Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my take on feminism. It informs most of my blog posts, and indeed I started this blog (in part) to retain a public ‘voice’ when I was being silenced in a very male environment. I generally don’t use words like ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘women’s rights’ in my posts because I know they can attract unwanted attention and put some people off what I’m trying to say, but all of those things inform my writing, and I think about them every day.
But today I’m saying it out loud. My name is Lisa and I am a feminist. I haven’t always been, but it’s become an important part of my life in the past few years, with the rise of the female voice, particularly in social media.
Last week I went to the launch of Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist book in Waterstones Piccadilly. She is a journalist I really enjoy keeping up with, both in her Grazia magazine column and her Twitter feed. She is a strong voice in contemporary British culture and I’m interested in what she had to say. I’d heard her on the radio the day before and been surprised when I found myself disagreeing with her stance on feminism – and it took me a while to process it. She is in favour of a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ take on women’s rights, stating that she’s quite happy to let a bit of manspreading, all-male panel shows and wolf-whistling go by, in order to concentrate on the ‘big’ issues of rape, the pay gap, female genital mutilation (FGM) and abortion rights. She states that she loves fashion, beauty and staying skinny, but maintains that these are things entirely for her own love of them, and nothing to do with doing them for men. At the same time she says she loves being sexy and fanciable. Hmm.
This is where she and I part company on the subject. To me, all of the small stuff that objectifies and demeans women gives rise to the big stuff like rape culture, and there is no doubt that an urge to be sexy and fanciable to men comes from socialisation among women to do so from a young age. Fashion, beauty and body-consciousness come from the same source but Vernon is unable to see the connection between these elements. She has rebadged them as her own desires, seemingly completely unaware of where they came from.
This is when I realised what sort of feminist I am – one that advocates awareness. I am all in favour of women doing exactly what they want – whether it’s being a housewife, making a living in sex work, living for fashion or a being a glamour model – as long as they know WHY they have the urge do those things. We’ve been socialised to want to please men, be sexy and beautiful for them and be their homemakers while they go out to work. If you decide to turn that into a way of life or a way of making a living, then that is your right, but just know why you’re doing it and be happy. Like Vernon, I want to be sexy and fanciable too, and I love the odd ‘hello beautiful’ comment, but I know why I want those things. I try not to need them, as a way of managing my expectations, but the urge is there and I know where it comes from. I’m not going to pretend that I want to look sexy purely for myself.
Similarly, men have been socialised to objectify girls and women, to see them as something they are entitled to comment on, touch and have sex with. Relatively few men are aware of that fact, which is why there is a such a backlash from them when we refuse to accept their comments or have sex with them or when we say we want Page 3 removed from our papers and more women on panel shows. We’re rejecting a thing that is so ingrained in our culture that many people, men and women, refuse to believe it’s actually there. They think we’re making a fuss. In fact, the main reaction I’ve had from (mainly male) friends when they’ve asked about my feminism is a questioning whether what I’m saying is actually true. I believe that the scale of it is so massive that they’d rather deny it’s even there or that they might be party to that male sense of entitlement to women.
I usually point them in the direction of Laura Bates’ excellent 2014 article: “10 common comments on feminist blogposts”. The very first comment, that ‘this is not an issue specific to any gender’, cites the statistical evidence (from 2012) that floors any argument to the contrary. Women are not yet equal to men in any sexual, political, or economic arena and yet Twitter is filled with people arguing with feminists to prove that what they’re talking about is real with yet more facts and statistics. We certainly have them, but why should we keep having to prove it? To me it feels like the science vs creationism argument – the science behind feminism is so obvious to me that saying that it doesn’t exist feels like I’m arguing with someone who maintains the world was built in seven days by a man with a beard in the sky. I might as well give up. But I’m not going to stop believing in it.
I can understand why men feel under attack from feminists because we are directly attacking the male bias in our society – otherwise known as ‘patriarchy’. It’s not their actual individual fault that it’s there, but many men feel as though we are saying it is. We’re not. They’re a victim of it too – does no one think that there is a correlation between the high rate of suicide among young men and the pressure on them from a young age conform to traditions of masculinity? I’m fascinated by the subject, and Shakespeare was too. His tragedies are littered with men who fail to conform to the norm and are angst-ridden and suicidal because of it.
If you’ve grown up in a culture of male privilege and entitlement, where you are the privileged one, then you’re not really going to have a clear counter-view you, are you? Just accept that, and be aware that this social system has an effect on you, as well as all the women around you. If you’re a young woman who thinks there’s no need for feminism because ‘we’re already equal’, just know that we’re not. Yet. If you’re a young man who says he has a ‘problem with feminists’, stop and think about what you are saying. You are saying that you don’t approve of equality for women. Most men I’ve met who’ve said that clearly don’t believe in inequality.
Awareness, awareness, awareness. That’s all I’m saying.
This is my feminism.
3 thoughts on “Awareness is All”
Congratulations on “Coming out” so boldly and courageously. I agree with just about everything you say and, as it happens, women’s continuing inequality is something my partner and I were discussing only recently. She keeps me continually aware of the knock-backs that women suffer at work and in society in general.
I understand how a woman can be an ardent feminist and yet want to be found attractive and beautiful. It may seem inconsistent but that’s what we human beings are. Logic takes us only so far and the apparent inconsistencies in our nature are what make us human, warm and lovable. In my book, there is nothing wrong with a women dressing attractively and looking sexy. She has as much right to do this as men have to to show off their manliness. It should not be seen as a licence to treat her unjustly or to accuse her of betraying the cause of women’s equality.
Like you, I believe that a woman should be as free as a man in how she lives her life. The differences between men and women must be taken into account but celebrated rather than used to justify discrimination.
The male culture is interesting though I, as a male, don’t claim to understand it. You are right that men – young men in particular – are stressed by feeling the need to “be a proper man”. This causes them to adopt an attitude that I call Tebbitism (after Norman “On-yer-bike” Tebbit). The holder of this outlook creates a false view of the world in which things are fine and all needs are met and dismisses all who disagrees with this view as feckless whingers and antisocial losers. You can rub a “Tebbit”‘s nose in reality and even momentarily discomfort him but then he springs back into his default position. A few can be converted each year, though it is grindingly slow work.
I agree that one should challenge the “little things” as well as the big issues but there are so many of them, happening so frequently, that I can understand why many women just give up on doing anything about it. It’s a choice between putting up with a continual level of irritation or making oneself unpopular. It takes courage to accept the role of the in-house “feminist troublemaker”.
Should we be optimistic about the future? I would like to be. After all, much has been achieved. On the other hand, much still remains to be achieved and I think it is getting harder, not easier, to go those last few miles. The hill is becoming steeper, as it were, partly because of complacency: people (many women as well as men) have convinced themselves that the battle has been won and that there’s no need to do more. Your role role in fostering awareness is a thankless task but it is an essential one.
I wish you good luck and courage in your endeavours.
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