I was raised in Texas, in a suburb of Dallas. Where I grew up feminism isn't exactly something that is thought of in a positive way. The first time I heard about feminism it was in passing when I was in high school, and it was in the context of bra-burning. Before I went away to college I thought of feminism as something reserved for radical women who are not afraid to make spectacles of themselves.
While I was raised in a culturally conservative area of Texas, I was raised by a single mother. When you are a child of a single parent there are a lot of things that you learn to do on your own. I was about 8-years-old when I started doing my own laundry. When I was around 12 I assisted my mom in laying a stone path around our above-ground pool. The stones were about 10 pounds each (maybe more) and there were many of them. I dreaded the home improvement store because I knew that meant another home improvement project. I mowed our lawn (because who else was going to do it?), and I helped my mom grout tile in our kitchen. I painted my own room twice, and I put together furniture on my own. Needless to say, I was a pretty strong kid -- both mentally and physically.
Cut to 2014. At 24-years-old and after four years of college and about seven years in the northeast I am much more familiar with feminism, both academic and popular. I've listened and participated in conversations on representation of women in media, and I've had countless conversations with friends about our own ideas of gender equality. In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that by definition I am most certainly a feminist, I still don't like saying that out loud. I imagine my hesitation comes from the biases of my childhood combined with the stigma attached to the actual word. Also, a lot of the time I feel that feminism speaks for women with a level of privilege that I don't necessarily relate to.
I have obtained a certain amount of privilege mostly through education. I am, however, still the child of a single working mother which means a lot of the self-sufficiency I learned as a kid is very relevant to me as an adult. When I set out to live in New York people from home commented on how "brave" I was. I could sense the fear they had on my behalf, but I didn't think of moving as brave, I thought of it as something I needed to do to appease my restless spirit. When I travel alone, or when I make some sort of home-improvement, or when I speak in a room full of people, it never feels like I'm doing something radical. I'd always seen my mom making things happen and getting things done. When something needed fixing she fixed it. When bills needed to be paid she paid them. When something needed to be said she said it. I was never taught the difference between a "man's" work and a "woman's" work. All I knew is when something needed to be done, the best person to rely on is myself. I don't know how intentional things were on my mom's part, but my upbringing instilled in me an inherent trust in myself and my own abilities.
I never set out to be a feminist, and I certainly never mean to be radical. The thing is, sometimes all it takes for a person to be counter-cultural is for them to exist outside of the dominant culture. I grew up in a society where two-parent households with traditional gender roles are the expectation. That was not a viable option for me, so what I carry with me is the spirit of a person who found her own worth outside of expectation. I don't think restlessness or the desire to see the world, or the desire for education, or the need to be physically strong, or the desire to raise a family, or the desire to wear flat-heeled shoes are reserved for any certain gender. To me life is about exploring your own desires with practicality and comfort, and that is where most of my thought processes originate -- from the shoes I wear to the places I live.
I imagine most people agree that single-parent households are not ideal (I happen to agree), but I do feel fortunate that these characteristics are so deeply ingrained in me that feminism is what I am rather than an abstract idea. There is a way for that to translate to raising daughters across households. We must give women more credit for their strength -- both physically and mentally. I read a piece recently by an author who outlined her frustrations with workouts crafted specifically for women vs those crafted for men. She says there is no reason the sexes need different workouts, and women especially should be doing much more strength training with heavy weights. There is nothing wrong with being a strong woman, and strength certainly does not make a woman any less feminine. Strength is a virtue that can carry anyone much further in life than weakness.
In the end it all comes down to expectations. If we continue with the expectation that men will do the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively), then gender equality will continue to evade us. However, if high expectations are set regardless of gender, I think default gender equality is the most likely outcome.