When I first studied feminism aged 17, I ridiculed it. I attended an all-girls school that encouraged us to aim high and excelled in teaching maths and science. I grew up under the care of my nan, a ferociously independent former social worker who left her abusive husband and raised three children alone; she’s a woman who, at 80, still sees nothing as impossible. My mother, who scraped two A-levels, went to night classes to gain a professional qualification while working full time and raising twins, and is now a director. Surrounded by strong women, I never once stopped to question whether my sex made any difference to my life, and the idea that I would ever be treated as inferior to the boys at the school down the road seemed ridiculous. So when it came to studying feminism, albeit in a very condensed form as part of my politics A-level, feminists seemed sanctimonious. My friends and I scoffed at characters like Shulamith Firestone, and while we dutifully learnt the theories of Wollstonecraft and Friedan, we naively approached their theories as we would the ideas of historical campaigns; their feminism was the shared concerns of a group who achieved their political goal, the achievement of which precluded any continued relevance of their theories. We’ve got the vote, women are no longer confined to child-keeping and housework; feminism is dead. Women had it all, I had it all; what was all the fuss about?
During my gap year I worked for an MP who campaigned on body image-related issues, like the use of incredibly skinny fashion models, photo-shopping in adverts, and the general pressure society places on women (and men) to look a certain way. I believed in the campaign, but at first did not link it with feminism; it was more a social problem, linked to health and eating disorders more than anything else. Some of the campaigns I worked on included encouraging schools to teach children to be critically aware of the media and the way it distorts our thinking. The irony was, at first I wasn’t critically aware myself. I worked on the project for six months, and the longer I did so, the more aware I became of how pervasive the problem is. It is not just that the media propagates unnatural body image ideals; it teaches us to see women in a certain way. Look at the Daily Mail website or flick through a magazine. Women’s identities and their appearances are conflated; I am my appearance. Men do not face half as much scrutiny of their appearance, and rarely will feature on the front page of a magazine with red circles around their cellulite, smudged makeup and spots. What women do, think or say seems secondary to how they look and who they are going out with, while men are famed for their achievements. I finally twigged that there is still something seriously wrong with the way society treats women.
Lots of people believe sexism only exists in one form; obvious, arbitrary and direct prevention (normally through law) of women enjoying the same privileges as men. Because barriers like this rarely exist in modern Western society, it might be easy to conclude, as I did, that feminism is unnecessary. However, just like racism and homophobia, sexism can also exist as a silent, pernicious culture, taking root in language, art, media and tradition. It’s not just a case of men saying ‘men are better than women’. It’s a case of both men and women evaluating the worth of a woman using different criteria from those used when evaluating a man. A woman’s value might come from her beauty and thinness, while a man’s might come from his bravery and career success. Sexists often defend themselves by saying ‘I can’t be sexist because I think men and women are equal, it’s just a scientific fact that they’re different’. While most feminists accept that women are different from men, they don’t accept that because of that, there are specific social roles women should perform, and specific roles they should not. I absolutely hate this clip of David Cameron telling Angela Eagle to ‘calm down, dear’. There’s nothing in that video involving ‘direct’ discrimination against women, but it’s nonetheless clearly and undeniably sexist. Cameron patronises and belittles Eagle, playing on a traditional sexist idea that women are over-emotional and over-excitable. By using such a tone, he attempts to humiliate Eagle by suggesting her point in the debate cannot be legitimate because she’s a hysterical, silly woman.
Realising that society treats women differently from men made me evaluate my own lifestyle as well as other people’s. I’m obsessed with improving my appearance; I’ve worn makeup since I was 12 years old and never once went to school without it. I’ve starved myself and made myself sick to reach an unhealthy weight. I count calories religiously, exercise obsessively and constantly worry about how I look. Of course there are psychological pathologies at play here, but the basic fear of looking ‘bad’ is common to my entire female friendship group. This is a problem that simply does not exist to the same degree among my male friends. There is increasing pressure on men to be muscly and strong, but I’d contend that if a guy isn’t like that, he will not be judged so much for it as girls are for being overweight or perceived as ‘ugly’. As girls we compete with each other and we compete with ourselves to be the skinniest, the prettiest, the best, because our identity is partly constituted by the way we think others perceive us. I believe that society does not encourage men to place appearance so high up on their list of criteria for personal success; it’s desirable to look good, but it is not necessary. It seems society encourages women more than men to abandon their freedom to determine for themselves their own identity and value, and instead makes them acquiesce to having these imposed on them by others.
Society (the media especially) loves to pit women against one another. Tina Fey said in an interview: “People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.’ Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.” Often it doesn’t feel like that. How often do you hear language like ‘catfight’? The language we use revels in the drama of women fighting each other, trivialising (and sometimes sexualising) all-female disputes and mocking our behaviour and intelligence. The same does not apply for men. Before a job interview at an international bank, I sat in a waiting room with 10 other candidates. The first thing one of the men said was ‘Wow; there are more girls here than I expected. The claws are gonna come out!’ Immediately I felt uncomfortable and patronised. Firstly, his remark implied that the female candidates were competing against each other, not the male candidates. Secondly, he may have been making assumptions about the need for women to be ‘bitchy’ or ‘unfeminine’ to succeed in business. Thirdly, he patronised us; women aren’t animals, or a source of amusement, and it shouldn’t be a novelty that there were several women applying for a competitive job in finance. He later made a joke about how one of the three girls in the room could help him fix a hole in his suit. He was applying to a different department, and I hope to God he didn’t get the job.
Now I come on to sex. The word ‘slut’ is bandied about with increasing frequency and deeply negative connotations. If it’s revealed that a woman has ‘slept around’, words like ‘slaggy’, ‘slut’ and ‘disgusting’ will probably be used. She’ll probably receive pity, derision and unsolicited attempts to diagnose her with psychological problems. A man, on the other hand, will be cheered. He’s a ‘lad’, a ‘player’, a ‘hard’, a ‘champ’, a ‘legend’. Why is it that a man can enjoy sex and receive praise, while a woman is vilified? Slut-shaming fosters the idea that women shouldn’t be in control of their bodies and their sex lives – it’s so wrong. Not only should women should be free to do whatever they like, they should also be free to do it without being judged, both by men and by other women.
When I go clubbing, I like to dress a certain way. I’ll wear a short skirt, lots of makeup, perfume, heels, the lot. It is my right to dress how I like, but because I dress in a provocative way never ever licenses anyone to take advantage of me on the grounds that my choice of clothing suggested I was ‘up for it’ or ‘asking for it’. It horrifies me that during a discussion of rape, people will ask ‘but what was she wearing?’ Both women as well as men often believe that if you dress or act a certain way, it is possible to forfeit or alienate your rights, licensing others to do certain things to you. It’s one thing being cautious; you’re not a sexist if you ask your daughter to cover up when coming home late at night, but it’s quite another to argue that, if she doesn’t, the fault of rape lies with anyone other than the rapist. Regardless of whether your daughter is wearing a floor length raincoat, or a tiny dress, she never deserves to be raped. The rapist is never any less culpable, and the victim is never to blame. The enormity of the crime is absolute.
I fully acknowledge that the issues I have discussed so far pale into insignificance compared with issues women face outside Western democracies. Living under religious and political systems that seem alien to our own, millions of women endure a sexism that doesn’t just patronise or degrade them, but that actually endangers their lives on a daily basis. I am extremely lucky. Indeed, I acknowledge my own privilege within the UK too. As a middle-class, white, straight girl, I know I’ve got it relatively good. This article simply covers what I know most about; my own personal journey towards feminism. All I hope is that it resonates with people, and that it raises awareness of what’s wrong in our society.
I really want to stress this next point; I don’t hate men. None of the problems I’ve discussed are caused by the ‘evilness’ of men. A very common misconception about feminism is that it’s ‘man-hating’. People think that the word ‘patriarchy’ is a synonym for ‘men’. This is wrong. The culprit for the problems I’ve discussed is society (both men and women) treating women unfairly. It’s very useful when defining ‘patriarchy’ to draw parallels between Marxism and feminism. A Marxist believes the dominance of the bourgeoisie is preserved through a society’s legal system, political system, language, art, religion, culture and social norms. A feminist believes the dominance of men is preserved by the same mechanisms, which together comprise the patriarchy. We see it as an all-encompassing, entrenched, corrosive philosophy that underpins every system, permeates every psyche and pervades every aspect of our lives. It’s not men we hate, it’s the system that prioritises them. It’s the unfairness. If there was a matriarchy instead of a patriarchy, we’d hate that instead. A (non-separatist) feminist can be a man or a woman, because feminism isn’t about one sex being better than the other. Everyone is equal, but it just so happens that society has developed in a way that does not respect that equality and promotes men’s welfare at the expense of women’s.
I’m optimistic that people who possess archaic, crudely sexist ideas are in a minority in the West. The group here I’m most worried about comprises the perfectly decent men and women who believe in equality, but who are simply unaware of how deep the patriarchal waters run, and how much patriarchal philosophy affects their thinking. So that’s why I started Tomorrow’s Girls; to ‘open people’s eyes’. I have a lot of faith in basic human decency. I think most of us do believe in equality, we just don’t realise that our current mind set and behaviours prevent it being achieved. The sooner we become conscious of that fact, the sooner we can change things for the better.