As I mentioned in my review of “All That Is”, I had a number of occasionally tricky conversations about feminism over the Christmas holidays. And as is so often the way, the process of defending something has crystallised my own views, and forced me to re-evaluate exactly what it is I mean when I cry “I am a feminist!” over the brandy butter.
The brandy butter might have been replaced by a miserable to-do list, but I should start by laying my cards on the table. I am a feminist. I support feminism – which the Oxford Dictionary defines as being “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes.” Essentially it’s a no-brainer – I’m a thirty-year old woman who has grown up at a time when it’s still acceptable for a national newspaper to print topless pictures of women; when a growing political force in the UK has spawned an MEP who is totally comfortable saying that, “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of childbearing age”; and when it’s apparently an acceptable thing to threaten to rape women on Twitter or in a stand-up routine.
That doesn’t mean that I’m always totally comfortable with shouting my feminism from the roof-tops, though, or that I think it’s a flawless ideology. Not because I have an issue with the essence of the word, but because, culturally at least, it does have negative connotations for a lot of people, some of which I think we need to talk about more. Ultimately it also comes down to the fact that I would never usually try to define myself using an “ism” – I’m with Ferris Bueller on that one – because any collective is always going to have elements within it you don’t really want to associate yourself with. Caitlin Moran is an awesome role model for any young person, but do I really want to align myself with pop-stars who now claim they’re feminists because they take their clothes off and writhe about on stage? Or a woman who wants to eliminate the male sex? No, not really. I also just don’t really think about my gender that much, or ever want to start sentences with the phrase, “as a woman.” I appreciate, of course, that I have the luxury of taking that approach because of the brave women in history who fought so hard to give me the opportunities I’ve had, but there seems to be to be a paradox in fighting for gender equality using such an obviously gendered word. I’ll come back to that problem in a bit.
So, what are these negative connotations, then? First, the man-hating chestnut. Being a feminist does not mean that you hate men, or long to subject them to centuries of a dominant matriarchy. That’s not always as easy to refute as you’d think, though. It doesn’t really help when feminists write articles educating men on “what not to do,” or when even moderate online feminists gleefully seize on any ambiguous comment made by a man and tear him to shreds. If a man wrote an article saying, “hey, all of womankind, let me teach you how not to act like a tit,” I’d probably be fairly irritated. I’m also not convinced it helps when feminists make films showing what it’s like for a woman to walk down a street as scores of men heckle and stalk her, and offer it up as the norm. I’ve had a few sticky walks home in my time, and certainly know what it’s like to feel intimidated – as I’m sure most women do – but I don’t run a gauntlet of cat-calls every time I nip down to the shops. I’ve had a very privileged life in many respects but I haven’t lived in a bubble, and my experience is that, in the UK at least, those kinds of encounters are pretty rare. That doesn’t make them any less shocking, or wrong, or frightening when they do happen – but we don’t need to ramp it up. The reality of it happening from time to time in 2015 is weird enough.
In a similar vein to the “man-hating” point, I get the feeling that for some feminists, there’s a certain enjoyment to be had in catching men out. Let me repeat that feminism has absolutely nothing to do with hating men – but that does not mean that some women who call themselves feminists do not seek out a kind of moral superiority. There are indeed some fairly middle-of-the-road feminists out there who approach conversations on the subject like carrion birds, eagerly pouncing on any slip of the tongue or misplaced word which can be used to evince sexism. It’s exhausting. Feminism was born because women were genuinely oppressed – they had no legal rights, no power over their own lives, no right to education or independently-earned money. So when middle-class women sit around a dinner table now, drinking white wine and berating the poor man who has had the gall to say something they view as being “off-message”, it instinctively makes me want to distance myself from the “feminism” they are using as a way to score points: female genital mutilation is a modern outrage against British women’s rights – being offered a seat on the tube is not. That does not, though, mean that the rest of us should just abandon ship. Just as there are some sexist men out there, there are bound to be feminists who don’t really like men. I don’t refuse to support democracy just because it’s a kind of political structure shared by some people whose views radically differ to my own, and I won’t abandon feminism just because I disagree with the views espoused by a handful of other feminists.
And then there’s the word itself. Thanks to the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, many people now consider feminism to be the political, social and economic equality of the sexes. What that neutral definition misses, though, is the emphasis on female advocacy. This is a word which is totally rooted in what it is to be a woman – hardly surprising, when you consider why it was created and when. Now, though, as feminists are increasingly inviting men to join the party and wear t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “this is what a feminist looks like”, men understandably don’t always know where they stand. If this is about equality, then when does it just talk about the feminine part of the equation? How would women feel if men asked us to embrace “manism” as a way of articulating equality between the sexes? Those totally fair questions do not mean that the word itself has run its course, though – they simply highlight the fact that this is an historic term forged in the heat of dissent, when the only way to achieve equality was to advance the cause of women. Of course the parameters have shifted over time, and feminism (in the UK at least) is no longer about procuring the vote for women, or legal independence. Now, it’s purpose is to achieve fairness in a greatly-changed, but still flawed social set-up. The feminism of 2015 is not the feminism of 1890, or 1970 – of course it is rooted in the advances made by those waves of feminism, but it is not shackled to them. The fact that “female” is at the heart of the word is our legacy – a reminder of the stark imbalance that used to exist until very recently, and the fight believers in equality specifically needed to undertake. And, as Caitlin Moran points out, the ultimate aim of feminism is to cease to exist. The moment we have raised women’s rights to the same level as men’s, “feminism” will evaporate and we can brand the ensuing preservation of equality any way we want to. We’re just not there yet – so hold on, ye haters of the word, it shouldn’t take too much longer.
So no, I don’t agree with every branch of feminism. To those feminists who think it is a movement for women only I say good luck to you, but leave me out of it. To those people who think all feminists have it in for Andy Warhol, I’d say do your research. Of course there are outliers, but there’s a very good reason why misandry and feminism are two very different things. To those people who dislike feminism because women and men are biologically different – parity and uniformity are not the same thing, and we’re not trying to elide them. I know I’m never going to bench-press 700 lb, and I wouldn’t expect my other half to breast-feed our children. I simply want to live in a world in which I don’t have to risk penury in order to have a child (thanks for the offer, though, UKIP).