By Wendy Webber
Humanist Service Corps Ghana Co-Coordinator
I grew up surrounded by strong women. Ironically, this, at least in part, is the reason I was so anti-feminist into my 20s. I came to adulthood with the idea that feminism was a thing of the past. It had been of world changing importance, but: mission accomplished. I believed that the feminist banner had morphed into anti-men rather than pro-women. And I couldn’t get behind that. I can’t get behind movement that says some people are better than others. But I didn’t understand.
Growing up surrounded by such powerful, empowered women, I didn’t notice how special that community was. The fish doesn’t know it’s in water.
I was surrounded by powerful women, but not the kind who are out at rallies every weekend. If that were so, maybe I would have seen what they were fighting for. No, the women in my life—my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts, my parent’s friends, many of my teachers and coaches—weren’t on the picket lines of the fight for equality. Rather, they were living as if gender equality was realized. That’s a different kind of activism. One that is much more subtle, but a powerful one nonetheless.
The community that raised me included countless women with advanced degrees working at the top of their fields. Many worked or volunteered in our community to end domestic violence, for prisoner’s rights, for better education, and supported local arts. They were farmers, business owners, stock car racers, and moms—some stay-at-home, some working outside the house too. Others unapologetically chose not to be moms. And I saw men in my community who were not threatened by these powerful women. Some choosing a house spouse role themselves.
Not that these women didn’t face inequality. They did. And it’s not that I grew up in a home that didn’t discuss ethics, politics, or justice. In my home it was a given that all people are equal—that they have equal rights, equal worth. And we talked about where we as a society failed to realize that equality. From a young age I was versed in the civil rights movement, the ongoing injustice native communities face, the legacy of the Japanese internment camps, the LGBT movement, and dozens of other historical and contemporary equality failures and the movements that tried to right them. The fact that women and men were equal was never in question. My dad even talked to me about how black women are the too often unsung heroes of the civil rights movement and how sexist many of the sung heroes were.
We did talk about gender issues. In fact my mom gave me my first feminist lessons—even if I didn’t recognize them as such until recently. Once in high school I talked to my mom about how I forced our dog to follow me around the house when I was alone at night (for the most part he did that anyway so it wasn’t all that forceful) because I was scared to be alone. It’s one of the few times I remember specifically addressing contemporary gender inequality. She told me that most men will never understand what it means to be a woman. That woman calculate for their safety in scenarios most men aren’t even conscious of. That being home doesn’t automatically make you feel safe. Still, more often than not, when gender did come up, the conversation was about the past or couched in such a way that I somehow didn’t see the oppressive angle.
This idea of equality, which came in part from my parents, in part from my education, and in part from my experience of the world, became a central tent pole for my understanding of the world and what my purpose in it is. It’s why I came to call myself a humanist. For me the centrality of equality came first. Humanism, which espouses equality as a fundamental idea, came second and only appealed to me—historically a non-joiner—because of the all inclusive equality I find in humanist philosophy.
I called myself a humanist before I called myself a feminist. For me, the two are inseparable. Humanism is about the fight for equality of all people. Yes, the rights of non-religious people are an important part of that fight. But I can’t be for our rights and not stand up for the rights of other marginalized groups. A movement will only be stronger when it stands in solidarity with others.
What learning about humanism and my related interfaith work has made me realize is that there is no “true” version of any ideology. There are as many kinds of Christianity as their are Christians. Are there anti-men feminists? Yes. Is that what feminism is all about? No. The anti-men feminists are an extremist wing of feminism. They’re out there, but the vast majority of feminists understand that women’s equality is good for men too. Good for their sons, their brothers, their fathers, and, in the case of male feminists, themselves. And good for all people of all races and beliefs.
Since I’ve been living in Ghana, my gender has been a central part of my day to day experience in a way it never was in the United States. Every single day here, my gender is relevant to the course of my day—because of assumptions made in my conversations with strangers and colleagues about gender roles, because of clothing choices I make because of the conservative rural community I live in, or because of the unique challenges being a woman in a leadership role brings.
Women have advanced in many areas including education, the corporate world, and politics to name a few, but the battles continue. We are still fighting to feel safe, to feel unthreatened, and to feel empowered in our choices. Humanists appreciate these struggles not only for women but for all people.
Until quite recently, my gender was a fact of my life, but one about which I have not been fully aware. As I witnessed in the women of my community growing up, I lived as if my gender didn’t matter—as if that equality they—we—strive for already exists. That immersion made it difficult for me to see how much is left to do before true gender equality can be realized. I don’t blame them for my blindness. To a certain extent I still intend to live out that equality—the world can catch up. But will do so with my eyes open to ways that gender does affect my life or any person’s life. And I will do whatever I can to change the status quo until living that equality is no longer a revolutionary act.