Feminism and Civil War
My house has a name: Motteration. My husband’s last name is Mott, and the name is tongue in cheek, a reference to the phrase “do all things in moderation.” When I married David Mott, I did not take his last name. I’d been Lisa Meece for two decades at that point, and I like the way my name sounds (even if it did come from my first husband). I’m nowhere near famous, but people know me by the name I adopted in my twenties, and I had no desire to change it either when I got divorced or when I got remarried.
A friend asked me why I would live in a house that didn’t even bear my name - and then teased me about how that decision reflected on my feminism. If I were really a feminist, the argument seemed to go, I would insist on my own name rather than being willing to use his.
The conversation revealed that we had fundamentally different views of what it means to be a feminist. I know there are technical terms for these things, and actual social and historical context in which these things were forged. I’m going to ignore all of that in this post in favor of a different analogy - one based in the Marvel Universe’s Civil War timeline.
Geek disclaimer - I’ve never read the comic book version of this story, so all of this analogy comes from viewing the 2016 movie and talking to friends who have read the comic version.
In Civil War, there is a fundamental conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. Tony Stark, whose alternative identity is Iron Man, argues that superheroes should submit to regulation in the form of the Sokovia accords. Steve Rodgers, whose alternative identity is Captain America, argues that heroes should be free from regulation, and that personal judgement is a better guide to good behavior than any set of government rules.
My friend was arguing Tony Stark’s position here. She believes that you are a good or bad feminist based on how well you follow the feminist ruleset. If you break the rules, there’s something wrong with your feminism.
Tony Stark believes in rules in large part because his experience is from the perspective of the person making the rules. The wealth and intelligence he was born with put him in a position where he’s been widely recognized as the smartest guy in every room he’s ever been in. If there are rules to be written, he assumes that he’ll get a big say in writing them. If he ends up disagreeing with the rules, he’s confident he can get whoever’s in charge of writing them to change them so he does agree with them. Or he’ll just ignore them. The point is, for Tony, the rules aren’t anything to be afraid of, because he can’t imagine there would ever be consequences stemming from his behavior running afoul of someone else’s rules.
My own feminism veers toward the Steve Rodgers position. Steve Rodgers fought the Nazis in WWII, so he's seen first hand that sometimes the rules are not only wrong, but absolutely horrific. He's seen Shield infiltrated by Hydra, creating a situation where the people writing the rules can't be trusted. He believes that people can and should be trusted to make decisions that are right for themselves and their situation.
It's not that Steve doesn't believe in rules at all. For instance, traffic laws are a social good because they allow people to largely predict the behavior of other drivers, and keep the roads safer. But some rules, like whether a woman should change her name based on her marital status, are very dependent on the people and the context involved.
For instance, I generally don’t believe that a woman should be socially required to share a last name with a man she marries. However, when I got married the first time, I chose to change my name. In my case, I was doing two things. First, I was distancing myself from my family of origin, which worked for who I was becoming at the time for very personal reasons. Second, I was taking a name that had a certain ring to it. Lisa Meece rolls off the tongue in a way Lisa McLean never did. I was delighted to change my name at the time. It meant something different to me personally than what my friend assumed it must have meant.
The rules our society lives by are changing a great deal. What we grew up with has a social and cultural context that routinely excludes people who look, love, or worship differently than the Europeans who colonized this part of the world a couple hundred years ago. The rules, then, don’t have the same weight for everyone. If you happen to have the good fortune to fall naturally within the parameters that history approves of you may (like Tony Stark) not see any problem with the rules. You might be afraid of people who are different than you doing things that threaten the way you see the world.
If you’ve experienced the world from a different frame, though, where you see rules that are already a threat to how you exist in the world, you are much more likely to (like Steve Rogers) question the value of the rules.