in families. I will therefore reduce expectations in all three spheres of my identity, but I need to maintain all of the three. That is the reality for us women, until we level the playing field not only in the developing world, but everywhere.

I have resented my mother at times growing up for missing play dates, but I understand and am proud of her stance today. And I know my daughter will be too one day no matter how many store brought or not so well prepared meals I have to feed her growing up.

For more on author visit thoughtsandrights.com