Last Friday night my mum and dad met my boyfriend’s family for the first time, at a David Bowie tribute night. We’d got his mum tickets for her 60th, and as my mum is a die-hard fan we thought it was the perfect opportunity for an introduction. We knew they’d probably get on, especially encouraged by a mutual love of booze and Bowie, but I still felt a bit apprehensive about it all. As it turned out, everyone got wasted and had a great night, and glowing reports were given all round.
As we stood at the bar waiting for my parents to arrive, I noticed a woman I recognised sitting at a table facing me. She was my old sociology teacher from sixth form; a woman I’d had huge amounts of respect for, but also been somewhat terrified of. She didn’t take any shit whatsoever – turn up late for the lesson or without your textbook, and you were told swiftly and in no uncertain terms where to go. Being naturally a disorganised fuckwit (everyone I know can attest to this), this happened to me on a number of occasions, until I was sufficiently humiliated by the experience that I (sort of) got my act together. For her lessons at least.
Anyway, I knew I had to go and talk to her, but the public humiliation memories must still have been reasonably fresh, because I also knew I needed a couple of drinks first. So a couple of beers down, I weaved my way over to her and tapped her arm. When she turned round I greeted her with a ‘hello’ and an awkward grin – ‘Hi Miss’ doesn’t really work eleven years after you’ve left school. She looked a bit nonplussed, and then recognised me, and we chatted. She asked what I was doing – I said teaching – she asked why, with that sardonic expression I remembered so well – I said lack of imagination. And then, and fully aware of the cliche of it, I told her how bloody inspirational I’d found her lessons. And it wasn’t just the alcohol talking. She introduced me to politics in a way that made them relevant and totally fascinating. Her passion when she talked about Marxist and Feminist theory was contagious, and whilst I couldn’t honestly describe myself as politically astute (my knowledge of current affairs is basic, to say the least), those lessons definitely spoke to me about the workings of society. Politics around issues like class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality continue to fascinate me.
A disclaimer: I am opinionated. There’s no escaping that fact. Sometimes (and especially when I’m drinking, which is fairly regularly) I can get going on a discussion, and it can be hard to shut me up, even if I’m not that well informed about whatever I’m ranting about. I’ll admit I have been known to invent the occasional statistic. I think this opinionated-ness is a bit of a family trait; though perhaps one that I exhibit more than the rest. So maybe I could do with reining it in sometimes, but there are some things that are just worth defending, even to the point that everyone else around you just wants you to shut the fuck up.
Earlier on meet-the-parents Friday, I’d been talking to a woman I really like and have a lot of time for. Feminism had come up in conversation, in the context of another woman we both know buying her newborn an ‘I ❤️ Feminism’ baby-gro. We were sitting in a group, and as this information was shared there was a general groan/ eye roll, and consensus that this was going ‘too far.’ At this point I piped up that I would probably have bought the same baby-gro when Eva was tiny, to which the reaction was pretty incredulous. It included ‘Are you saying you’d go around with unshaven armpits?’ Well no, that wasn’t what I was saying, but it was an incredibly telling – if slightly bizarre – conclusion she’d jumped to. (Incidentally, I would love to be brave enough to chuck my razor in the bin and never bother with trying to maintain a state of hairlessness again – unfortunately I’m not, and I think my boyfriend would have quite a lot to say about it if I was. As if men know how it feels having to cope with the levels of self- maintenance we face every day… anyway, I digress).
For a long time, the desire of some women to distance themselves from feminism has been something I’ve found both baffling and depressing. The word ‘Feminazi’ (which I’ve even heard being thrown around by thirteen year olds in schools I’ve worked in) is, in itself, enough to make my blood boil. The stereotype of a feminist as a butch, hairy, angry man-hater just seems so laughably outdated – and yet, if it’s the first thing my intelligent friend thinks of when she hears the word ‘feminism’, then it’s clearly persistent. To me, this stereotype is an all too convenient put down, used to make feminism appear as unappealing as possible. If women are socialised, from their first pink baby-gro, baby dolly or Barbie doll, into fixed ideas about femininity being soft, shiny, polished (and hairless), then this stereotype is a great way of keeping any potentially rebellious females in line. Do you want to end up looking like Miss Trunchbull? Do you want to repulse or frighten away any potential boyfriends? Die single, bitter and surrounded by cats? No? Better keep those radical notions about equality to yourself then.
I’m (slightly) exaggerating here. The flip- side of the coin is that new generations are being educated about this stuff in a way mine wasn’t – save for the interventions of the occasional inspiring sociology teacher. There is a general cultural movement in our society in the direction of recognising and celebrating the achievements of women – see my insta post as evidence of this – as well as hearing their voices and listening to their experiences, as #metoo proved. There are numerous advertising campaigns that engage with debates around gender and sexuality – my inner Marxist feels somewhat conflicted about this. But it’s undeniable that the media exposes us to a diverse range of identities and experiences that have previously been hidden, or at best, marginalised. Campaigns like ‘This Girl Can’ and the current Always ‘End Period Poverty’ raise awareness and aspirations for girls and young women, and this has got to be a positive. And we’ve got to keep going in this direction.
This is why the old ‘eye roll and sigh’ routine winds me up so much in response to feminism. Last year I found myself drawn into an online argument with a stranger – for the first time ever – on this topic. A mutual FB friend had shared an article entitled ‘I’m a woman, and I’m so over feminism.’ A memorable line was the infuriatingly smug assertion: ‘feminists, we’re ok now, relax!’ I’d argue that whilst the President of the United States believes it’s acceptable to talk about women like they are his personal playthings, whilst the gender pay gap exists to such a marked extent (or at all), whilst only one in ten reported rapes are brought to trial, it is definitely not yet time for feminists to ‘relax.’ Anyway, this man began throwing the word ‘feminazi’ around like there was no tomorrow, and assuring me that I had the definition of a feminist all wrong. A feminist, he patiently corrected me, isn’t simply someone who wants equality for women; perhaps in my head that’s what feminism is about (I could almost feel him shaking his head in wonder at my poor naive idiocy through the screen) but in real life, feminism has been hijacked by a load of complete fucking mentalists who think they are superior to men and just want any excuse to get naked and covered in paint, so they can shout about their mental views. Silly me. The absolute irony of his assumption that his (male) view on feminism was the right one was obviously completely lost on him.
But of course, it’s more than just words that rile us up. It’s looking around at the places you’ve worked, and recognising that almost all of the people at the top are men. Especially when some of those men earn an inordinate amount of money and apparently do fuck all. It’s being heckled and harassed in the street and in bars, and then given abuse when you stand up for yourself – called a sket and a slag and a bitch. It’s checking yourself when you feel a fleeting gratitude, amongst the pervading feeling of shock, when the father of your child finally says he will have her on a Saturday night. It’s being ignored, or not taken seriously, because you have a vagina. I want none of the above for my daughter, and so I will continue to encourage her blossoming interest in feminism. She needs to go into the adult world with an understanding of what she’s up against.
One last word of defence, then: feminism isn’t about how hairy your pits are, it’s about choice, freedom and having the opportunity to fulfil your potential as a human being. To devalue feminism is to devalue the efforts of countless women who have fought and even died to get us to the point we’re at today. Not equal, not yet… but moving forwards.