Now We Are 28: On Feminism and Being Angry

Less than two weeks ago a man who hated women killed six people. Every single day since then I have seen a man on the internet telling people (normally women) that misogyny doesn’t exist. Every. Single. Day.

Three weeks ago I went to a work conference and spent an evening explaining to a bunch of otherwise lovely and very clever people why feminism is important and relevant in the 21st Century.

I would love for the battle to achieve equal rights for women to be over, I really would. When I was a child I read about the suffragettes, women’s battles for the vote and the fight for equal pay and I really thought that the war had been won, that women were considered equal. Then I grew up.

In school, the girls were always judged on their appearance – I was considered “ugly” so I always came in for particularly nasty bullying both in school and out. As I got older my friends and I considered it par for the course that we would get felt up without our consent in pubs and clubs. When I waitressed the chefs physically and verbally harassed every woman who came into the kitchen. A senior male colleague once thought it appropriate to complain to my manager about my “very short” skirt (it was knee-length) and told me that laughing at things was inappropriate because I sounded like a giggling schoolgirl. The (male) sales assistant who sold me my new, painstakingly chosen bike spent all his time talking to my boyfriend. The other week a man cycled behind me for over a mile so he could look at my bum. And, like virtually every woman I know, I’ve been shouted at in the street by random men more times than I can count.

You know what the worst thing about that list is? That I feel lucky to have got off so lightly. That I am extremely privileged to experience society as a middle-class, thin, able-bodied straight, cis, white woman and thus will never have to endure the hardships that many women face just trying to exist as equal members of society. Most women will endure far worse verbal, physical or sexual abuse than I have ever encountered and this will be accepted by the world. Their experiences will be dismissed or ignored or never even shared. And when a man kills a woman it will be considered an “isolated incident” or the work of a “lone madman” rather than the product of a society which is profoundly unequal.

I am so angry. I get more angry every day as I see women’s concerns about ingrained sexism, rape culture and violence against women being dismissed and belittled. I’m angry that young women today grow up in a world where their right to equality is less understood than it was twenty years ago. I’m angry that women continue to be defined by whether or not they’ve popped out a baby but at the same time they’re likely to get discriminated against because of it. I’m angry that young men continue to be taught that expressing their emotions is weakness and that hurting others is strength.

I have no idea how we fix this. I grew up believing that women were equal because they’d fought and won so many battles. Now I struggle to believe that genuine equality will be achieved in my lifetime. So yes, feminism matters.

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Now We Are 28: On Beauty and Bravery

This week on the internet women taking pictures of themselves without makeup on has been a bit of a thing. It’s supposedly in aid of cancer awareness and the associated donations have raised more than £2 million for Cancer Research UK. Millions of pounds in under a week from one-off donations and goodness knows how much more over the long term from people deciding to commit to regular donations to combat a disease which kills people indiscriminately and whose cure often leaves people maimed and forever changed is pretty incredible. So surely an internet campaign that not only raises awareness of cancer but also funding for research into a cure for cancer is good, right?

Apparently not… I’ve seen a significant amount of criticism of the campaign for various reasons: people taking photographs without donating, which to a certain extent is fair enough, although given the outcome I can’t see how this is a legitimate complaint; and the word “brave” being applied to both bare-faced women and cancer sufferers. Taking a photograph of yourself without cosmetic enhancement is seen somehow as a fluffy, ethereal thing and not worthy of sharing an adjective with people suffering from a life-threatening disease. Whilst I agree that taking a photograph and fighting cancer are clearly not the same thing I really object to the belittlement of people making a genuine gesture for a cause they believe in – particularly in light of the outcome.

The undertone to a lot of the criticism I’ve seen is also extremely patronising – silly little girls thinking they are brave for putting a photograph of their naked face on the internet, they obviously don’t understand what it means to be really brave. However, for a huge number of women in our hyper-sexualised, image obsessed society, going without makeup or appearing in any way less than “perfect” is a genuinely courageous thing to do. Standing up and saying “here I am, with all my flaws and imperfections naked to the world” is a very hard thing for women to do because we are told constantly that being ourselves is just not good enough. As women we are constantly told we need to be thinner, curvier, prettier, fitter, quieter, happier, sexier, more natural, less demanding, more demanding and so on, ad infinitum. To challenge that in any way, however minor, is an act of defiance. It doesn’t make cancer sufferers any less brave, it simply demonstrates a willingness to challenge yourself in support of a greater cause.

Feminism’s New Entry Policy

This blog post has been brewing for a while – ever since the Guardian published an article on Tory feminism several weeks ago in fact – and I discovered the hitherto little known “fact” that you could only be a feminist if you hated the Conservative Party.

I’ve described myself as a feminist from a very early age. I remember reading about the suffragette movement whilst I was still in primary school and being shocked that women hadn’t always been allowed to do the same things as men. Equality has always been one of the most important principles in my life – and not just for women – I believe passionately that all human beings are equal regardless of race, sex, sexuality, religion or any other descriminating factor that anyone cares to think of. All feminism has ever been for me is the belief that women are equal to anyone and anything.

However, according to people like Suzanne Moore, the fact that I voted for David Cameron negates my right to believe this. Because Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a feminist, because the Conservative Party have on occasion acted like the the worst kind of right wing dinosaurs you can only be a feminist if you are “left-wing” (I put left wing in inverted commas here because there is no mainstream political party in the UK whose policies are remotely left of centre). Why? Why in 2012 when no major political figure would deny female equality or the power of the feminist movement can I as a feminist not make a decision to support a political party based on my own beliefs and priorities? In 2015 I may well vote for a different political party (hell, I may even set up my own political party to avoid the dilemma of having to vote for any of the uninspiring choices currently on offer) but in 2010 I voted for the Conservative Party (the reasons for which are explained here). I am technically a Conservative Feminist and thus cannot possibly exist.

So again I’m back to the question of why? Surely it’s a good thing that women are represented across the political spectrum and are fighting in different ways for issues important to them! I don’t particularly like Louise Mensch or Nadine Dorries but I can’t deny that they stand up and fight for the issues which they feel are important. I may fundamentally disagree with Dorries’ stance on abortion but hell I fundamentally disagree with every word which comes out of Laurie Penny’s mouth as well – and I deny neither of them the right to be a feminist. I may not like the way they do it – dictate what I can do with my uterus or what type of cake I am allowed to eat at your peril – but the most important thing is that they are women standing up and being counted.

So my message to the sisterhood is pretty much just this: respect my right to say and be something, even if you don’t like what I’m saying or what I represent. Women aren’t all the same, just as all human beings aren’t the same. If you don’t like my stance on something politically challenge me, I’ll debate anything with anyone – I have even been known to change my opinion if given a decent enough reason to do so.  But never ever deny my right to call myself a feminist because of what political party I support.

Caitlin Moran manages to sum up what I’m trying to say far more eloquently than I’m ever going to be able to:

“The purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right ‘types’ of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long… What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be.”

(Seriously if you haven’t read How To Be A Woman yet – do it! Even if you’re a man, it’s fine…)

 

Judgements

I originally intended this blog to be a place for me to sound off about politics – and maybe it mostly will be – but something has really shaken my view of the world so I thought I’d share.

A female colleague of mine took me aside yesterday and, in a well meaning way, basically told me that the way I dressed and the colour of my hair were likely to affect my career prospects. More to the point, that my ultimate boss – who is a man – was unlikely to take me seriously because of my appearance. Whilst the comments on my personal appearance are upsetting for a number of reasons the thought that a senior male colleague, whom I like and respect, would think less of me for something I wear or the colour of my hair appals me.

To a certain extent I can understand the comments on my dress sense – I err on the funkier side of business wear… However, there are a number of mitigating factors – for a start I work at a University which, for obvious reasons, doesn’t have a strictly defined dress code and I have a relatively junior role. I also think I have a reasonable grasp of what is appropriate for different occasions – for example I would never not wear a suit when I’m at an external event or meeting a client.

However the idea that my hair or my clothes would be make a man think less of me in the workplace does truly shock me. I’ve never been a militant feminist – I’m lucky enough to be born into a generation where I’ve always thought I never needed to be. Perhaps I’m just naive but I’ve never felt that my being a woman has ever really made a big impact on how people perceive me professionally – I always strive to do the best I can whatever I’m doing and I’ve always felt that my teachers, lecturers and line managers (male and female) have respected me for my ability.

I don’t think that a man in my job, or indeed in any job, would ever find themselves in this situation. And if it had been a man who had made these comments to me people would be recommending I sue them. Women are really lucky, even in comparision with 20 years ago, that we have legislation that protects our right to be treated and paid equally. But evidently the battle for equality isn’t over…

Appearance matters but evidently in women it matters more – there was outrage this week about the dearth of women in the new coalition cabinet but women in the public eye get scrutinised and judged on their appearance far more than any man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a media article on a male politician’s choice of footwear but Theresa May and Sarah Brown have both had their shoe taste scrutinised. Millions of magazines are sold every week poring over the appearance of various celebrities – in at least 9 out of 10 cases the victims of this scrutiny are women. The worst thing is that we tend just to accept this – that the rest of the world will judge a woman on her hair, her clothes, her makeup (or lack of) – without comment or question.

So maybe that’s the next frontier, hopefully in another 20 years this will be even less of an issue… As for me – well conforming to expectations would certainly be the easiest thing to do but just accepting the status quo never changed anything did it?