Konstantin Makovsky, Herring Dish
By Anna Abramzon
Last year, I went to a feminist conference. This was before Trump was elected, before pussy hats, before feminism regained its place at the center of the political round table. As it turned out, the feminist conference mostly focused on same sex marriage — after all, equal rights are women’s rights. Right on. During an emotional session, as a lesbian couple told of their moving journey to the altar, an elderly American woman next to me leaned over and whispered, “this is not feminism.” I was stumped and must have looked it. “Feminism,” she said, “is being able to buy a dishwasher without your husband having to sign the credit card.” Her words stuck with me more than just about anything else I heard at that conference.
Apparently, there was a time in America when stores would not sell large items to women without the signatures of their husbands or fathers. The idea of not being able to buy a dishwasher without a husband’s written permission is foreign to me to the point of absurdity, like a scene out of I Love Lucy. I think of my grandparents — my babushka who has surely never asked my dedushka’s permission for anything. At the same time, there’s my dedushka, who has surely never cooked a meal or washed a shirt and who definitely does nothing at all without asking his wife’s permission. And they have never owned a dishwasher. Are their gender roles completely different than that of their American peers?
I write this essay aboard a flight for a work conference. In the days leading up to this trip, I have had to spend more phone time than I care to think about calming my babushka and reassuring her that my husband is fully capable of taking care of our children and managing the house while I am away. Yes, he will feed them. Yes, he will change diapers. Yes, he knows which medicine they need, and when. Dare I tell her that he has likely changed more diapers than I have? “Your husband is so special,” my babushka likes to tell me, “Most men can’t do these things.” “Yes they can,” I tell her, “some just choose not to.” Just like I’m sure I could change a tire if I really wanted to, but I choose not to, right? They think I’m crazy and that my husband is a saint.
“I know, I know, you are all feminists now,” my dedushka likes to say. I can never fully tell if his tone is contempt or admiration when he says this. Maybe both. Of course, we are all feminists now! But weren’t we always? Isn’t my babushka the ultimate feminist? She worked as an engineer her whole life, maintained the household, waited in the lines, cooked all the meals with whatever ingredients she could get, kept her son and husband and then granddaughter clean, and safe, and warm and educated and took pride in all of it. She may not know she is a feminist, but if the definition of feminism is living life backwards and in heels, then she is that definition. The only difference in my young family is that my husband is a feminist, too. Lucky for him, we own a dishwasher, which I purchased, all on my own.