Author: Twenty-five women under thirty
Finished on: 27 July 2016
Where did I get this book: Bought from the gorgeous Hatchards at St Pancras. Contravention of the book-buying ban ‘allowed’ because I was about to get on a train and only had a few chapters of my other book left – a clear emergency. (That excuse is actually rubbish though as I bought The Female Eunuch at the same time, and it was only a two hour train journey!)
Writing about feminism is scary. I have spent enough time on twitter to know how badly it can all go if you get it wrong. But I enjoyed this book, and I do want to write about the reflections it provoked in me, so here goes… Please be gentle.
I call myself a feminist. But if I’m honest, maybe without understanding what it really means – either in a general sense, or to me specifically. This book is a real eye-opener and thought-provoker. And especially as it is written by young women from a range of backgrounds and with a range of experiences, it provides a great overview of feminist issues today.
One description of what feminism is in this book goes:
Feminism is liberation from the constraints of society. Feminism releases women – and men – to live the lives we want to, and to make a contribution to our society in the way that suits our abilities and energies, not restrictions laid down by gender or race or class.
I like this description because it’s about people as individuals.
Or, as Dorothy L Sayers said in 1938, as quoted by Lucy Worsley in the book I read immediately following this, A Very British Murder:
When the pioneers of university training for women demanded that women should be admitted to the universities, the cry went up at once “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?” The answer is NOT that all women would be the better for knowing about Aristotle… but simply “What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle. It is true that a great many women care nothing about him, and a great many male undergraduates turn pale and faint at the thought of him – but I, eccentric individual that I am, do want to know about Aristotle, and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily function which need prevent my knowing about him.
I want to be an eccentric individual too. And I wish that for everyone. Even if your individuality happens to involve conforming to whatever ‘norms’ are expected of you – that’s fine too if it’s genuinely what you want. But I am ridiculously privileged. I practically have privilege coming out of my ears. Not only because I’m white, able-bodied, mostly middle class, heterosexual and cisgendered. But because I have been brought up to believe I can achieve anything. My privilege comes from a conversation with my dad I had when I was 8: “I want to be an astronaut dad.” “Well, work hard in science, especially physics, as you’ll need to go to university and get a degree in astrophysics. And you might want to think about languages, especially Russian, as you’ll probably have to travel. The chances of you being an astronaut in Britain are low.” I haven’t become an astronaut (yet) but I do believe that if you’re brought up in a loving and supportive environment to believe that with a plan and some hard graft you can do pretty much anything, then you can do pretty much anything.
So, while I am also a feminist in the sense of another description in the book:
Someone who believes in the need to fight for the social, political and economical equality of the sexes.
I had perhaps always viewed this as a fight on behalf of other women in other situations, and in other countries. I support charities, sign petitions – but saw this as something separate to my own experiences. This book is good on the bigger picture of what the great nebulous world of feminism is all about these days, and how it is all interconnected. As well as on the specifics of why feminism is still important, and important for everyone.
However things have improved for some women, the world does not offer equal opportunities to women and men. Everywhere, girls and women are still objectified, intimidated and harassed on the street. Women’s bodies are still used to advertise anything from cars to food to computers. In many countries, women are still under-represented in politics, media, sport. In the UK, women are paid 78 per cent of their male colleagues’ wage for work of equivalent value. And in some places in the world it is illegal for women to drive or to vote. Women and girls are forced into sex and underage marriage, are not allowed to read or to go to school, are subjected to FGM, and live in constant fear of sexual assault or rape.
I am massively fortunate that much of this has not been my personal experience. And while I would like to see more feminist focus on the positive and inspirational side of being a woman today (especially within the editorial policy of Woman’s Hour – bloody hell, Tammy Wynette central) – all of the above is true, and it is happening every day. So for as long as that is the case, I want to be part of challenging it. For all women.
The main feminist ‘fight’ I have been aware of for the last few years that feels personal to me and my children is against gender-specific products and marketing. This is something that I abhor. I am a big believer in that meme that unless a toy is operated with your genitals, it is equally suitable for girls and boys. And if it is operated with your genitals, then it is not for children, and belongs in Ann Summers. I know that in the grand scheme of difficulties faced by women across the globe, this may seem insignificant. But since becoming a parent ten years ago, it has shocked the hell out of me that this is such an intrinsic part of childhood now in a society that claims to be progressive and civilised.
I once had an utterly futile argument with a staff member in Mothercare about why the ‘I want to be an explorer, a rock star, an astronaut…’ t-shirts were in the boys’ section, with just ‘I want to be a princess’ in the girls’. That one was futile, but less so the Pink Stinks campaign I was involved with to force Sainsbury’s to change their girls=nurses, boys=doctors fancy dress classification. That was successful, and rightly so. Being a nurse is certainly no less of an honourable profession. But putting children of any gender in a box, and setting limited expectations for what they can and should achieve is horrible to me. I don’t understand why it is permitted (see the current fight on Gap’s presentation of boy=genius, girl=social butterfly.) But I have to say, being a more recent parent of a boy, that this pigeonholing of children is even more limiting for them. The boxes we put little boys in are scary. This may be a digression, but if we brought up little boys to value nurturing, vulnerability, and open emotions, that could only be a good thing for everyone.
One thing I would love to see is a broadening out of some of the conversations about what feminism is for. What is our endgame here? As well as the no-brainers like stopping abuse and improving women’s safety, the current focus often seems to be on the drive for higher financial and professional achievement. Even this week, there was a piece on the Today programme about women’s voices and training us to speak more deeply and authoritatively in order to further our careers, in the context of the low proportion of female board members of FTSE 100 companies. Bloody FTSE 100 companies. Like leading one is the highest pinnacle of human achievement.
I appreciate that we are fighting for equality of expectation and opportunity – and that if we get this right then there could and should be equality of salaries and an equal number of women and men ‘in the boardroom’. And I know the number of FTSE 100 female board members is a symbolic measure of that. But could we not have a more meaningful measure of equality – like putting some research effort into investigating the proportion of people that feel fulfilled by their life overall or even (drumroll…) happy. Happiness and fulfilment are first about being able to figure out what it is that you want, and then secondly going out to get it. There seems to be an awful lot of focus on how many people have achieved something that probably only a relatively small number of people actually want.
And reading this book did also make me reflect on my own experiences.
It is true to say that I feel lucky to be a woman rather than a man in my family life. Maternity leave and part-time working opportunities are more readily available and acceptable for women. And I have capitalised on them fully.
But I do feel some frustration with the frequent binary depiction of women’s lives as being about children or career. Like those are the only things that matter. Refreshingly less so in this book (so maybe it’s just the stage of my life I’m at now), but much of the discourse around women’s lives that I hear in the media, and even amongst friends and colleagues, is about finding a ‘balance’ between these two things. Fuck the balance. I am not my job. And I am not my children. I am a hill walker, a reader, a writer, a sister, a friend… The ‘other stuff’ is so important to me. I would love to see the multifaceted nature of a life well lived reflected in some of these conversations. Both in terms of the challenges we still face, but also the opportunities and flexibility that being a woman can give us.
I suppose it comes back to eccentric individuality. The endgame is about achieving a society where everyone has the freedom and the opportunities to find their thing (or things), and to do their thing, however unusual or ‘normal’ it happens to be, without being put in a box because of any aspect the body they happen to have been born into. I realise that this is spectacularly far from happening, but it is certainly worth fighting for. Reading this book helped to crystallise my understanding of what feminism is all about for me. And more than ever, I call myself a feminist.