I’m having an internal dialogue as to what I think about feminism. It’s been going on for a while (roughly a decade) and I’m concerned I’m not making much progress. I’ve had the opportunity of an education, I can vote, I can work, I can travel where I want. I don’t feel like there’s anything I want to do but can’t solely because I a woman. Granted, occasional unwanted attention from the opposite sex is still a problem today. I think we all know that. But I don’t feel like that diminishes me as a person. To me, that’s not so much the woes of being female – more the woes of being a man who’ll never know what he’s missing.
But despite all this, I still feel some moral obligation to adopt the title:
I am a(n aspiring) feminist.
I still get a bit anxious when the topic comes up. When friends share ultra-empowering, women-rule-the-world statuses and links on facebook, or complain about their daily maltreatment by men. Or when we praise Cara Delevigne for telling us to ‘free the nipple’ on instagram and get excited about the girls of Tehran for wearing jeans and cutting their hair short. Of course, this isn’t any form of western cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism (although if it were Mauri tribespeople instead of Arabs, perhaps we wouldn’t be celebrating their stylistic transitions with such triumphalism) – no, this is feminism, so stand up girls; let’s all clap our hands and dance to Katy Perry because WE LOVE FEMINISM ❤
Well, Michelle Obama’s great. And Queen B. The Bell Jar got me through when I needed it. Can I join the club?
No seriously, I have tried to be a feminist. I started off with If Women Counted by Marilyn Waring – written in the 80s but now considered one of the founding texts of feminist economics. As I understand, her argument suggests that in associating the value of our assets (whether human or physical) with the monetary value of the output they produce, the capitalist set-up is designed to reduce the role of women through undervaluing the work they traditionally do. The male position is therefore secured on a higher rung of the social ladder and women are reduced to their dependants. The argument seems pretty logical – because women more commonly do work with no monetary value attached (caring for children; managing the household for their families; providing basic, but unpaid healthcare), women represent ‘undervalued human capital’ in our capitalist system. Men, who aren’t expected to fill these roles and so aren’t ‘undervalued’ enjoy greater economic freedom, independence, and a higher status in society.
I get, it- feminism is about women having equality with men, and there’s no lack of cases across the world where that still hasn’t been achieved. Certainly in many of the poorest societies women have little option other than to fill these unpaid, undervalued roles. The pure fact that they are female, and nothing else, condemns them to a lifetime of dependency with little ownership and few choices.
But what about the women who are independent? Who can, if they choose, step outside the immediate homestead and work? In most of the Western world isn’t it the financial and therefore social independence that we enjoy that forms the pre-requisite to the luxury of calling ourselves feminists? After all, I doubt many of the women Marilyn Waring was referring to in her economic model would actually labelled themselves with the term. Ironically, it seems to be those women who do enjoy more or less equality with their male counterparts that are able to join the club. `Those who don’t seem to be left outside.
Hence the confusion again set in. Maybe I needed to look at the other end of the social/ economic spectrum. If I struggled to get my head around the relationship between feminism and women without relative power, maybe a better place to start would be looking to those with relative power. And I needed to hear clear arguments. I needed someone to talk to me; to tell me personally without me having to think. So I went to the autobiography section of the Oxford Street Waterstone’s and picked out Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. Surely the queen herself, the New York high flyer and all round woman-of-the-world couldn’t let me down.
It was a good read. It certainly filled the criteria of me not having to think, and I found it strangely reassuring to match up her eccentricities to my own – I definitely felt a bit less weird for four or five days and that’s always a good thing. But I couldn’t escape the sense that I was looking onto a very tightly-knit circle of grown women enjoying a kindergarten story time session.
‘Yes, I recorded what I ate for a month. And guess what…. I eat SO MUCH FOOD. But it’s ok that I’m overweight because on the inside I’m beautiful.’ *General applause and pats on backs all round*
Ok, the essence of the book I agreed with. Women don’t need to be worried. We don’t need to feel like we have anything to live up to, or be pressurised with any constraints. We should be confident, and happy, and feel good about ourselves.
But aren’t these pretty universal messages? I’m sure our childhood friend Arthur the aardvark and the tunes of S club 7 were saying the same things…. Why when we get to adulthood are they being withheld within the binds of daring pink and black ‘feminist’ print?
I understand that there are issues which face women to a greater extent than men. And these are real issues. Emma Graham-Harrison wrote a recent article in The Guardian highlighting how much more difficult survival is for women residing in the migrant camps in Calais purely because they’re women. We as readers can empathise with the fear of unwanted attention when we go out for the evening (mobile phone and house keys in toe). But with no streetlights, no police support, no tampons or soap, and in many cases a child to look out for (three mothers have so far given birth in ‘The Jungle’ camp – quite a feat) daily life takes on a whole new level of challenging.
But I find it difficult not to see the term ‘feminism’ as restricting these issues to the female sphere. Not in their reception – there are plenty of prominent male feminists around – but in their origin. It suggests that these are problems only women have, and society needs to deal with them.
From all that we’ve learnt in the history of the world, surely one of the most important, resounding lessons is not to look at humanity in blocks. Not to divide people up as their nationality, or their religion, their race, political bias – or gender. Not to isolate each block or pose one against another. People are intricate. They’re individual and interconnected in more ways than we realise, and in my opinion, a huge achievement of our generation has been our ability to disassociate ourselves with gender norms. It’s ok for our best friends to be of the other sex. It’s ok to spend time with whoever we want to spend time with – go to dinner with them, go on holiday with them, co-habit with them. As we’ve recently seen with the Women’s football World Cup, women’s sport is for once being regarded just as seriously as men’s. This isn’t because women are becoming more like men – it’s because the individuals on that sports team are now able to do what those individuals want to do. In many cases, our gender is coming to no longer define the boundaries of our societal or social roles and interactions. Yes, there’s a feminine stereotype and a masculine stereotype, but at last we seemed to have realised – 99% of us lie somewhere in-between, as non-gendered people.
I’m saying this because I think that’s the crux of my issue with feminism. That surely ‘feminist’ issues are just ‘people’s’ issues. In response to feminist economics – anyone can be economically undervalued, male as well as female, child as well as adult; in response to Lena Dunham – anyone can feel insecure; in response to the real challenges facing women throughout the world – the challenges you’re facing don’t just apply to you. They don’t exist in their own gendered sphere – they’re part of a wider societal, cultural, economic and political sphere that touches on and involves us all. Their relevance shouldn’t be attached to the block of humans we call ‘women’. The danger; the injustice; the lack of independence or choice; the harassment and exploitation – they all very much exist and they’re all very much causes worth fighting against. But these aren’t issues of women’s rights, they’re issues of human rights.