This Is What A Feminist Looks Like: Maria & Jakub

Name: Maria Pawlowska
Age: 25
Occupation: Healthcare analyst, freelance writer (with a passion for reproductive rights)
Location: UK

Name: Jakub Szamalek
Age: 25
Occupation: PhD student, writer
Location: UK

Jakub & Maria

How do you define feminism? 
Maria: For me non-discrimination, inclusion and respect for individual’s choices are at the heart of feminism.  I don’t think there should be any one thing you believe in that makes you a feminist other than respecting other people without prejudice based on gender, race, sexual orientation etc. Or sometimes I just want to shout: “down with the patriarchy”.

Jakub: I think feminism is about equality, reaching a new, fair balance between men and women. I believe that the goals of feminism should be as important for men as they are for women, as we’d all benefit enormously from living in a world where gender is not a limiting factor or an impediment to one’s ambitions, whatever they might be.

When did you first identify as a feminist? 
Maria: There was no ‘click’ or ‘aha’ moment for me. I grew up in a house where both my parents called themselves feminist, possibly before I was even born and definitely as far back as my memory goes. Feminism was an important part of my identity ever since I was a little girl. One of my first fights with my best friend in primary school was about men’s right to take their wife’s name after marriage. She didn’t believe me and I went around the whole school looking for a teacher who could confirm I was right. I was a very frustrated 8-year old champion of gender equality.

Jakub: Pretty late – which is related to my changing notion of what feminism really is (more on this below).

Maria: I dare say I can claim some credit? *winks*

Jakub: True! You helped me to change my rather unflattering perception of feminism, and I am very grateful for this.

Has your (definition of) feminism changed over time? How? 
Maria: The older I get the more political the personal gets. I realize now feminism isn’t just about the right to equal pay and a non-discriminatory legal framework. It’s also about the double standards we encounter in every bit of our personal lives: sex, house chores, becoming parents, getting married, choosing a profession and innumerable others. Feminism is as much about changing people’s mentality as it is about equal rights. I’m also much less judgmental than I used to be. I’m not sure I would have said this 3 years ago but now for example, I believe there is nothing a feminist should or shouldn’t do career-wise. Whether she wants to be a stay-at-home mom, CEO, secretary or sex worker, if the choice is really hers then telling her she shouldn’t do any of these things is plain patronizing and wrong.

Jakub: My perception of what feminism really is changed enormously over the years. As a teenager – even though I have a loving family and a close relationship with my sister and mother – I thought that feminists were somehow “bad”. I always thought that women deserve just as much as men do, yet I was convinced that those of them who fight for it are overzealous, overreacting and overbearing. I didn’t know too many feminists back then, so I imagined them as short-haired, sexually frustrated women bent on castrating all males (I was 14-16 years old, mind you!). As I grew up – and, very importantly, got to know Maria better – I realized that these were undeserved, demeaning stereotypes. The pejorative connotations of feminism, I came to realize, are a form of backlash from those who want to preserve the status quo. Sadly, some – including a teenage me – believe them even though they are for gender equality. I think that by saying out loud that I identify myself as a feminist, I make a small contribution towards eliminating these harmful sweeping statements.

Have you ever experienced resistance to identifying as a feminist? If so, why do you think that is and how do you handle it? 
Jakub: Sure – folks give me weird looks sometimes when I say I’m a feminist. Still, I have fewer problems with coming out as a feminist than Maria, which I think is related to the fact that there are fewer – any? – negative stereotypes about men-feminists, so people treat it as a curiosity. More infuriatingly, I get asked quite a lot about how do I put up with my wife being a feminist…

Maria: Just recently actually I mentioned in passing to a guy I met that I was a feminist. He then looked at my wedding ring and assumed it’s completely OK to announce to me, 3 minutes after we were introduced, that “you’re husband must be f****d” (and he was a university educated banker…). In previous years, I wasn’t necessarily so up-front with my feminism. Of course, I would never deny it and would always argue my politics, but I didn’t use the “F-word” as much as I should, so as not to “alienate” the more conservatively-minded folk. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that if my overt belief in gender equality is somehow offensive to anyone, then it’s not worth worrying about offending their sensibilities.

Jakub: I’m really baffled by this whole “why would you marry a feminist” thing. Marrying a feminist means having a wife who can share the burdens of running a household, who does not, by definition, have to be provided for, and who is not ever-needing of her husband’s support. How is one’s manhood endangered by having a wife who is an equal, rather than a junior partner?

What do you see as the future of feminism?
Maria: I see the future of feminism as a mix of the old and new issues. Although most countries have the equivalent of an Equal Pay Act, women still, on average, earn 2/3 of what men do in the same positions. We’ve been fighting for non-discrimination in the workforce for decades and there’s still a lot to do. Similarly, the issue of childcare – good, affordable childcare is still a dream rather than reality for most. And reproductive rights – I could go on and on for hours about just the backlash against abortion rights. But I also think there are other issues we need to be more active in speaking up for – the rights of migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, transsexuals, homosexuals and stay-at-home dads. These are all people who do not fit into a patriarchal society or may end up very disadvantaged in it.

Jakub: I think the future of feminism is bright – looking back, it’s clear to me that women’s position has improved dramatically over the past decades, even though there’s still lots to do. I think feminists should try to win more supporters for their (our!) cause, irrespective of their sex, nationality, etc. One way of doing this is to challenge the negative stereotypes I mentioned above – they still deter people who, perhaps without realising it clearly, largely support the feminist agenda. They – we! – need to show that feminists are normal people, who want better lives for all. Secondly, feminists should be clearer on that they’re not just fighting for “more rights for women” (which some read as “it’s time to discriminate males now!”), but full gender equality. Having said that, I think it’d be great if feminists could support men who decide to do stereotypically “unmanly” things (stay at home dads, to give one example).

Maria is a scientist turned feminist activist and writer. She studied palaeontology at both Bristol and Cambridge universities before realizing she cares more about reproductive health than extinct life. She has worked on women’s health issues with the Global Poverty Project and RESULTS UK. Her articles on different aspects of reproductive and women’s rights have appeared in The Maternal Health Task Force, RH Reality Check, HealthyPolicies, The European Pro-Choice Network and The Good Men Project among others. Maria’s also a regular contributor to Role/Reboot and Blast Magazine. She currently lives in London with her husband. You can reach her at: m.pawlowska@gatesscholar.org or follow her on Twitter: @MariaPawlowska.

Jakub is an archaeologist – although not exactly the Indiana Jones type, since he works mainly on theory – and a fiction writer. Currently, Jakub is finishing his PhD on cultural interactions in the ancient world at Cambridge University. He has also recently published and (won critical acclaim for) his first novel, a crime story set in ancient Athens, and is working on a sequel. He also runs a syndicated blog on ancient art (in Polish, though). You can reach him at: j.szamalek@gatesscholar.org.

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