Liberal feminist independence and my struggle against internalized ableism

As a disabled person, I have often trouble letting people do things for me. It’s a part of my internalized ableism.

The things I need are always changing. When my anxiety is bad, I’ll ask a friend to come hang out just because I need not to be alone. Sometimes I need someone to make me dinner.  Sometimes it’s a ride somewhere, because I can’t drive. Once or twice a friend has done my laundry for me when I was not able to do it. I’m more “independent” than lots of disabled folks, but I still need help.

But asking for help is hard. Even though I learned years ago how to do it, I still feel weird about it. I remember a conversation I had with a friend a couple of years ago when I was going through a difficult time. I was talking about being grateful for all the support I was getting from the people in my life, and I told him that I felt guilty because I could never repay all of the things that people were doing for me. He said to me, “but you know that it’s not about repaying, right?” I knew, but I find it so hard to remember.  It’s hard not to see myself as lazy. It’s hard to feel like I deserve all the support that I get.

When people support me, sometimes it’s just a favour. But I’ve had to teach myself to think of these supports as accommodations for my disability. If they are “favours”, I feel like I can never repay them all. If I think of them as accommodations for my disability (which is what they are), it’s easier to believe that I’m entitled to them.  If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that the line between “helping out a friend” and “accommodations for disability” is sometimes very blurry.

I grew up in a liberal feminist family, where my sister and I were encouraged to be independent women. We were raised to believe in our own abilities and to believe that we didn’t need a man to be complete. We were raised to value higher education and to think about our careers. And most importantly, we were taught that we could do everything we needed for ourselves. 

My parents had good, feminist intentions. But the approach was unintentionally individualistic. I came to believe, on some level, that if I couldn’t do everything for myself, I wasn’t good enough. I also learned that if people did things for me I owed them something in return. I internalized this individualism.

Feminists perpetuate this all the time. While I love Beyoncé’s lyrics as much as the next person, when we picture the ultimate feminist, why is that we picture someone who doesn’t need anyone’s help? Why does she have to live alone and use men only as a source of pleasure? Why does she have to be good at everything, from cooking and laundry to career moves, and fitting in time for a social life, too? Why isn’t our ideal feminist just a regular person who happens to be full of love and rage?

In reality we are all interdependent. We depend on each other all the time, for help, for work, for whatever. Anyone who claims to be totally independent is simply ignorant of their privilege.

The liberal feminist ideal of the Independent Woman perpetuates the lie that we can do everything for ourselves. It’s just a feminized version of the American Capitalist lie: that we can all just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and everything will be ok, and if you’re not successful, you’re obviously lazy.

Instead of teaching our children to be independent, what if we taught them the value of interdependence and autonomy? Interdependence meaning that we rely on each other for help, because nobody can be good at everything, and nobody has capacity 100% of the time. Autonomy because even when we need help, we still have the right and capacity to make decisions for ourselves.

I’m exhausted from trying to be a “successful”, “independent” woman. It’s an ideal that I can never and will never live up to.  Learning the concept of interdependence and allowing it to permeate my existence has been the only thing that has liberated me from a struggle that I can never win.  I will probably never be “successful”. But I can be loving, I can be good at some things, and I can be a part of community.