Monthly Archives: December 2012

A rose by any other name

“I don’t know if I’d use the word feminist, I mean sure, I’m in favour of women’s right and all but…”

“You’re writing a feminist blog? Well, that’s nice, I don’t really consider myself a feminist and all that though, but yeah have fun…”

“What he said to her was really outrageous! You know, I’m not really a feminist, but I couldn’t stand his patronising tone…”

These are all things I heard from different female friends at various points of this autumn, when I started paying special attention to this kind of discourse, and I’m sure there has been other occurrences that I just overlooked, where people were saying exactly the same things without using the “f” word.

I’m not blaming nor taking out on anyone here, I couldn’t, I’ve been there myself. You would have asked me a couple of years, maybe even months ago and yes, I probably would have denied any activism and refused the infamous name. At the same time, I was probably already aware and concerned by my situation as a woman in the world. I knew about the professional glass ceiling, the appallingly gendered rape statistics or even the trivial taboo around our periods. Obviously, I also knew about the struggles that took part (and are still ongoing in certain parts of the world) to grant women an equal access to education, resources and freedoms of all kind. I wasn’t blind, ignorant or politically leaning the other way, I just did not think it concerned me. You can laugh. Issues were affecting the part of humanity I belong to and I decided it wasn’t for me, that I would support it but from afar, without actually engaging with it. The thing is, we are actually engaging with it regularly, every time we complain about a patronising attitude from a male boss or a boyfriend, every time we wish we wouldn’t get whistled at while walking the street in a short dress, every time we have to justify our anger and protest that no, these aren’t our bloody hormones talking. We’re the Mrs Jourdain of feminism, we are all doing it without realising it.

I think I can explain what seems to be this generation (and was definitely mine) ‘s reluctance towards a word by a series of factor, most of which we’re all familiar with, we lovely cynical “generation Y” youths.

The first is the terrible image the feminist movement has got to deal with. You don’t have to have read all the genre literature from Olympe de Gouges to Jezebel.com to already have an idea of what feminism is, or what you think it is, and if the idea of hairy lesbian man eaters doest not spring into your mind, there is a whole lot of hilarious pop culture jokes you just won’t get. Without necessarily indulging in insulting caricatures, there seems to be a definite trend of people that consider that, a bit like punk, feminist is dead, and what remains now is people trying to play the old tune over and over again. The major battles have been won and now the movement has gone too far, going on to deconstruct everything, turning angry and bitter at innocent men that are not the sexist big baddies of the past decades anymore. In short, it should stop now, it’s becoming ridiculous. This, of course, is a misconception of at least two aspects of feminism. First, it is not an united movement (ten minutes on any dedicated wide audience blog or forum should convince you of that) and there are important debates that can still divide the staunchest women’s advocates today. Second, it is, as a whole, probably less radical that it was in the 1970’s (which is the decade this image was first widely diffused), because, hell, no need to rewind four decade of social history, it was the bloody 1970’s!

1970's feminist poster

‘Second wave’ feminists as we call them did not want to get women equal rights, they wanted to rethink and revolution the entire structure of society. And sure some of their initiatives appear to us foolish, utopian or simply easy to ridicule, but take any social or artistic movement from the time and you’ll find similar ones.* There might have been, and at the core of this ridiculous conception lays this deep traumatising fear, branches of feminist movements that have looked to exclude men and the masculine element entirely from their vision of society ; they were a minority then, there are almost non-existent now and are certainly irrelevant to any society contemporary feminists should try to build. But because, the enemy of feminism have been overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) male, some men to tend to think that feminists are, by default, their enemy. After all, here is a movement that is operating for women (clue very much in the name) and therefore, potentially, against men.

Whenever some unfairness towards women are mentioned, there are sometimes reactions that point out that some things are unfair towards men as well, examples of which are the proportion of divorce rulings that give children custody almost automatically to the mother or the social impossibility for a man to cry or express strong emotions in public. Those are unfair and sexist events, fortunately they’re also things that any self-respecting feminist should be fighting against because they stem from the same skewed perception of gender that they’re suffering from. Why are men not more regularly considered for child custody? Because up to before feminist progression of society, taking care of children was not deemed a masculine enough task and was therefore left to the mother (or in cases of rich enough families, to a female nanny). Why can’t men cry in public? Because public display of emotions are associated with moral weaknesses and are deemed a more feminine trait. Society cast a whole bunch of things out of reach from men by labelling them “feminine” and therefore undesirable. Now that women reclaimed some of the things labelled “masculine”, men realise they can have some (all?) of the other jar as well. One inequity does not preclude another, they merely add up, and working to change any of those is actually a feminist action as well. Congratulations and welcome.

Beard, pipe, witty shirt: feminism is sexy.

A second reason I think our generation might have disengaged from feminism is that activism is just not fashionable anymore. We don’t have to wear lumberjack shirts and thick framed glass to effectively keep an ironic distance towards modern life. It is actually not a very modern feature ; after all it always has been easy to make fun of genuine passion, and anyone politically involved will probably hear from their half-cynical, half-indifferent friends the terrible sentence “Why do you care so much anyway?”. To appear too much into something serious never makes you the cool kid (except now, if it’s quirky enough to be deemed “so uncool it’s cool”. Stuff like that are the great joys of the ironic era we live in), especially when your engagement drives you to go tell people what they should think about stuff. I am personally so overwhelmed by the mere thought of having to publicly defend my inner convictions that the sole idea of engage myself for a cause makes me want to seclude myself and put a “please carry on changing the world without disturbing me” sign on my door. It’s hard to be a self-affirmed feminist because it is not easy to appear to believe strongly in something, to not always take life with an amused nonchalance and throw edgy banter around elegantly.** Affirming your political affiliations opens yourself to see them challenged, not only on their value, but also on the ludicrousity of having any to begin with. It is not necessarily that people lack conviction, it is that they all value themselves as free-thinker ; the appeal of a rising movement of people with a common goal has passed and the “-isms”, as relics of these times, are hard to re appropriate.

After all that, is it still possible to consider that my friends are not feminists at all? With all the right definitions of feminism and engagement, can they still maintain that no, that’s not them, they don’t fit in, they’re simply not one of us? Well of course they can, women did not get freedom of choice to not put it into (sometimes bad) use. And even if I want to yell with Caitlin: “What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation of women’ is not for you? Is is freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’, by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were your just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?” I restrain. Yes,  for whatever reasons they might give, my friends retain the rights to define themselves the way they want and, even, it hurts me, but to be as socially conservative as they please. And even if they’re sharing all of my ideas and, grandiloquently put, fighting all my battles with me, I am not going to force a name on them.

But I personally came to terms with the idea that I am a feminist and I find it a tremendously useful thing to do. I came to this realisation much the same way I realised I was an atheist: if I don’t believe in god and act like it, I must be an atheist. Similarly if I read like a feminist, think like a feminist and quack like a feminist, guess what I must be? Without radically changing my mind, I gained access to the best stand point that exist to defend my ideas. Having a canopy name for the things I believe in is easier to manage than having to find ways around it, by constantly apologising and presenting my opinions as exceptions (“I’m not really a feminist but I in this case I can’t help finding this or that unfair”). The simple word “feminist” helped me frame my positions clearly and backed me up with references, concepts, examples, a whole literature and a bunch of role models. If you stop worrying about appearing too radical by daring to use the “f” word, you will find it a tremendous relief to be able to simply state your general beliefs about equality once and for all, without oratory precautions.

I’m not trying to enlist anyone, there’s no membership card to my feminist party, there isn’t even anything to gain, except a welcome clarity in expression (that I can’t pretend I’m mastering). To call yourself a feminist, you just need to know that not only it should not be a dirty word, it is just, so far, “the only word we have ever had to describe ‘making the world equal for men and women'” and it would be a shame if we could not use it.

Sarah

*Anyone that ever had to deal with French poststructuralism will of course know what I mean here.

** An example of self-conscious prejudiced humour is this clever Jimmy Carr’s joke: (after a oneliner on women and shoes) “don’t worry, that’s postmodern misogyny, this joke is in fact steeped in irony. So don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, love”.

‘The Painters Are In’

cropped-menstruate-with-pride-sarah-maple.jpg

‘Menstruate with Pride’ – Sarah Maple (I’m an art history student… what can you do?)

Let me paint a picture for you. It’s a quiet afternoon in St Andrews library. Everyone has his or her head down. All you can hear is the occasional whispered conversation between students, the light tap of laptop keys and the slurping of coffee. I’m smack in the centre of the room, enjoying the peace, working on my essay. Suddenly, hunger strikes me. I have a few squares of chocolate in my bag – fortunately I’d just stopped by the supermarket to do a quick shop. I open up my rucksack (if only I knew at the time what a fatal decision this was). My other purchases from earlier that day are all crammed in there – apples, peanut butter (which make a beautiful sandwich together by the way), shampoo etc. Oh, and one more thing (the devil in the bag), sanitary towels. They’re wedged in there tightly with everything else. Decision time. Do I risk exposing my womanly needs for the sake of chocolate? That day, I really wanted chocolate. As I said, everything is tightly packed – I pull hard to get the chocolate out. Chaos ensues… The packet of sanitary towels (slippery little bugger) flies upwards and sails across the room. They’re bloody aerodynamic – doing flips all over the place. Like any self-respecting woman, I throw myself across the room after them, praying to God that no one has noticed (ha, not likely). “Not the sanitary towels! Anything but the sanitary towels! These library folk cannot know of my period! They must remain under the illusion that I am a perfect woman who never bleeds! Oh the shame!”

… Wait a second… What? The shame? The shame of what exactly? The shame of people knowing that like over half of the population of this Earth I menstruate? The shame of people knowing that my body is carrying out its regular biological rhythms as it does every month?

There were a lot of emotions present in that moment. If I had to pinpoint the overarching feeling of that experience it would be embarrassment. Subsequently, I’ve come to ask myself – What exactly is there to be embarrassed of? Why is there so much taboo around menstruation?

It has been my feeling for a long time, and the feeling of other women that I have spoken to, that one’s period is a private matter. Naturally, when amongst a group of girls, period talk is not uncommon. You recommend hot water bottles to ease the pain, discuss various embarrassments like my library episode, or just tell each other, plain and simple, that it feels like your “uterus is actually trying to claw its way out of your body”. However, if there is a male or stranger present do you speak of this? No. You bite your lip and try to act natural, even if it does feel like your uterus is making a break for it.

Frankly, in my mind it has always felt like periods are a taboo subject. They are something that a young woman should take care of discreetly. I can think of numerous code words friends have used to talk about their periods – ‘that time of the month’, ‘the painters are in’, ‘mother nature is visiting’, ‘I’m out of service’, ‘I’m on the blob’, or, my personal favourite, one friend of mine spoke of her ‘lady curse’! I can remember wanting to sink in to a hole of embarrassment when explaining to a past boyfriend that I was having a certain female experience that meant I was not in the mood to engage in certain activities one evening. My father, bless his soul (who does make an active effort to not be embarrassed about these things), has three daughters and yet his teeth still chatter when talks of womanly matters – periods, boys, boobs etc. – arise.

For a long time this has seemed natural to me. I just accepted that periods are an embarrassing subject. Upon reflection I’ve realised why this is. It’s a notion I’ve grown up with. I remember clearly how things began with my school education. I can remember when we were deemed old enough to learn about puberty, periods, sex (all those glorious things you get hilarious classes about – I’m one of the lucky few who can say I’ve put a condom on a banana – my friend then proceeded to break the banana and swing it around in the condom over her head like a lasso – it was brilliant). Well, when the time came for us to learn about these things the girls and boys were separated to be educated. The general tone was that this is a ‘sensitive’ subject for young ladies and they must learn of the hell their bodies shall go through once a month in peace. From the very beginning there was a sense that periods are a private female issue that must be spoken of and dealt with quietly. In part, I can understand this. Do not get me wrong – I do not at all want to undermine the importance of the female experience of getting your period. It’s new – it can be alarming if you’re not in the know. It’s definitely something to get used to and manage. But, soon enough, like all other regular things in your life, it becomes part of the routine. Each month you deal with it. It’s actually more alarming to cut your finger and lose a small amount of blood in comparison to the greater amount you lose during your period.

However, this instant separation and tiptoeing around girls with the subject can make matters worse in two ways. Firstly, the stress on ‘taking the girls away to tell them something’ sparked male focus on the subject of periods. Not talking openly made it something to torment the girls about. The teasing kicked off right away. I’m twenty-one years old, at university and it still happens now – you get ever so slightly upset and boys start joking about it being ‘your time’ (actually no, my period was a few weeks ago, you’re just being an arse). Secondly, from the female experience, this separation and heightened ‘sensitive’ atmosphere meant from the off that it felt like your period was something to hide. A sense of separation and secrecy had been established from the start.

As I’ve noted before, getting one’s period is a big moment for a girl. You don’t forget the day you got your period. So, the question to be asked is how to deal with this? Yes, it should be taken in to account that it is a personal topic for many girls, so perhaps separation at the beginning of discussing these sorts of things is appropriate. However, I do believe that there needs to be a stage where people are encouraged to talk openly about these topics. You don’t need to force it, but it should be made known that this should not be something for girls to be ashamed of. The taboo needs to be broken.

Just think of the recent phenomenon of ‘Fifty shades of Grey’ (actually please don’t give it that much of your time – it’s horrific). But, what is interesting from what I have heard about this novel is that stir the ‘tampon scene’ has caused. In short, Mr Grey (one of the most horrifying characters I’ve heard of) has sex with his… what should I call her…? victim? (Anastasia) whilst she is on her period. In the minds of many this scene was ground breaking. A man having sex with a woman on her period seemed unheard of. A man engaging with this private female matter was unheard of. This shows that this sense of taboo was not only something I experienced growing up, but a societal issue.

When you think of this as a societal issue even more examples come to mind. There has been a history of religious practice isolating women on their period. Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc. have made various claims that a menstruating woman is unclean. For example, the Book of Leviticus stresses that a menstruating woman is ritually unclean. In certain practice there are rules in place that mean a woman on her period cannot do things like enter a religious space, carry out practice such as prayer or have sex with her husband.

There have been long standing notions of a woman’s period as an issue.

Menstruation is not something to be embarrassed about. Think about it. As I said before, it’s an experience that over half the population of the planet has once a month. A greater number of people on the planet will have periods than the number of people who will have mobile phones (women make up 51% of the world’s population, whilst 50% of people on this earth own mobile phones). If you’re in a room of women you can put money on the fact that more than one of them will be on their period. How can something so common be something to be ashamed of or a topic you cannot feel comfortable talking about? We don’t have to go shouting from the rooftops about our periods, or smack people in the fact with sanitary towels, but they shouldn’t be this difficult to discuss. In fact, my mother told me when I got my period that they’re a good sign. Your period is a way of your body telling you that it’s healthy and working properly. For many women they are biologically inevitable. Periods are natural. They are not something to be ashamed of.

Whilst talking about this topic with some friends I was reminded of something that I had not considered – privacy. We are all entitled to some privacy. I am by no means advocating that a girl who keeps the details of her period to herself is doing anything wrong. I am not saying that periods MUST be an intense topic of discussion over the dinner table (although if that’s what suits you then go ahead). I am saying that when the topic of periods does arise the shuffling of feet and red cheeks needs to stop. To tell someone that you have done or not done something because you are on your period should not be embarrassing – it is a natural process. There is a difference between private about something and being ashamed of something.

So, what to do to make periods less of an issue? I just talk about it to be honest. I make a conscious point of not holding back if I’m in a mixed group. Naturally, I don’t start rambling about my uterus’ intense escape plan just to make a point. “Men are here! I must discuss my period in great detail!” Just occasionally if I feel myself becoming embarrassed I think “If I was in a group of only girls would I say this right now? Yes. Then I should be able to say it with boys about too”. And if I’m buying sanitary towels in a pharmacy I slam them down on the counter with pride – “I am a fully functioning grown up woman and my needs must be met!” Enough of this staring at the floor and hoping for a female at the cash register. And if a boy ever gives you any rubbish about being ‘overly hormonal’ and stating that it’s ‘clearly that time of the month’, just start giving them the lowdown on having a period (don’t be made to feel ashamed of it) – they tend to back off pretty quickly when you start being open about this sort of thing. Heck, maybe they’ll sympathise and treat you to some sanitary towels and chocolate. A girl can dream.

Rachel