What exactly is feminism?
I do not pose this as an academic or even a political question. I am genuinely interested to know what the majority of people actually think this F word means? Because frankly I’m pissed off that somehow it’s managed, in too many circles, to be seen as a dirty word.
I was on a date in Ireland recently with a nice man. He’s too young for us to consider a serious relationship, but we enjoy spending time together when we happen to be in the same city. I consider him a friend, and we talk about all sorts of things – including his more regular dating life and the joys (or otherwise) of Tinder. I guess our experiences are so diverse that we learn different things from each other. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love having friends in every decade and long may it be so.But I was surprised when we were taking a walk after dinner when he stopped dead on the path behind me and said in an almost concerned or disbelieving tone “are you a feminist?” I had used the word so casually, automatically, I hadn’t really registered saying it. “Of course I am” I replied, still actually trying to unravel what had just happened. That’s when it struck me – he and I have interests in common, and we are both educated. Yet we are divided not just by culture, country and age, but by a political, social and economic landscape that seems to have forgotten we actually need the word feminism, and why.
Since that conversation it keeps coming up for me, my focus and attention having shifted slightly. And I cannot believe how many misunderstandings of this word there are. I am not going to quote French academics or suffragettes – though well one might – as in the confines of a blog that may do more to alienate than elucidate. Also there are theories which grow up around a concept about which even those ‘in the camp’ may take issue. (If you don’t believe me look at any political party and the variants of colour and belief within it.) Such is the case with Feminist Political Theory.I simply want to say that there would never have even been the need for this infamous F word if there had not been sexism or patriarchy. Really. Feminism, pure and simple is about empowerment of the sex that then, as now, did not hold the reins of power or receive equal respect, remuneration or opportunity. Negative impressions of the word – whether they be ridiculous undermining ones like hairy legs and no make-up... or bullying ones like ‘club wielding’, men-hating women – have been created over time by people (men and women) who resist that essential principle and only serve to prove that the word feminism, and the belief system within it, is very much needed.
To be a feminist is to be human. It is to be respectful and fair. It is to believe in equality - not identical paths, necessarily; not unfeminine or unsexy or unmotherly or unhumorous or unapproachable... or any other thing attached, negatively, to the notion of woman. It is to say that a woman has rights (and responsibilities) that are equal in importance to the rights of man. And that she should not be judged, limited or controlled – in the home or in the public realm – with expressions and measures which are pejorative or skewed in a man’s favour.So going back to my date in Ireland, it really worries me that even intelligent and educated people can have such a misconception of the meaning and value of feminism. I expect it, perhaps, of an older generation who have grown tired of 60s and post 60s ‘revolutionary’ debates. I accept hesitancy more quietly from an older generation; just as I am more forgiving of people who fought and were damaged by a war and find it hard to get past their memories of that war and their feelings about the opponents they faced. But when it comes to people in the prime of their lives, people who have benefitted hugely from the debates which opened up in the 60s and 70s, and with young people who presume equal rights as a default, the ongoing misunderstanding of the heart and purpose of feminism reminds me, in a very serious way, how much each of us, all of us, still have to do to ensure this ‘ism’ continues and flourishes. We would think of nothing less for gay rights, racial rights or religious rights... so why is this concept so hard for people to accept whole-heartedly?
I wrote about this on my arts blog when I was disgusted with the ending of the movie, Kingsman. And though that article received more hits than any previous blog post, I still can’t believe the community didn’t make much more of an outcry.So with that in mind, my dear friend Emma G and I, had cause to edit our own language on Friday night when we found ourselves in a pub saying someone did or didn’t “have balls”. We’d used the phrase two or three times before we stopped ourselves... realising that, actually, it was/is an unhelpful use of patriarchal language. Yes of course it’s innocent in many respects. The whole purpose of language is to communicate, so to use understood expressions or metaphors makes sense. But do we always have to reinforce references which are not helpful to a woman’s overall place in the world? Why don’t we say instead “wow, she has breasts!” Or “he really has breasts!” Or “he just doesn’t have breasts!” (Or boobs, tits, knockers, puppies, whatever you prefer.)
I am partly joking, but only partly. For breasts, are human organs which succour and develop life. They are not the only clever equipment women have for that (versatile as we are) but they come in pairs. Breasts are visible, aesthetic, and make a strong statement; which frankly is more than you can say for balls. Breasts are also more resilient than balls; as many would argue are women.So try it out. Hear yourself using expressions which don’t actually flatter or support the empowerment and equality of women. You don’t have to change your vocabulary all the time – I offer this merely as an example – but do listen for it, and let it tell you what it is we gals are up against (at times, and in some aspects of life) and therefore why the F Word Feminism is so necessary and so beautiful - in fact, as ordinary, and beautiful, as breasts.
Let’s reclaim the F word and make it fabulous!