I Call Myself A Feminist

feministTwenty-five essays collected together with a generous helping of quotes from other well-known women, with the particular slant that the essays are all written by women under thirty. It’s an overview of the issues and concerns that continue to motivate activism in the 21st century, as well as an attempt at rehabilitating the word ‘feminism’ from some of the old perjorative connotations of the past. The essays are brief, a few pages each, and they cover a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s a fascinating collection, provocative, thoughtful, sometimes funny.

But there are buts. Not one woman writing has a child, although motherhood remains the last great bastion of identity straitjacketing. All are women who have enjoyed early success and made something of their lives – they speak from a position of earned privilege. I found myself appreciating most the essays from a Nigerian woman who had grown up in a traditional and oppressive religion, a woman who worked in a centre for the victims of acid attacks and a female human rights lawyer. A large number of the other essays spoke about behavioural issues – from the difficulty of making the decision to change gender, and the resistance and prejudice one might consequently face, to the irritating tendency of men to hog the armrest in seats on the London tube (exert your right to space, ladies!). Several rightly evoked the appalling reputation of the media – tabloids, magazines, advertising, mostly – for reinforcing stereotypes. But most of these essays left me thinking that whilst Western women have removed the majority of physical constraints on their choices, the real battle remains with the mental chains we so easily place on our own thinking.

I was taught that feminism was about two things. It was about equal access to power – economic, political, social – and the freedom to be oneself, resisting the old insistence that Woman should be helpmate, carer, nurse, selfless angel. It was about creating a structure that offered equal opportunities within which we could all be individual and different. Where we seem to end up now is micromanagement of the behaviour of others, which is highly problematic.

Let’s look at the case for the opposition first. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism writes ‘As feminists we are used to being told what we ‘should’ focus on, or scolded for ‘making a fuss’ about particular topics. Talking about rape or domestic violence is acceptable, but mention street harrassment and you’re ‘getting upset about nothing’ […]There is no reason why we shouldn’t tackle every manifestation of gender inequality, no matter how apparently ‘minor’.

Absolutely! A society free from all discrimination would be a utopia indeed. But there’s a danger that the woman who is harrassed on the street might be led to believe that her plight is equal to the woman who has been half beaten to death by the husband who controls her cash flow. And that wouldn’t be right, would it? Don’t we still need to maintain a sense of perspective? I don’t think that equality means that all crimes committed against women are equal.

There’s a very well-written essay about how important words are and how right it is to police them. One of the examples cited is scientist Tim Hunt’s foolish comments – poor attempts at a joke – about women in his laboratories, which provoked a twitter storm, viral humiliation, and some consequences for the man’s career. The writer is convinced that this was the correct outcome. Yet I say, where was the woman whose courage, generosity and sense of fair play made her stand up at the end of the speech and say: ‘Could you please redefine your position on this issue, because I think what you said may be open to some serious misunderstanding.’ There could have been a proper debate on the spot; it would have been a fabulous example of grace and diplomacy and the exercise of women’s right to speak up for themselves. Why does it feel to me that the thrill of self-righteous indignation held sway here instead? Words are indeed terrifically important, and I would rather use them to educate than crucify. Women have a power of intervention unparalleled in their history. Is twitter shaming the best we can do with it?

We may often regret our male colleagues’ thoughtless, sexist and downright stupid comments. We may well wish that their behaviour would be more respectful and courteous. But if we want to improve social behaviour, we all have to sign up to the same charter. That’s equality. So if women want the right to be outspoken, to be ‘unruly’, to speak our minds and shout down or shame the other, then it has to be okay for men to do the same things. If, as one writer in this book says ‘Women whose behaviour is repulsive and selfish entrance me. They seem far more alive and aware and unapologetic than most would ever dare to be’, then we must accept that men might be entranced by their repulsive and selfish behaviour, and feel more alive for it, too.

This is the problem with all issues surrounding behaviour and identity. We all want people to behave better, and the chances are overwhelming that we will never be able to make them. We use the law against acts of violence and crime. But in the lower reaches of human behaviour, it’s hard to ‘make’ people give up their worse natures. Where did all that PC battling get us? The recognition that it’s unacceptable for people to express ugly predjudice in public places. Excellent! And then we created the internet whose main purpose can seem to be to provide a safe space for all that prejudice to be resurrected under the blissful cover of anonymity. Human nature is aggressive and judgemental. People will find a way to judge.

Believe me, I know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of sexist belittling. When I was nine or ten, the teacher who taught me every day, for every subject, was a man called Mr Wickenden. He regularly said unpleasant things about me in class – I remember him laughing with the other boys and saying I didn’t care about people, I only cared about money and clothes. I was quick-witted as a child, which didn’t go down well in the 70s. Once, doing some maths (my weakness) I struggled to understand the equation on the board; he humiliated me in front of the class until I was in tears (and I did not cry easily). He never treated any of the boys this way; I felt his persecution and it undoubtedly added to my belief that if I wanted to get away with being clever and well-spoken and tidy and good, I would need to make myself invisible.

For many years, this sort of behaviour struck me as completely unacceptable, as something we should legislate against, yes, why not! But as I have grown older, I have changed my mind. What I needed to learn to do was to look Mr Wickenden in the eye and think: you are so completely irrelevant to my sense of self. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental. And Mr Wickenden to one side, the worst, most insidious bullies I’ve come across have been female. I needed a strategy to deal with them, too. Thinking the world shouldn’t be cruel, that I shouldn’t have to fight for my right to be different, that I must be able always to do things my way without encountering resistence, even if it horrifies the ideology of the tribe, has actually held back my own growth.

I think that one of the best acts of feminism we can do on an everyday basis is support the women we know. Do something whenever possible to make their lives a little better, a little easier, a little richer. I think we need to expend our best energy on the real victims of the world – those caught up in war, famine, violence, plague and tyranny – and to keep a weather eye on the lesser crimes and make sure we don’t commit them too, in the name of retaliation. And when a first world, non-violent man makes a sexist comment, we might just raise our eyebrows and find him ridiculous; why on earth would we assign such behaviour more power than it truly has?

22 thoughts on “I Call Myself A Feminist

  1. It does sound like an interesting collection – but not having mothers in the mix does detract from its value. As I felt much more empowered and equal before I had children… then got put on the ‘Mommy track’ in more ways than one. Your words are very wise indeed. I am still struggling to not get angry with sexist behaviour and comments (but then, racist ones or xenophobe ones provoke the same reaction in me) – I think it’s the injustice of it that rankles, not just personal slight.

    • It’s completely right to say sexism or racism or any such discrimination is unjust and should not be acceptable. Let’s all push for better behaviour, and a kinder world. But in the meantime, I do think the best one can do with it (if the ‘one’ in this instance is an eductated first world woman) is understand that we can’t control how people see us or think about us, not under any circumstances, no matter who we are, and the best way to move forward is to give such statements no credence. I do believe that ridicule is more powerful than a response that makes perpetrators feel like they CAN intimidate that way.

      And yes, motherhood is the cause that feminism forgot!

  2. Funny, I was talking with my friends about this on Friday. They are about 15 years older than me, and one is a scientist. She says things have improved immeasurably in the last few years, both in terms of teachers’ attitudes and the workplace. We all felt dismayed at the almost hysterical willingness of people to pounce on others, such as in the Tim Hunt case, and in the case of the LinkdIn lawyer, and noisily claim victimhood out the situation. It does not seem to me as if people are genuinely interested in the best way of changing a situation sometimes, as they are in creating a noise. Yours is the sensible way of reacting in these situations.

    • I’m really glad to know your friends think that, as my own experience certainly mirrors theirs. I once read somewhere that it takes two generations to instigate social change, one to talk the talk and the next to actually walk the walk. The benefits go back up the line, though. I am also so glad to hear that others think this sort of behaviour isn’t helpful to us. I do think it’s important not to mistake feelings for facts, and to remember that no one can ‘make’ us feel anything unless we are complicit. It cheers my heart to think you also find this sensible!

  3. Excellent and very thoughtful post, and I agree. Do we want to be behaving like the worst of men? I think not. Just because we want to be treated equally doesn’t mean we have to lower ourselves to laddishness. The PC hysteria is ridiculous – I was and am a second generation feminist, but whatever happened to common sense. My kids have a phrase for self-indulgence – “first-world problems” and we need to remind ourselves of those women whose struggle is for life and limb, not a battle of words.

    • I’ve just finished a novel about the Cuban missile crisis and it’s a miracle we ever escaped nuclear holocaust, what with the sabre rattling of the politicians and their refusal to be ‘seen’ to back down. Thank goodness Khruschev did, though he was maligned for it by his nation. Can you imagine – he averts armageddon and is reviled as weak for it!! This is why it seems so important to me to have other methods of using power than threats and retaliation, zero tolerance for any crossing of the line. We can’t keep thinking out of testosterone and vanity. First world problems is exactly right! Your kids have it down to a tee!

  4. A very interesting post. I’m not a mother but I’d echo yours and Marina’s concern that there were no essays from mothers in the collection. It seems a huge ommission. I’d also agree with the somewhat kneejerk reactions to the outrage expressed on social media. Best to think it through first and a present a more reasoned argument. Very pleased, though, to see feminism publicly espoused by a younger generation after many years of an apparent acceptance that all its work had been done.

    • Yes, it’s very good to see the word feminist taken out of the cupboard and brushed down. I’d love to know that young women were working together to help their counterparts in the troubled areas of the world where serious and violent injustice still take place. That would be a fantastic mission to undertake. And to embrace the reasoned response and the thought-through argument – evidently I’m on the side of those myself! 🙂

  5. What an interesting post! I agree absolutely with your point about the need for perspective, and the dangerous thrill of self-righteous indignation. I look forward to reading this now (with the “buts” in mind) – particularly for the range of perspectives.

    • I’ll be very interested to know what you make of it! It’s a very diverse collection, which is good, and after all what’s the fun of reading a bunch of essays if you can’t disagree with some of them?!

  6. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental.

    I really liked this. I think one of the most important progressive steps in the 21st century will be in our ability to reconcile ourselves with being animals, understanding our psyches as products of evolution, and to stop pretending that we are so very different from the rest of the natural world.

    And the progress you write of, coupled with the need to understand developmental problems, will be part of that growth.

    p.s. Thanks for the kind thoughts re our Ernie.

    • The older I get, the more I understand the extent to which my lizard brain controls my thinking and the harder I realise it is to do something about that. And yet, like all resources, the lizard brain can be really useful as well as really tricky to negotiate. I think you’re absolutely right that any decent understanding of our natures has to take into account the basic animal impulses fuelling our strongest urges to kill, to protect and to gain knowledge from the environment. I’m still so sorry about Ernie! Will wrote you a proper note very soon.

    • I would have liked to see more essays from young disadvantaged women – single mothers, or those who haven’t got their dream job and aren’t likely to. Feminism was always interesting to me in what it said about judging society on the basis of the way it treats its most vulnerable members. But that’s just me! The collection does still have a very diverse selection of perspectives.

  7. Sounds like an interesting, if limited collection. One does need a sense of perspective on these things and I think there is a tendency sometimes to play the victim and jump in with the mob. Women are not free of the sorts of bad behaviors we complain about in men. I can understand too how every day sorts of sexism add up and become oppressive very quickly, can ruin a woman’s self esteem and mental health in general and she can totally crumble or reach a point of the last straw and release her fury over something that seems like such a small thing. It’s tricky. A fine and ever moving line over which context must always be considered.

    • Absolutely – but don’t you think that we all of us, at some point in our lives, end up in a situation that we are forced to endure, without the proper resources, that oppresses us and threatens us with a loss of self-esteem? And it’s part of the challenge of living not to crumble under it and learn to stay steady despite its attempts to pull us off course? Of course no one wants that sort of situation to arise, and of course it’s right and proper that if there are things we can do to prevent it, they should be done. But I do think these problems arise anyway, in one form or another, and learning to cope with them is the best path for our own sanity.

      And you’re right – the last straw leads to hopping up and down and fury, but…ach, but, I suppose I think we can’t always take that fury quite so seriously as other kinds. Idk, Mr Litlove drives me bonkers sometimes because he doesn’t listen to half I say, and occasionally I’ll get mad about that and feel completely justified! But then afterwards, I feel I’ve overreacted… and it’s probably safest if I keep thinking that! 🙂

  8. Thank you for this very thought-provoking critique. It does sound like a book that needs a bit more self-consciousness. (Also, for motherhood discussed from many perspectives, you might be interested in Kerry Clare’s collection ‘The M Word,’ which I found very engaging and also sometimes provocative.)

    I agree with you that one of our real struggles today is proportion, which maybe is the result of the emphasis on misogyny and sexism as systemic problems. “Small” offenses loom large because we know they are part of a whole system of ideologies and practices – but as you say, the woman who is catcalled is not really in the same situation as the woman who is assaulted. It’s not good to dismiss some forms of discrimination or suffering, but I’ve seen a big brou-ha-ha locally that made me think we do really need a way to stop insisting on equivalencies between, say, a terrible offensive joke about rape and rape itself.

    • Oh I think you hit the nail on the head there by pointing to the systemic nature of the problem. Yes, that is exactly how this all comes about. I suppose I feel I can only maintain some semblance of sanity by not working myself up over things that are actually not the worst crime ever, because it’s so easy to do that and ultimately so wasteful of my time and energy. (I’m not getting any younger here!) And your brou-ha-ha makes me think of Jon Ronson’s book about internet shaming I read recently. He looked back at the history of public shaming and discovered it was stopped and replaced by other forms of law because the punishment of the community was always too brutal and excessive. I think his point was that nothing has changed. And thank you for the recommendation! I will look that one out!

  9. I mean — DO people equate catcalling and assault? I’ve had both happen to me (minor assault, was not raped or anything! but at gunpoint, so v. scary!), and when I tell people about each of the things, they have quite proportionate reactions. And when I am catcalled, sometimes I just roll my eyes, and sometimes I’m so m.f. exhausted and cranky and tired of having to tighten my shoulders and scowl and walk like I’ve been sent to kill Captain America, when I would like to just — not do any of that. And if I were a guy I could be not doing any of that. I could abandon situational awareness and walk alone at night and think my own thoughts, and that would be fantastic. And I do pretty significantly resent not being able to do any of that, while also recognizing that that loss isn’t anywhere near as bad as being assaulted.

    • Rohan’s comment seems to suggest that this sort of situation can easily get out of hand, with people losing a sense of proportion over it. I think we have a good sense of proportion about what happens to others, and can lose it completely when something happens in which we feel personally implicated (or overinvested).

      Absolutely, you can feel whatever you feel. The only issue here is what you do in response. The only way I can stay sane is not to sweat the small stuff, as far as possible. But you – young, healthy, smart – maybe there is something useful you could do about all this and your irritation is motivating you to find it? I’m sure you could make a big difference to any political cause, or any community project you got involved in.

      • I think that sometimes what happens is that when there’s conversation about some relatively small but common thing (like catcalling), lots and lots of people have experienced that, so they feel they can weigh in, and the anger at it can seem bigger than it is. Or people use a neutral space like the internet to vent about it, which can also make it seem like everyone’s all up in arms to a greater degree than they are. But with bigger, more serious things (like actual rape), fewer people have experienced it personally and those who have may feel unable to talk about. And those who are close to someone who has experienced it may feel a need to keep what they’ve observed private (I say that as someone who nearly lost a friend to domestic violence this year and haven’t felt comfortable sharing her story in any detail, both because it’s her story and because it’s just too hard to talk about.) So what ends up happening is that there’s lots of chatter and noise around less serious issues, and that can drown out the talk about the really dreadful stuff.

  10. I can empathize how horrible it must have been to be humiliated in class in front of everybody and especially by a teacher! You’ve turned out pretty good. Does that teacher know? I’ve really appreciated your observation that none of these writers has a child. Sure I can whole-heartedly support the equal treatment of both genders, especially in opportunities, in occupational choices, in equal pay …etc. but it just boggles my mind that feminists are denying the fact that only women can bear child, breast feed, and be a mother. Sure men can be a father, and involve equally in parenting, and nurture, but that only starts when after the woman has given birth. Why the put down if women hold such a privilege and ‘authority’ over men? Why deny a woman her basic right? My thoughts here are in response to some critics watching the movie “Room” from a feminist point of view and criticizing it for limiting the course of feminism.

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