How come that when it comes to feminism and motorcycles, so many women riders seem to detest the very word “feminist” and whenever gender equality comes up, they hurriedly assure “I’m not a feminist!”? I find this very odd and frustrating.
When I was in school girls were required to wear skirts or dresses, told they could aspire to be teachers, nurses, or social workers but really they should be mothers and stay at home. My mother implied the main reason for marriage was security, which is the lesson that had been passed down from her mother. I clearly remember the dawning of the women’s movement: the marches, protests, and cries for equality and freedom to exercise control over one’s own body. Feminism was seen as a positive move towards that equality.
The changes since that time have been monumental and incremental simultaneously. Women have far more employment choices, birth control has given them more say in the timing of, or decision not to have, pregnancies, and there is a greater acceptance of lifestyles besides marriage and staying home. Women celebrate their bodies through clothing, or lack of clothing, remaining celibate or having multiple partners, and pursuing vocations and avocations that only the most daring attempted a mere fifty years ago.
But the backlash, while unsurprising from men, is also coming from women. Feminism has, in many circles, become a negative, a ‘man-hating’ pejorative. It’s been defined in ways unrecognizable by the pioneers of the movement, and too many today are boxing feminists into categories that restrict, rather than promote, freedom. Women are adamantly claiming they aren’t feminist, spitting it out like a bad taste, a dirty word.
What’s the actual definition of feminism? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it’s ‘the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state.’ If expanded to acknowledge the fluidity of genders, we can even substitute ‘all people’ for ‘women,’ and ‘everyone’ for ‘as men.’ Emma Watson does an excellent job of explaining a very contemporary model of feminism in her speech to the UN.
So, how can we best reclaim the word, and restore it to its original intent: equality for women?
I’m intrigued by the idea of stories. What stories do we tell about ourselves, and what stories to we hold about others. For example, if you’re a motorcyclist who is adamantly ATGATT (all the gear, all the time), what do you think when you see someone riding in shorts, sandals, and hair blowing in the wind? At one point in time I noticed irritation, self-righteousness, and condemnation, judging their decisions against my (of course) far better, and correct ones. I was right and they were wrong, and it took all my power to refrain from letting them know.
What changed my mind? Writing ‘The Women’s Guide to Motorcycling.’ The reality is over half the US, and much of the world, does not require protection for motorcyclists. Each rider gets to decide for herself, in those circumstances, what works best for them, and for whatever reasons they choose. My condemnation did nothing to promote safety; in fact, it shut down the conversation before it began. What does promote connection is sharing, listening, and recognizing the freedom we want is also the freedom for others to make different choices. Our choice is to live with the discomfort of that, and celebrate our individuality. Our power is in modeling behavior we value, and giving others the choice to accept or reject it based on their own values.
So isn’t feminism promoting the same concept? That we each can decide what’s best for us? That it’s okay for a feminist to wear skimpy clothing at a motorcycling event, even if it’s historically been an enticement for men to purchase bikes, or to pose sexily on bikes without showing proper gear? To be covered in tattoos, ride in full leathers, or to wear pink? To ride with only men vs. supporting women only groups? In essence, why does one group get to define what’s feminist for all women?
The reality is we all make different choices. Some of us see displays of sexiness as self-affirming; choosing to own our bodies in whatever way we want. Others are offended by such displays, fearing they being used to pander to men. Who’s correct? What if, no matter how uncomfortable the choices, they both are? Isn’t feminism the right to be able to decide for ourselves?
Alongside those choices, however, there’s value in conversations, discussions of the motivations and meanings of behaviors, acceptance of viewpoints with which we disagree, and finding the common ground: feminism, the equality of women, the equality of all people. As equals, we get to make the same choices, mistakes, blunders, and accomplishments as anyone else. But most importantly, we get the freedom to tell our own stories without condemnation from others.
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