This is what a feminist looks like

Saturday, 5 September 2009

fem·i·nism (f m -n z m). n. 1. Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. 2. The movement organized around this belief.

Here I am (on holiday, hence the tan) - we do indeed come in all different shapes and sizes. A good couple of months back, Anna Corbett wrote a feature called Confessions of a Brand New Feminist for The F Word. In it, she detailed how she came to call herself a feminist and the changes this decision had brought to her life. It inspired me to start jotting down some notes about my own journey from someone who never really thought about feminism to someone who considers it a huge part of her life. Life got in the way a bit, then more women started blogging about their own journeys towards feminism for Women's Equality Day and at this point, my laptop was laid up with a virus so I couldn't do anything. One complete reinstall later, it's back in my possession and I've spent the week catching up with everything. I'm not sure if my story is typical although I imagine that it's recognisable to many women who started to identify as a feminist while at university.

I honestly don't remember ever thinking much about the word 'feminism' during my years at school. I knew I believed in 'equal rights' for women in terms of politics and education but I don't believe I was ever exposed to much which made me think about the sort of issues that affect us as women. I had a pretty quiet, sheltered childhood - I was very bookish and introverted and so were most of my friends. I stayed in every evening and got my homework done. My life revolved around getting good grades, orchestra and choir, whatever bands I was into, teenage friendship dramas. I had all sorts of privileges that I didn't even think about - being white, middle-class, straight, living in a stable home with both parents (who both worked). Nothing you could write a misery memoir about. I don't ever remember anyone I knew talking about feminism - none of my friends were interested in politics or activism.

If you'd asked me, as a teenager, about women and equality, I would have said that we'd achieved it. But then I'd never had a relationship, hadn't entered the world of work, didn't really have more than a couple of male friends if I'm honest. I remember studying women's struggle for enfranchisement in A-Level history and being quite affected by it in the sense that I realised how important it was - and how important the women's rights movement in general has been, but I don't remember dwelling on it that much or feeling that it still had relevance today.

And so I went off to university. Well-meaning and encouraging relatives told me that I'd meet 'loads of like-minded people' at university and that it would be 'much better than school' in that respect because people would be 'more mature' and 'have different interests'. As every single one of you who's ever been a fresher knows, that's not necessarily the case. I remained introverted and socially anxious - living in halls seemed like one big popularity contest sometimes and those who talked loudest, partied hardest and looked conventionally attractive came out on top. It became noticeable that so much casual misogyny was bandied about. Bottom line - if you weren't considered 'fit', you weren't worth much. Events put on at the union, contests and parties did nothing to dispel this. We had beauty contests, Playboy-themed events, constant pressure on women to take their clothes off to win drinks or prizes.

I don't think it hit me entirely until I'd spent a few weekends visiting my boyfriend, then a fresher at a different university. He was also in halls and lived on a corridor with a big group of guys who were mostly single. Many of them made it quite clear that they considered me a hindrance to his university experience, to the extent that they encouraged him to get rid of me so he too could play the field at the union every Friday night. To top it off they were big fans of porn and lads' mags. Every time I visited Luke I would pick up his student magazine and was often speechless at the misogyny I encountered. The university hosted events put on by Nuts and FHM at a time when some stories about 'raunch culture' (as it came to be known) and the impact of lads' mags on women were starting to appear in the news.

I despised how this culture made me feel as a woman. I knew I was worth much more than how many boxes I ticked on the list of 'conventionally attractive attributes' and how many men wanted to have sex with me. It depressed me that so many people, male and female, were clamouring to be a part of a culture that encourages women to do all they can in a neverending quest to appeal to men yet berates them for what they wear, how much they drink and how they behave if they become the victim of sexual assault or rape. I met people whose low self-worth and experiences with men had caused them a whole lot of pain and I started to see how these things all tied together. My self-esteem was at rock-bottom when I started looking at websites such as About-Face and One Angry Girl. I was reading about advertising, eating disorders, empowerment, exploitation and a lot of anti-porn resources. All of a sudden - in the summer of 2004 - my personal journal was crammed with rants about objectification, lads' mags and the beauty industry. I was reading stuff written by women who called themselves feminists and realising that I was one too.

The blogs and organisations I'd found online, along with experiences I'd had at university, led me to start considering a whole spectrum of issues facing women that had never really worried me before. Rape, domestic violence, equal pay, forced marriage, abortion, the right to education, human trafficking. At first, realising how privileged my life had been, I felt ashamed that none of this had ever been an issue for me before. I started answering back to those who think feminism is somehow ridiculous, or that women have 'achieved equality', or that casual misogyny is hilarious. It started to enrage me when people pulled the good old 'what about teh menz?!!' line or when people told me that 'surely equality would mean having an International Men's Day as well' (as if, you know, it hasn't been International Men's Day every single day for thousands of years). I felt a level of solidarity with other women that I'd never felt before and so much more compassion. I realised how important it is to check my privilege. The internet has been invaluable to me in my journey towards feminism. I've sometimes considered the fact that we spend a lot of time blogging and discussing things on forums and maybe less time than we should involved in direct action and being out in the world, but you can't deny the importance of the internet in consciousness raising.

On International Women's Day 2007, I posted the following statistics in my personal journal:

- At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in her lifetime. This figure comes from a study based on 50 surveys from around the world.
- More than 60 million women are “missing” from the world today as a result of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide.
- Women make up 51% of the world's population, do 66% of the world's work, earn 10% of the world's income and own 1% of the world's wealth.
- 70% of the 1.3 billion people living on less than a dollar a day are women.
- The World Health Organization has reported that up to 70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by their male partners.
- In every country where reliable, large-scale studies have been conducted, results indicate that between 10% and 50% of women report they have been physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
- Population-based studies report between 12 and 25% of women have experienced attempted or completed forced sex by an intimate partner or ex-partner at some time in their lives.
- Over a quarter of the world's population live in countries where abortion is entirely prohibited or only permitted to save a woman's life

- Around 1 in 10 women (9.7%) have experienced some form of sexual victimisation (including rape) since age 16.
- Around 1 in 20 women (4.9%) have been raped on at least one occasion since age 16.
- Under 6% of rape cases reported to the police result in a conviction.
- Many women do not report rape through fear of being put on trial – women are still asked what underwear they had on and whether they have had abortions or been “promiscuous”.
- In heterosexual couples, even where both partners have full time jobs, in seven out of ten cases the woman does most of the housework.
- 17.2% hourly pay gap between women and men working full-time.
- The hourly pay gap between what women working part-time earn and men working full-time earn is 38.5%.
- Women make up just 19.7% of our MPs.
- Two women a week are killed by their current or former partner.

These are just some of the reasons I am a feminist. What about you?

PS: I loved this - Raising a feminist/raised a feminist


Hannah said...

What a fantastic post. Honest, moving and powerful. Your experiences ring so true to me and I am sure millions of other young women. Lad culture is the refuge of frightened little boys, crying for attention. Our greatest triumph is our ability to laugh at their nonsense, flick our hair and turn our backs!

floristry said...

This was really interesting to read and I agree with so much of what you've said - ESPECIALLY the part about university, this was my experience exactly! There's lots more I want to write about but I don't want to start droning on about myself in a comment so I think I'll save it for a post of my own. I love you're blog posts - they're very thought-provoking and inspiring.

Eline said...

I can't eloquently put my experience (few as it is) with feminism as you and neither can I comment with anything worthwhile but this is such a great read! I just had to mention that. Keep blogging here :D

Hannah M said...

Thank you for the positive comments guys :) I know that so many young women have this experience when they first start university and that it really changes things for them.

And don't worry, i will most definitely be keeping on blogging!

Laura said...

So well said. Thank you so much for writing this. It's explained in a very succinct way what I've been thinking about lately, from my own personal experiences and background, which are similar to yours.

Christian Linnell said...

I found this really interesting.

I try to take the opportunity to understand the so-called "female viewpoint" when I can, because although as a male who values equality of the sexes, it takes personal experience to fully understand an issue.

I have to ask for clarification on some things though:

1. Women do 66% of the world's work

How is this defined? I feel this would be extremely difficult to measure..

2. Women earn 10% of the world's income.

This would have to be normalised against the proportion of women actually in the workforce.

Moreover, although I doubt all families are the same, I like to think that when I'm married, my income (and indeed her income) is "our" income. For the most part anyway.

3. 17.2% hourly pay gap between women and men working full-time.

To be honest, I've only ever worked in IT. In IT there really are very few women. However, my first boss was a woman (software testing), and she earned quite a lot more than most of the men in the company.

Currently there are 5 women on my floor (and 28 men). All but one of those women earns more than 80% of the people on the floor. They're all very talented.

This isn't to say it's always peachy: that first boss was, in no uncertain terms, denied a raise because she was female (and "would always have a man to buy her dinner"). She quit shortly after this (obviously), but is now paid in the 6 figures (and deserves it too - she's great).

But the fact that all these talented women are doing so well makes me wonder how much of the problem is women not believing they can achieve? Not believing society has moved on somewhat.

Just a thought.

4. hourly pay gap between what women working part-time earn and men working full-time earn is 38.5%

I bet the hourly pay gap between part-time men and full-time women is big too!

5. Porn

What is the issue? Before you answer, consider that I know many women who really do enjoy showing off their bodies, whether in porn or strip clubs. They do it for enjoyment, not because they have to.

In many cases it's not a pressure thing either - many of them consider it an affirmation of freedom. And many just don't care. They laugh at men for being sucked in by it and paying for it.

Also take in to account male porn. Does your complaint cover that too?

Hopefully this wasn't too long. It might be difficult to tell over the Interweb, but I'm not arguing - I agree with you wholeheartedly. Just a curious and slightly oblivious male :-)


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