(Hugely tenuous outfit link: I was told that this outfit - comprised of a second hand dress and vintage silk shirt & straw hat - made me look vaguely Virginia Woolf-esque. Despite the author's dislike of the word 'feminism', she keenly detailed the double standards and problems facing women during the 1920s. She was one of the first writers to spark my interest in feminism. The photos were taken nearly a year ago by my lovely and talented friend Rosa.)
When we talk about feminism today it's hard to know what is actually being discussed. Once one brushes aside clichés as flimsy and old as cobwebs (bra-burning, men-hating, women’s libbers with no concept of appearance seems to sum up the stereotype), then there are still a huge number of definitions or interpretations of what feminism really is. I’m a liberal feminist, meaning that I believe in equality. For me, feminism is about re-addressing balances and inequalities between the genders – and not just the ones where men have power over women. It’s being brave enough to challenge rape jokes or casual sexism; to feel that I have control over my own body; to believe that everyone has an equal right to a voice. It’s nothing to do with thinking that women are somehow better or deserve special treatment.
Feminism now seems to be a rather subjective umbrella term covering numerous areas. For some it's a political word, for others a practical one. Perhaps it has to be what one makes it. Although it can only be positive that it has spawned so many offshoots and groups, I wonder if this has dissolved the power of the word itself. Or if not dissolved completely, then diffused – having been applied to everything from female politicians (Margaret Thatcher does not deserve to be called a feminist) to pole dancers. These are quite extreme examples (although perhaps representative of two areas that feminism is currently concerned with), but both demonstrate the confusion surrounding the word. I am one of very few teenagers I know willing to define myself as a vociferous feminist. Many my age have little interest in the concept, or somehow assume that it has outgrown its use. Although we (in the UK) admittedly live in a much fairer and more equal society than ever before, this does not mean that feminism is defunct. If anything, new pressures emerge and evolve all the time – from the media’s fixation with body image to the debates on abortion or the appalling statistics on sexual violence. And yet, the ‘get back in the kitchen’ jokes aren’t exclusive to the boys. Some girls join in with this insidious misogyny, apparently ignorant of all the advantages, possibilities and choices that various feminist movements have given them.
Caitlin Moran, in her excellent and hilarious book ‘How to be a Woman’ (part memoir, part feminist manifesto) asks her readers to stand on a chair and shout: “I am a feminist”. I love the idea of requesting blog readers to do the same – even if it’s only a whisper as you stare at the screen. Moran is brilliant not only because she is genuinely funny and willing to talk about so called ‘taboo’ subjects, but also because the feminism she promotes is so readily accessible. I hope that she has had a considerable impact on many who didn’t define themselves as feminists or those who thought they had little interest in equality. For her, a feminist is described as anyone who has a vagina and wants to "be in charge" of it. It’s a good definition, but fails to take into account the fact that men can be feminists too - although she does mention them later. Male feminists are absolutely brilliant, and I have huge respect for anyone who describes themselves thus (in fact male feminisim will be the topic of my next post).
My view on feminism is that it should never be a case of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (ie women vs men). This is as simplistic as the Hollywood representations of ‘Goodies’ and ‘Baddies’. It’s unrealistic, formulaic and insulting. One gender doesn’t take precedence over another. Feminism was a response to patriarchy, but some women are pretty good at victimising each other too, and can also victimise men. The statistics suggest that women are more liable to experience violence, but that doesn't negate the evidence that 1 in 6 men also experience domestic abuse (the figure is 1 in 4 for women, according to this report in the Guardian from 2010). Men are somehow expected to brush off such things, to treat them less seriously than female counterparts. Furthermore, startlingly effective campaigns such as this show that the stigma and shame surrounding rape is something faced by both genders. Thus, pitting one gender against the other is counter-productive and ignorant, whatever the circumstances.
One of the joys of learning about feminism, however, is the availability of so many books on the subject. Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman’ was described as "The Female Eunuch from a bar stool" – referring to Germaine Greer’s seminal feminist text. Greer has done much to popularize feminism, and for that I applaud her. When she was writing in 1970, her thoughts were revolutionary and refreshing. She was willing to say what others wouldn’t. And yet, it strikes me that she has also done much to provoke ire. Her writing is brilliant rhetoric – engaging, angry and extremely well-informed - and yet sometimes also saturated with sweeping generalisations: ‘men’ are treated as a collective whole; shopping is a form of enslavement; the medical industry hates women. In my opinion, this tendency towards such broad judgments is reductive and undermines the more rational, thoughtful parts of her work. There are certain statements she makes that I completely disagree with, and others that I nod along to as I read. Nonetheless, sometimes it’s a good idea to read feminist literature that you might not necessarily agree with all the time – as it helps to strengthen and clarify your own stance. I would recommend Greer to anyone interested in feminism, alongside Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. I also have Mary Wollstonecraft, Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir on my reading list, and am currently enjoying a book called ‘Feminism: A very short introduction’. I read the brilliant Vagenda blog regularly, and also occasionally visit the The F-Word. Suggestions for other websites would be much appreciated.
What does feminism mean to you? I'm very interested in any discussion on the topic and in hearing diverse opinions. This is the first of four posts I have planned on the subject – a ‘feminist fortnight’ of sorts.