“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!
‘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.
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.
*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”.