When I was 19 I took a ‘Women in American History’ course at university. At our first lecture, our professor opened by asking the room: ‘Raise your hand if you would call yourself a feminist?’
Out of a room of about 40 people, majority young women aged 18-25, I would guess maybe 50% raised their hands. We had chosen to do a course which had a subtitle of, ‘From Pocahontas to Post-Feminism,’ – you’d think that of any focus group that this would be one likely to be more skewed in percentage towards people who would call themselves feminists.
This was 2011 – admittedly not a million light years ago and certainly a time when feminism was alive and well, an active cog in the social movement machine, but it was a while ago all the same. I genuinely believe that the proportion of those in that room who raised their hand that day would be higher now.
When I was 19, Beyoncé was still an awesome and goddess-like figure in our lives, but she did not openly talk about feminism. I grew up at the tail end of the Spice Girls ‘GIRL POWER’ era, an aftermath of the 80s power suits and along with it, women who were determined to prove their strength. Little girls had so often been told, ‘girls can’t do that.’ That era seems to me to be about us turning round and saying ‘Yes I bloody well can.’
I did grow up with what I would call positive values about gender. I believed myself to be equal to men and I did see problems with the way gender relations were commonly discussed. I did not hear the word, ‘feminist’ at home, but if my brothers ever told me that I couldn’t join in games ‘because I was a girl’ they got a sharp clip round the ear from either of my parents. In general, gender norms were not rigidly enforced; I happily wore the boys’ hand me downs and my brother used to join me for afternoons rearranging my dolls house.
So why didn’t I raise my hand that day?
Because I didn’t actually know what the word meant.
When I’ve talked to people before about why they wouldn’t call themselves a feminist, this becomes the crux of the argument for me. What do you think the term feminism actually means? The most common answers include:
- Hating men
- Women being in charge
- Talking about women’s issues
- A way for women to complain about how bad they have it (when clearly everything’s all fine now)
Point 1. The term for hating men is misandry, not feminism.
Point 2. Solely women being in charge and taking over the world would be against the fundamental principles of feminism.
Point 3. Feminism is a social movement and ideology that talks about a lot of issues that often affect women. It also talks about the way societal gender constructs affect men, and in fact anyone of any gender, as well.
Point 4.1. The idea that women complain a lot is bullshit perpetuated by people who don’t want to listen to legitimate concerns.
Point 4.2. Everything is fine now is it? We’re no longer literally our husbands or fathers property by law so it’s all good? We can vote so really we should just shut up?
It shouldn’t shock me, but I still feel unsettled by how many women actually make that last point that everything is fine. Seriously?
It seems wildly ignorant to me to not acknowledge that a privileged female in a Western society can still be consistently treated as a lesser being due to her gender, be that in a ridiculous derogatory manner in regards to her abilities to do some DIY or in that she may get raped for the simple reason that she is a woman. You can belittle people’s reasons for needing feminism all you want, and say ‘I’ve never felt like that.’ Why does it not matter to you that others have? How selfish are you to see a situation where for example a young girl is denied an education because of her gender identity, and still all you can say is, ‘it never happened to me.’ And that’s discounting countless other instances of female genital mutilation, arranged marriages, slave trade, sex trafficking, college rapists getting away with it, girls being date-raped, boyfriends or husbands not understanding what ‘not tonight’ means, domestic abuse, transphobia, homophobia, gender assignment without consent or thought and other instances where someone thinks it funny to stare at my tits, grab my arse and tell me to make a fucking sandwich.
Feminism is defined as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’
In other words:
We just want equality. For women, for the LGBT community, for members of the BAME community, for men, for all people of any gender.
When I was 19, our lecturer’s next request was, ‘Raise your hand if you believe men and women are equal.’
Every hand shot up.
He replied: ‘well then, you are all feminists.’