I believe women have always been important. Even when laws, codes, and structures formed a cage, we have done valuable things. I am a feminist because of this belief, and an activist because I believe people designed those laws, codes, and structures which undermined my gender and people can design a world where my plumbing won’t impede me living my life.
I study history to collect examples of women in power, the systems which restricted us, and because it involves reading and debating, both of which I find fun. I study philosophy to understand how to shape just systems and argue for them. I study public policy because I believe that is the most effective method for improving women’s position in the world. (The voice minor and Arabic certificate are mostly for fun, and because I take a perverse joy in being a polymath).
To believe the opposite–that women have only been leaders since 1965 and before that spent millennia numbly popping out babies and anxiously obeying men’s orders–defies both history and logic. No matter how stirring their writing or attractive their slogans, first, second, or third wave feminists were building on the shoulders of a billion female leaders over millions of years and they could not transform the leadership abilities of an entire gender even if they had to.
Even those of us who are among the feminist faithful, who believe to our bones that women and men deserve equal opportunities to live in and change our world, need regular reminders that we’re supported by history. It doesn’t hurt when those reminders are attractively packaged by PBS or the AMC (as the costume dramas Downton Abbey and Mad Men are, respectively).
That’s why I enjoy watching Downton Abbey, a costume and period drama based in Edwardian England beginning at the sinking of the Titanic. Not because any of the characters are straw feminists; while some of the characters do feminist things like think independently of their fathers, attend suffragette rallies, or choose their own careers, each of them are representatives of their period rather than a political ideology.
No, the reason I love accurate (or even accurate-ish) period dramas is that they make the case for feminist better than any writing or slogan. Watching a maid fall into utter destitution because of an unplanned pregnancy, an Earl’s daughter thrown around by her fiance without rebuke, or a good man ruined by sexist divorce law all make clear why feminism exists. The same goes for watching the brilliant secretaries who populate the world of Mad Men accept casual workplace sexual harassment, lower wages, and spousal abuse.
The facts of history, even wiggled around to make more convenient to a TV plot, are argument enough for feminism. Further my commitment to the politics of equality may not have been the aim of the shows’ writers, but then I imagine the creators of Xena: Warrior Princess didn’t plan on it being 9-year-old me’s favorite show, ridiculous anachronisms and all. I take my heroes and my supporting data where I find it, and am grateful to be able to draw from something a little more respectable than Xena.
“[N]o woman had ‘the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.’”–Judge in Margaret Sanger’s obscenity trial, 1915-17