The rise of the feMEnist, and why it must stop

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Yesterday several newspapers were abuzz with the results of a survey claiming to show that just one in seven women identify with feminism, instead seeing it as "irrelevant", "too aggressive", and "not a positive label". The survey was carried out by parenting website Netmums, and 1300 of its members answered questions such as "Do you think there are any downsides to the successes of feminism?" and "Which of these activities is acceptable for feminists?", a list that included "baking cupcakes", "false nails", and "topless modelling".

Despite the fact that the survey seemed designed to highlight what people see as the negatives of the movement, and hardly representative ("women see motherhood as their top priority" - hardly unexpected of a survey carried out on a website for mums), the usual suspects in the national press were quick to jump on the results as representing all women. The Daily Mail's headline was "The death of feminism", while the Express plumped for "Feminism is over...say women". So far, so typical linkbait for the right-wing press, "radical feminist" stereotypes abound. Yawn.

And I have to admit that yes, right-wing linkbait and all, I did feel disappointed to read what the survey had to say, from "39% said they don't want to be equal" to "accept men and women are different and therefore need different rights", and that old classic, "feminism has gone too far". On the other hand, it was interesting to see respondents identifying which battles they believe feminists still have to fight, from affordable childcare to equal pay and bans on sexist advertising - and the fact that 70% of them held the view that "too much is expected of women".

One thing, however, stuck out to me the most: the way Netmums has branded the findings as "the rise of the feMEnist", so called because women today supposedly want the right to live their lives as they want without judgment, rather than "being dictated to by the 70s-style sisterhood", as the Telegraph put it. They want to "find their own path that works for them and their family". This is all very well and really important, but when you reduce the movement down to nothing more than choice feminism, you really miss the point.

A common criticism levelled at the feminist movement today is that we're just out to police women's lives and dictate their thoughts, either "forcing" them into one way of thinking or rejecting them as "not feminist enough". This couldn't be further from the truth, although it often doesn't seem like that when the media insists on pigeonholing us and painting us as obsessed with certain issues above all else. Women push back against the idea of "sisterhood" because they think it means having to love all women; they push back against the idea of solidarity because this one time, this one feminist said something they didn't agree with. They push back against equality because they think people will hate on them for wearing makeup.

The problem is, turning everything the other way and making gender equality all about personal choice and "me, me, me - whatever I think is good" conveniently forgets that there are a whole lot of women struggling with a whole lot of circumstances who do need - and want - collective effort, empathy, and action. Individualism is not the way forward.

It's an "every woman for herself" attitude that's heavy on "my personal choice to do x" and light on cohesion with a wider movement, and compassion for other women and their lives. It's the unfortunate state of affairs that means public debates about feminism get mired in waffle about the "choices" surrounding vajazzling and baking while serious issues go undiscussed.

The Netmums survey concluded: "While undoubtedly it's down to old-fashioned feminists for bringing society this far, now it's time for another radical change to let individual feMEnists find their own path..." We know everyone's over the idea of "having it all". We know that choices about family life are important and that every woman has the right to be respected for the choices she makes about work, motherhood, and interests.

But let's not turn feminism into nothing more than "doing whatever we want". The survey showed that women think there's a lot of work to be done by the movement, which is why it's important to work together, help each other, and genuinely want to improve the situation for women the world over. To dismiss this as old hat, the preserve of "old-fashioned" feminists, is sad - and I think, misrepresents the movement today. Yes, we have to be accessible, and yes, we have to be accepting of a wide range of views. But come on, we can do better than this.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via crl!'s Flickr

Further reading:

Salt and Caramel: Feminism is over...say women
My Elegant Gathering of White Snows: FeMEnism: Netmums re-invents "choice" feminism

Towards a more wide-ranging "pro-life"

Sunday, 7 October 2012

"Being a pro-choice evangelical is a bit niche, isn't it?" I said to someone in the midst of the latest blowup over abortion rights. First it was Maria Miller and 20 weeks. Now Jeremy Hunt and his support for a 12 week upper limit, which has had all my fellow pitchfork-wielding leftie Twittermobbers raging for the past couple of days.

Hunt stated in an interview that his view on the 12 week limit is down to his personal belief "about the moment we should deem life to start", not, he added, "for religious reasons". David Cameron has responded by saying that the government "has no plans to bring forward any legislation in this area". Still, it's unsettling, isn't it? Both the minister for women and the health secretary. Whether Cameron's got plans to that effect or not, it's got people worried yet again, that little by little we're going to see that limit chipped away.

Being pro-choice means that people ask me things like why, as a Christian, I'm not "valuing life above all else". If babies born before 24 weeks have survived, why shouldn't the cut-off point be 20 weeks? Meanwhile, people talk about those who want a 20 week limit as "hating women". Both sides of the debate, at their extremes fuelled by comments like Hunt's, are completely unhelpful.

My issue is this: on the side of the debate that values life above all else, there is plenty of commitment to slashing the legal limit for women to have abortions (based on the survival of a handful of babies), but precious little noise made about addressing many of the issues surrounding why women are having abortions in the first place. Take, for example, these case studies from BPAS showing the reasons for requests for abortion over 22 weeks gestation in 2008. Poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, stalling on the part of the NHS meaning women had had to wait weeks to access services. And several women who had no reason to believe they were pregnant in the first place.

It's my belief that a commitment to lowering the number of abortions should go hand in hand with a commitment to lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies and supporting women at all stages of their lives. Unfortunately you don't often hear those who are anti-abortion talking about better sex and relationships education for young people, easier access to contraception, addressing issues such as domestic violence, poverty, rape, and support for women who are unsure about what choice to make that doesn't just involve telling them how much they'll regret having an abortion. More talk like that might mean more people would believe Maria Miller when she calls herself a "very modern feminist". We haven't quite reached the same state of affairs as the USA yet, but who knows what could happen - as Tanya Gold said in a piece for The Guardian on Friday:

"The abortion wars in America, funded by Republicans who want miracle babies but not a functioning welfare state..."

There are two further issues with 20 weeks - one being the anomaly scan carried out around this point in a pregnancy, and the other being the fact that some women end up waiting weeks to access the services they need when considering whether or not to have an abortion. It goes without saying that even when the procedure is restricted or made illegal, women will still find ways to do it. We don't demonstrate holding banners with pictures of coathangers for nothing.

To my mind, when I'm supporting a pro-choice point of view, I am "valuing life". Access to abortion should be combined with action on all the issues mentioned above - the sex education and the domestic abuse and the waiting times. It's not enough to talk about abstinence education yet send more families into poverty and cut funding to women's shelters. As @DillyTante said in an excellent post yesterday:

"Lowering the legal limits for abortion will not reduce the number of abortions. It will reduce the number of legal and safe abortions. Someone desperate enough to terminate a baby in the middle of pregnancy is likely to go to any lengths to do so. Reducing the legal limit for abortion will not result in more happy smiley chubby babies; it will increase the number of desperately unhappy women and children brought into this world in devastating circumstances. With a government reducing welfare and community support for families and people with disabilities this can only be a path to unhappiness for many."

As a Christian I'd like to see more of a "pro-life" commitment to this side of the story. Maybe then I'd be convinced that there is a real concern for women and their welfare. The desire to "value life" when "life" refers to a foetus is all well and good, but what of the lives and wellbeing of women? What of the life of the child once it's actually exited the womb? I don't see any of that in the demonstrations outside clinics, or in the desire to lower the legal limit on dubious medical grounds. And that's why I occupy my "niche" position: because I hope for something different. People are entitled to an anti-abortion view, but all too often they let themselves down.

50 Women to Watch: The Fallout

Saturday, 6 October 2012

I was slightly late to the party in seeing Denny Burk's response to Christianity Today's list of "50 Women To Watch", and the reactions it has caused.

Burk's main concern appears to be the fact that CT's list of "women to watch" contains no discussion about the controversy surrounding different perspectives on gender roles and therefore, highlights the work and careers of women excelling in areas that some complementarians don't believe it's their place to excell in.

"In general, it regards high-achieving women excelling in their respective fields as something to be celebrated," he writes, adding that he wouldn't have a problem with celebrating women if they actually, you know, knew their place and were "excelling in roles that the scripture commands".

"I wouldn’t celebrate those that I believe are serving in roles that scripture forbids," he explains in a comment.

Burk goes on to turn the comments section into a highly judgmental discussion on whether or not Rachel Held Evans (who is mentioned on the CT list) is really an evangelical, even after Evans herself comments to lay the debate to rest. That, however, isn't enough for him.

"I think you and I have really different views about what an evangelical is," he tells her, stating this again and again.

Comments on the post are numerous and come from both sides. When I first read the post, I felt pretty angry. It's just another example of the "interesting" stance on gender espoused by certain prominent bloggers and teachers in the USA, a stance that often begins with judgments such as those detailed above and leads to the characterizing of women who express disagreement as "shrill", "ranting", or "extreme". It's all part of the "interesting" stance that has left many people, men and women, disillusioned with church and with Christians, as well as giving the rest of us a bad name, and has even seeped into some UK-based discussions on gender recently. It's a stance that affects the way these prominent bloggers and teachers think about wider issues, such as rape. It's a stance that obsesses over tone policing and appearing "gracious" to the extent that nothing ever gets resolved thanks to an endless cycle of opinions, disagreement, tone arguments, posts about forgiveness and grace, then returning to square one until the next time it happens.

However it didn't make me angry for long. Moreover, it struck me as incredibly sad. Disappointingly sad, but also eye-rollingly, tediously sad. Firstly, the idea that the achievements of women should not be celebrated if they dare to work outside narrowly-defined roles. I mean, really. Secondly, the insistence of Burk on judging whether or not others are Christian enough according to his narrow standards - not uncommon, but arrogant all the same. Thirdly, the message that all this sends out - that prominent Christian "names" (if not in the UK, but among US evangelicals) actually spend their time being upset that other Christians are being praised, for no other reason than their gender. What does it say to people who are already increasingly disillusioned with what constitutes US evangelical culture (which if I go by what I've read in reports and on blogs in recent months, are numerous)? Nothing positive, that's for sure.

I think about what I've seen in the couple of weeks since all these lists started to appear, these lists of  "Top Bloggers" and "Most Popular" and "Ones to Watch". I think about the drama they've caused and the debates they've started. How time and time again they out themselves as a back-slapping exercise for high-profile white men, how they veer from being something to be proud of and display a button for to something that you wouldn't want to be a part of, oh no, because that would be thinking too highly of yourself and it's not your place and oh, you're just happy to blessed by the wonderful people who actually did make the list. Isn't it wearisome, and isn't online Christian culture stuck in a rut?

Someone I was talking to a couple of weeks ago on Twitter said the same thing - that they're sick of the circular debates and the way the discussions always go. It's time to change the way we go about these things, she said. Time to stop being nice and bending over backwards for people, whether they call us shrill or say we need to change the way we say things or straight out insult and patronise us.

See also:

Are women really "less ambitious" than men?

Friday, 5 October 2012

The results of an exclusive poll conducted for The Telegraph claim to show that women are less ambitious than men and that we're facing an "aspiration gap" between men and women in the business world.

The findings are the subject of a couple of stories published in the paper's newly-launched women's section called "Wonder Women", which is being billed as content that this generation of women will actually enjoy and identify with, rather than consisting of the usual "lipsticks, handbags or BMW - bitching, moaning and whining" (more on this later).

1,000 18-35 year olds were surveyed and it was found that just 16% of young women aspire to run their own business one day, and just 3% want to be the chief executive of a company - compared to 22% and 6% of men. It also looks like women aren't as concerned by earning a high salary, with 16% aspiring to take home £100,000 a year compared to 20% of men. 16% of those surveyed said they were happy to take home £30,000 a year, compared to 12% of men.

This, apparently, is indicative of the fact that women are less ambitious and less concerned with "climbing the corporate ladder" than their male contemporaries. But is this a bad thing? The article happily details the fact that a "surprising" percentage of both men and women have no desire to become a line manager or head of department - so is it a case of unambitious women, or both sexes being disillusioned with the traditional concept of "success"?

The idea that women are "less ambitious" than men is problematic from the outset, because it equates "ambition" with wanting to earn a high salary and become a chief executive. This leaves no room for the fact that there are many, many ways to be ambitious, and that money isn't the most important thing in plenty of people's lives. Andrew Hunter, co-founder of the company that conducted the survey, said he thought that young people "would have a little more aspiration than this". Surely it's not difficult to understand that the corporate world isn't everyone's thing?

More and more, it's being reported that people will take job satisfaction and a good work-life balance over pots of cash and an important-sounding job title any time. In my experience, the current economic climate coupled with 21st century workplace culture has made people reassess their priorities - and while everyone wants to make enough money, that's as far as it goes for a lot of people. We know that the job opportunities of years gone by aren't there any more, which is probably why so many of those surveyed were keen to work freelance or set up their own business.

It's also possible that people aren't interested in working their way up to management because they're unwilling to become part of a power structure they're not totally comfortable with. Leadership can be worked out in many other ways.

So is it cause for concern that women, in particular, don't seem so interested in that sort of life? No, not really. As someone who has plenty of ambition but has never aspired to corporate glory and a six figure salary, I can't see what all the fuss is about. It's suggested that we should be doing something about this supposed lack of drive in young women. By all means, we should be offering encouragement and resources if they need help realising such ambitions. But otherwise, I'm not so sure.

What the survey actually appears to suggest is that women are more interested in other career paths, and don't see business and cash as their route to "having it all", something I know is true for me and for many of my friends. It found that careers in the public sector and charity sector are the most desirable, followed by those in the IT and digital sector, and the media.

Speaking of which, you'd think that a so-called "sassy" new women's section would avoid going down the cliché-ridden route of stories about "Having It All". The same goes for illustrating said stories with stills from The Devil Wears Prada and pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker. It would be nice to see a move away from all that nonsense and towards a more up-to-date take on these issues, a take that doesn't see the woman who "has it all" as a woman with several children, a job in banking, the perfect relationship, and a house worthy of Elle Decoration. I'll be interested to see how Wonder Women pans out in the weeks to come.

One of the better points raised by The Telegraph's coverage is that childcare arrangements and attitudes towards mothers remain a major barrier to women achieving their career ambitions, and could explain the difference in aspiration between men and women. The cost of nurseries these days is the highest in Europe, which means it's not economically viable for many women to return to work, even if they're keen to do so. In my opinion that's worth addressing and something the government really needs to act upon, because it does affect the lives and careers of many, many women. Maybe then we'll see a change in the disparity between men's and women's ambitions.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via victor1558's Flickr.

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