In my life, I could view gender struggle as something that ‘happens to other people’. So why do I feel such a strong need to view the world from a fighting, ‘feminist’ point of view? Because it’s only by understanding what happens when gender equality is not upheld that I can appreciate just how lucky I am, and therefore how important feminism still is
You know the scene. A few glasses of wine have been had, and a discussion starts. And yet again, I take a feminist viewpoint on something, and see the issue irrevocably coloured by its gender politics. And yet again, I find myself having to justify my stance, to women as often as to men. I find myself having to justify why feminism is still relevant to someone like me.
‘Why are you a ‘feminist’, anyway? Isn’t that all about bra burning and stuff? Why do you even need it, it’s so outdated?! You’ve got the vote and equal pay, haven’t you/we? Women go out to work nowadays, you/we can get divorced, have access to the Pill, get abortions, men do housework, look after the kids, I mean, what more do you/we want? How often do you/we get cat-called in the street? Maybe other women do, but you/we hardly ever do, right? And didn’t you hear that story a while back about how even builders don’t think shouting out at women is OK anymore? Think how much better you have it than women around the world! I mean, honestly. Are you just looking for something to get angry about?’
And despite the seriously frustrating nature of these questions, it’s not always that easy to give a proper answer.
It’s all very well engaging in feminist discussion on ‘women’s blogs’ where everyone agrees more or less with where you’re coming from, but in the ‘real world’, around the pub table, people who take on feminist stances can see themselves being looked at strangely, given distance as that crazy, angry woman in the corner, getting pissed off about stuff that doesn’t even apply anymore.
It’s all very well being seen as akin to the ‘madwoman in the attic’ when the law says you’re legally your husband’s property, but hey, we’ve all moved on since then, so what are you still whinging about?
- It’s not a question easily answered, if you consider it from my own personal point of view.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft
Quite often I do find myself wondering why I personally feel the need to assume such a ‘feminist’ viewpoint on life. I gravitate towards ‘feminist’ blogs and ‘women’s’ take on the news; feel strongly about women’s independence, am deeply interested in discourses surrounding and between men and women, the ‘confounding’ of gender stereotypes (to paraphrase Mary Wollstonecraft) and derogatory language used by either sex, and generally am drawn towards individuals and media groups that bravely, intelligently and passionately argue for a more equal, more accepting, more tolerant and more liberal society, particularly where men and women’s gender ‘roles’ are concerned.
- But, beyond the obvious, I sometimes wonder why I feel this way. On the face of it, I don’t have any real personal motivation for seeing the world through this kind of lens.
Controversial statement, perhaps, but despite being an opinionated git; interested in news, debates, philosophical discussions and other things that would come under that rather horrible umbrella term ‘current affairs’; stubborn and outspoken, I’m not hugely political, and often feel myself assuming the rather non-triumphant role of observer rather than activist when it comes to these issues in real life.
I’ve never marched for anything, and in my everyday life have been lucky enough to never have experienced first-hand any real sexist or sexual abuse, comments or problems (of which more below).
I’ve had a great education, got a job, earned my own money, shared a flat on my own terms, and walked around London at night without feeling in any way especially discriminated against or at any disadvantage simply for being a woman (unlike in other countries I’ve visited, namely in India, where I sometimes felt threatened and stared at just for daring to appear on the street ‒ I can only imagine what would happen in other, even more conservative countries).
Unlike women in other countries or cultures, I’ve not been denied contraception or been sneered at for having sex before marriage; I’ve been given just as good an education and chance at a career as my brother, I’ve never cooked a meal or ironed a shirt that I’ve not wanted to (being tired and wanting to watch the latest episode of Girls doesn’t count), I’ve not been pressured into marriage, or felt forced to have, or give up, a child, felt at any real risk of sexual violence, suffered domestic abuse or felt the glass ceiling pressing down on my head.
I have barely even been ‘cat-called’ in the street – to which, stupidly and completely absurdly, my initial reaction is to feel offended and convinced of my own unattractiveness as a result, before I remember that such idiocy completely flies in the face of my own more considered convictions that women (and men; everyone) should have the right to walk down a road undisturbed.
That I’ve not suffered this seems purely a case of luck; I know many of my friends have had explicit comments whispered at them while on public transport, and lewd comments shouted at them humiliatingly across the street. The internet is rife with women speaking out, quite rightly, about the verbal harassment they receive. But personally? It’s never been a big problem, to be honest.
- On a wider level, compared to many other countries, in Britain we are streaks ahead in terms of legislation regarding women and equality of the sexes.
Ignoring, for the moment, all the ways in which things still aren’t perfect in the UK, women are – in theory, anyway ‒ able to be educated, to claim the right to live without sexual harassment or fear, not legally able to be forced into marriage; able to have abortions, get free contraception, and entitled to be paid as much as a man doing the same job. Discrimination and lack of opportunity in this country is rife, but arguably far more as a result of socio-economic inequalities than gender ones.
Of course, for each of those points I could (and probably should) enter into heated debate about why that’s not true, how this state of affairs only applies to white, heterosexual, middle class, privileged women. I could talk about the exceptions; the statistics that claim that these rights are far from universal, and why just because it’s the law, doesn’t mean it actually happens.
But the fact that these laws and conditions exist, de jure at least, if not de facto, for many, already puts our nation far, far ahead of what women in other countries have to live with (or not, as the case may be). In some ways, women’s positions in this country are far from dire – or at least, legally they have the potential not to be.
I can barely believe how lucky I am, and yet – if I am so lucky, and living in a country where such laws are in my favour, and where I personally am rarely made to feel threatened or limited because of my gender, then why do I still find myself feeling strongly about ‘women’s issues’, gender politics, and other debates that come under the heading ‘feminism’?
- Why do I persist in seeing things through that ‘gendered lens’? Well, perhaps because, in reality, most of what I’ve written above is bollocks.
While the legal ins and outs of what I’ve written are true, such as, for example, that women have a right to vote, a right to equal pay, and to live without harassment ‒ and that I myself haven’t suffered any real gender inequality ‒ that doesn’t mean that this state of affairs applies to all women, or that I don’t need to care.
Even though, critics say, many of the key feminist battles have been won, that doesn’t mean that we no longer need to regard society from a feminist viewpoint, or defend the lines along which the original, old battles were fought.
Women may have won the vote a while back, and bra-burning may (one might argue) belong in the faded days of Germaine Greer’s first-edition The Female Eunuch, but that doesn’t mean that feminist viewpoints aren’t needed. For so many reasons I barely know where to begin – in fact, so many reasons that a website called just that – A Thousand Reasons – was set up to highlight misogyny on the Internet, and, in its own words, to ‘discuss the continuing necessity of feminism’.
- Because, yes, I realise I may be preaching to the converted here, and saying the obvious. Except, to me, it doesn’t always seem hugely obvious, because – as I’ve said above – I pretty much have never felt side-lined because of my gender.
Beyond getting irate at some very-slightly off-colour ‘banter’ in my office, I’ve never obviously been at the receiving end of any real discrimination because of my sex. I’m a privileged white girl without much cause for complaint at the moment – certainly not from a gendered point of view, anyway. Lucky bloody me.
But why, then, do I need to espouse a feminist viewpoint on the world, and get irate about such issues? Hasn’t all the hard work been done for me by women far stronger and more politically engaged than myself?
- Yes, and yet, understanding one’s own motivations for taking a feminist stand on the world is something that I don’t think people talk about enough.
It’s not enough to say ‘well, I’m a woman so obviously that’s why.’ It’s not enough to simply jump on the feminist bandwagon and get angry and excited about an issue just because I can. It’s not enough to mindlessly follow something without examining, in some way, why you’re doing so.
- Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but it is to my serious embarrassment that sometimes I could find myself agreeing, at least from a personal point of view – that on the face of it, ‘the big’ feminist debates don’t really apply to my life, so why, personally, do I care?
Of course, the answers to these questions have the potential to be as huge as they are debatable. Why, for instance, do we care about others at all? Why should we engage socially or politically in issues that don’t necessarily affect us directly? It’s about why we pay taxes, why we build a civilised society at all.
This issue is also part of the whole ‘mansplaining’ debate on the Internet, which asks whether people who haven’t experienced prejudice can still own the struggle against it – specifically whether men can really be feminist, or ‘explain’ to women what ‘real feminism is’. Can I, even as a woman, justifiably care about feminism, and identify with its arguments, when I’m not on the receiving end of the worst of it? It’s a thorny question.
But then, I don’t have to be non-white to understand that racism is completely wrong; I don’t have to be gay to want equal rights for gay people.
- But all that aside (because this post is long enough as it is, and ‘mansplaining‘ is a huge issue in itself), on this particular issue, for me it’s basically very simple. It’s about appreciating what I (and millions like me) have, and recognising how easily, and apparently without too much fanfare, those gains could be lost.
It’s about recognising that feminism isn’t just making a lot of noise about ‘women’s issues’, but understanding that it’s a fundamental part of who we are as a society – that not too long ago, women had to leave work when they got married; had to have a man’s permission before opening a bank account; couldn’t control their own fertility and were side-lined and marginalised and controlled as a result.
I think for me, it basically comes down to the fact that a knowledge and continued debate on women’s rights, what they mean, and instances in which they are not upheld, simply informs my gratitude and understanding of just how privileged I am, but also, by extension, how far there is still to go when it comes to gender equality, and how easily such rights can be subverted.
It’s only by seeing the ways in which apparent equality is letting other women down, of ways in which legal conditions can be subverted, of examples where woman are NOT given what I could so easily take for granted, of understanding just how vile people can be to each other on the basis of sexuality, sex and gender, and of looking – both historically and currently – of what happens when gender equality is NOT fought for, that I can see how lucky I am.
And, therefore, in doing so, in my own, tiny way, try and work against prejudices that could flush away everything from which women like me have benefitted. At the risk of sounding like a character in Harry Potter, the phrase ‘constant vigilance!’ comes to mind.
- Because gender inequality, especially today, when on the surface things look so much better than they historically have been, can be insidious.
The privileges and rights that women have fought to claim, the moves that have been made against the patriarchy (which, I will add, at the risk of pursuing a positively scarlet herring, can harm men almost as much, if not just as much, as women) sit on a knife edge.
Those rights could, if we stop caring, fall away in far less time than it took to instate them in the first place. Gender equality is still young. Women everywhere in the UK only got the vote in 1928 – not even a hundred years ago ‒ and other laws are younger still. And it’s hardly necessary for me to say that just because laws change, mindset is a whole other ballgame.
To name but a few instances from a potential pool of millions, in Ireland, it’s still illegal for women to get abortions. In America, they’re still debating whether access to contraception makes women more promiscuous. They’re still asking whether legalised abortion is OK. They’re still debating the key, seminal issues at the heart of women controlling their own sexuality, of having the right to decide what they do with their own damn bodies. They’re still contemplating voting in someone who would limit women’s rights over all these issues.
Hillary Clinton in makeup-less *shock*
In this country, the media still print bare breasts on page three of the most-read national newspaper. Hillary Clinton choosing to go without makeup is still news. Most rape cases go unreported and unpunished. Many women do still feel threatened walking in the street. Magazines airbrush, focus on sex, looks, products and advertising more than anything else. Far too many women are still abused in their own homes, get paid less than men, feel like they are valued only for how sexy they are, how slim they are, how glossy; and only see themselves in relation to the men in their lives.
Women are still, if the media is anything to go by, encouraged to value their looks and reproductive functions over their intellect; even the bloody UN can’t make a video about women going into science without making some highly-questionable, lipstick-and-high-heel-driven, patronising fluff complete with amazed ‘proper’ male scientist going all gaga at the fact that women Can Do Science (read: faff about with test tubes). In China, women are still being forced into having abortions; in countless other countries, they are conversely being forced in childbirth, underage marriage; deprived of education – constrained not just by poverty, or social constraints, but purely and only because of their sex.
- But, hey, on the surface of it, no, man or woman in the pub, none of this directly affects me.
I could choose not to take any notice of it, relegate feminism in Britain to a historical footnote, and make use of the legal victories that have been won for me in decades gone past, and stop, as one acquaintance once put it, ‘stamping my foot’ and ‘getting all indignant’ about certain ‘feminist’ issues because it ‘feels good’ and ‘I can’.
Yes, despite wobbles where my conviction sometimes slips, I am lucky enough to have grown up knowing that basically, I don’t have to be abused in my relationships, pressured into sex, have sex without protection, get paid less than men, feel bad for speaking my mind, or feel subordinate in any way unless I actively choose to. I don’t have to wear high heels, sleep with a man to feel good about myself; I don’t have to look like a model – or like anyone, in fact.
Actually, I could say, I am one of few around the world who can take privileged comfort in the fact that I can breeze merrily through life, unconstrained, perhaps limited by my own lack of energy, tendency to procrastinate, laziness or lack of focus – anything, in fact ‒ but not, NOT by my gender.
But knowing just how much other women have been at that receiving end of gender inequality (e.g. not being able to get a conviction for rape, or feeling trapped in an abusive relationship, feeling intimidated in the street on or the Tube, or any other kind of deprivation, discrimination or entrapment, great or small), forces me to appreciate what I have, and understand just how precious it is.
- For example, yesterday I watched the Mike Leigh film, Vera Drake, for the first time.
Vera Drake, starring Imelda Staunton
Watching the story ‒ fictionalised though it is ‒ that depicts the life, arrest and conviction of a caring, compassionate, ordinary, community-minded yet ultimately criminal backstreet abortionist in 1950s England, renewed my feminist viewpoint and reminded me why I care.
Watching how women were repeatedly blamed, and criminalised, for their own sexuality; lampooned socially and legally for the sheer temerity of having sex before marriage, getting pregnant or wanting to control their own fertility; at how not so long ago, women who were raped were seen as having brought it on themselves and utterly responsible for any consequences, reminded me why I see the world in this ‘feminist’ way in the first place.
Mike Leigh may have made a deeply touching film that tries very hard to avoid judgement on either side – but that doesn’t mean that my own judgement was left in any kind of doubt. The notable absence in the film of any of the fathers of the would-be babies, was striking. But worse was the uncomfortable feeling that so much of the moral and legal condemnation visible in the film is still on the political agenda of most countries in the world today – and, therefore, how easy it could be for that condemnation to return to society.
- How close I could be to losing all the rights I (and people like me) could so easily take for granted.
Beyond giving a slightly sexist joke a casual raised eyebrow or giving a steely look to an idiotic joker on the street, I’ve never had to personally test out my feminist convictions. I’ve never had reason to ask for legal aid in a battle fought solely due to my gender or sex, been in a relationship where I’ve felt threatened, or seriously been discriminated socially or professionally for the sole reason that I’m a woman.
But it’s only by educating myself about the cases where women – both around in the world and in the UK ‒ haven’t had it so good, and the instances in which the law or society has failed them; by understanding the ways in which society, the media, and the law might work against the values that I hold so dear, (including, on what might sound like a more frivolous level, magazines that encourage women to value themselves largely on what they look like and what they consume that month, TV shows and news stories that show women as silly or of value only for their looks or relationships with men, rather than their intellect; political debates that re-hash the meaning of women’s sexuality and sexual rights over and over) that I can truly appreciate the vulnerability of my own fortune.
- That ‘feminist’ issues don’t seem to hold much real, pressing role in my life is in itself paradoxical – it’s because they’re there that I can ignore them. But it’s at my peril that I forget they exist at all. Feeling in my position shouldn’t be a privilege – it should be a right, for all women, everywhere.
And until it is, and until there’s no risk of that right ever being taken away, I’ll continue to see the world from a stridently ‘feminist’ viewpoint.
It’s a slightly longer answer than your mates down the pub might have been expecting, perhaps – but surely one worth saying, nonetheless?
Ps. I realise this is a sensitive and hugely complex topic. This post is already far too long but I welcome any discussion or debate in the comments if you feel I’ve glossed over something or perhaps need to think about something more. As many wiser than me have said before, just because I write about something doesn’t mean that’s the end of my thoughts on the topic – often it’s actually the beginning. Any abuse will be deleted though, cheers!
My top feminist blogs and sites (including the fabulous AWOT, obviously!)
Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahsRhapsody, and see her other witterings at http://notallwhowonderarelost.wordpress.com