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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

You don't need a daughter to want a better world

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Last January, Women's Marches around the world brought protesters to the streets in droves, unified in our opposition to President Trump and all he symbolized: coarse misogyny, unencumbered male entitlement and the unchecked sexual harassment it enabled, threats to women's rights and freedoms around the globe. Many of those women marched with one message: I'm doing this for my daughter.

It's a sentiment you often hear from women. We go back to school for our daughters. We alternately drop out of the work force for our daughters or go back to work for them. We eat healthy, lose weight and prioritize self-care to set a good example for our daughters. We vote for particular candidates to ensure a better future for our daughters. We support abortion rights so that our daughters can control their own bodies. We want to save the environment for our daughters.

This is not a bad impulse, and there remains much to do for girls around the world. But it can also undercut women's progress. A woman's value doesn't derive from her status as a mother. We are entitled to rights and liberties by plain virtue of our humanness.

If 2017 began with women marching for their daughters and ended with a tidal wave of female rage directed at predacious men, perhaps 2018 should be the year women resolve to go after what we want and deserve - simply for us. Imagine what could be if we did the same things we say we do for our daughters out of our own self-interest.

There is little more foundational to American womanhood than self-sacrifice, and sacrifice for children in particular. Women are the country's caretakers: in our houses for children, the elderly and the infirm; in schools and day cares; in elder care and hospice facilities; in hospitals and clinics; in hotels and restaurants.

At home, we make sure lunchboxes are packed, food is served, dishes are washed, boo-boos are kissed and doctor's appointments are attended. At the office, we make sure meetings are scheduled, events are planned and everyone at the table feels heard. We do this out of expectation and upbringing. In households across America, girls do more unpaid labor than their brothers, and this dynamic of free female work in the service of others is so pervasive it's nearly invisible.

Caring for others, as women do, is a good thing, and a necessary one. But in the process our own desires get shelved. Our lives become smaller.Many women respond by projecting what they want onto their daughters. This is surely natural and often positive. The problem isn't an aspiration to make the world a better place for one's children; it's that women don't feel quite as entitled to make the world a better place for themselves.

Part of the "I'm doing this for my daughter" rhetoric is strategic. Often, what we say we want for our daughters are the same things we also seek. It's just more palatable, and more culturally tolerated, to frame our own demands for basics like bodily autonomy and respect in the workplace as hopes for the next generation.

After all, who doesn't want the world to be better for girls? Girls are an easy sell. They are conveniently presexual and largely seen as quiet, compliant and optimistic. Their needs can be packaged into neat buzzwords and catchphrases: "empowerment," "equality," "fulfillment of their dreams."

Women, though - we are more complicated. We are creatures whose cravings have been systematically squelched in nearly every corner of the world, whose clothes and bodies and brains and ambitions have been politicized, legislated and reviled.

Our most basic of human behaviors - having sex, having babies, loving others - have been pushed through the sausage-maker of our cultural expectations and norms and reshaped in the service of someone else's pleasures, needs, or appetites. Fear of what women might desire animates much of anti-feminist American politics. To keep us this small, we are rewarded for putting others first and punished for acting in our own self-interest.

Women are hungry. But having been bred to feel sated by denial, half the time we don't even know what it is we hunger for. When we do pursue what we crave, the consequences of saying so out loud can be stark: pity the poor woman foolish enough to say that she doesn't want children because she'd rather spend her money traveling the world, or had an abortion because she just did not want a baby, or admits she took the job because she craved power, or rejects marrying the nice guy because she would rather date and sleep with whomever she pleases.

 Those women are self-absorbed, greedy or deceitful; if they're also self-identified feminists, they know to filter their truths carefully, so as not to risk undermining the entire cause they are fighting for with the suggestion that feminism might be motivated by unvarnished self-interest.

And so we focus on the next generation of not-yet-women.In emphasizing that women are fighting so that our daughters can have the freedom to do as they please, we actually halt the progress we want. Without meaning to, we feed into the same norms that keep the world a hostile place for women who want a good and fair life. Do we want our daughters to spend their lives fencing themselves in so that they might better cater to others? Do we want our daughters to live their lives primarily in the service of their daughters?

If not, then we should treat ourselves with the love and adoration we bestow on our girls and start demanding what we actually want, right now. We should learn to feed ourselves first.

The writer is the author of "The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness" and a contributing opinion writer.

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