Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Feminism - Why has it become a dirty word?

It feels like feminism and feminist issues are being discussed more and more as of late. From child brides to female genital mutilation, from "No More Page 3" on twitter to the recent Sam Pepper videos - the discussion seems as fierce and active as ever. Almost equally, however, the 'anti-feminist' movement has become increasingly vocal on social media. Only a few mere weeks ago I replied to a tweet Katharine Cheston posted:

What followed was one of those pointless Twitter arguments from which I concluded, after this lady's weak points, is that more than anything - she was someone looking for an argument. Regardless, I was shocked that any free-thinking woman, who confidently and publicly aired her opinions, would be so anti-feminist when without feminism, she would probably not have a platform on which to air her views. This got me thinking - when did feminism become such a negative word?

I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember. I was particularly academic in school and was never told anything was out of my reach. In High School, when I excelled in Business Studies, I had grand ideas of being a high-flying business woman living in London. When I was tired of being a checkout assistant in my job, I marched up to the store manager and told him I aspired to work in business and wanted a job in the Human Resources department - why shouldn't I? I was as capable as anyone else.

It wasn't really until I was in the world of work that everyday sexism and inequality really started to have an effect on me. I suppose it had always been present: sexualisation at a young age by beeping and cat-calling "white van men" just because I had dared to wear a skirt on a hot summers day; disgusting comments and suggestions by strangers on MSN and boys pinching your behind at discos or club nights - but this shows how ingrained these things are as 'normal'; I was passive, unaware that these things were anything else than part of 'growing up'. 

Now I was in a position at work where I had real responsibility. I took initiative every day to go above and beyond what was expected of me. I solved problems other staff members had caused. I helped make decisions with management that contributed to the successful running of the store. Yet I received little recognition for these endeavours. Instead, I received a lot of unwanted attention for being a young girl from intimidating middle aged men in management. My female superior laughed it off as "just what they're like" and so I nervously endured more sexual jokes at my expense than I care to mention and on a daily basis, as did many of the other girls in the store. One particular memory of this, I found two of the male managers laughing. I continued to walk past them, giving them a bemused look, only to be told later by a colleague that they were talking about raping me, whilst the other held me down. I did nothing to court this attention - and even if I had - no girl deserves this treatment. Especially from someone much older and intimidating.

From this point I started taking a lot more notice of 'feminist issues' and a greater look at the world around me. Why should I be heckled in the street? Why should men ridicule women in the media and call it 'banter' or being a 'lad'? Why are the newspapers commenting on what female politicians wear rather than what they have to say? Perhaps more importantly - why do much of society role their eyes when women speak up and label us as 'angry' or 'man hating'?

I would separate my feminist ideals into two categories: equality of choice and equality of treatment.

By equality in choice I mean that a woman, or man, should be free to choose their path in life regardless of their gender. Whether that is as a high-flying business woman or as a dedicated Mother or a combination of the two, the choice should be there. I read a comment from a woman who stated she didn't identify as a feminist as she aspired to be a housewife and raise children. I totally disagree. Feminism is about the freedom to choose. 

A slight problem with this though I find is sometimes in western culture we project this idea on to women that they can 'do it all' and have a successful career and be a mother and a wife. I'm sure many women manage this very successfully, however, it would upset me if women who fail to 'have it all' feel they have failed as a feminist. Above all we are all human beings and doing the best we can. Sometimes we have to make choices not based on our gender but based on normal life limitations!

By equality in treatment I can draw upon my own experiences of being sexually harassed both on the street and in the work place. I can draw upon the pay gap, which is very real although I am lucky enough not to have experienced it myself. I can draw upon being told I 'wouldn't be interested' in what the men were talking about. I can draw upon the terrible nude picture leaks in the media and the terrible comments on social media.

Feminism as equality of choice as well as treatment applies as much to men as it does to women. As a teacher, I know first hand the suspicion around men as teachers of younger children when they are excellent at their jobs. I have seen couples with children break up only to leave excellent fathers with no rights. I feel the word 'feminism' has been tainted with man-hating connotations and anger and perhaps 'feminism' isn't even the right word for the cause anymore. 

What I know for sure, is that when an inspiring young woman like Emma Watson speaks in an extremely fair and balanced way about feminism gets threatened by hackers with nude picture leaks for speaking up, that feminism is is still very, very necessary. 

Watch Emma Watson's UN speech here:

Watch Joseph Gordon Levitt's male perspective on feminism here:

I'd love to hear your views!