If you are a feminist it can be difficult to understand the position of any woman who isn’t. Gloria Steinem claimed “a woman has two choices: either she’s a feminist or a masochist” (what this says about the choices of feminists who are into BDSM I do not know). Julie Burchill, meanwhile, has argued that “there is a short and sharp way to deal with women who say they are not feminists”:
If a woman answers ‘no’ to the question ‘Are you a feminist?’, she should immediately be stripped of her voting rights, her right to institute divorce, her legal protection from domestic violence and marital rape – oh, and her pay should be cut to 19% less than that of her male colleagues. Then she could lead the carefree, non-ball-breaking life she so desires, and not be forced to take advantage of all those unpleasant and exhausting social gains which those nasty butch feminists in the 20th century forced on her.
To which one is tempted to respond “oh, sod off, you attention-seeking transphobe”. Yet could it be that in this one instance Burchill has a point? Shouldn’t those who refuse to acknowledge their oppression be made to experience its full force? After all, aren’t they complicit in every other woman’s oppression, too?
However attached I am to feminism as a concept, I’m increasingly unconcerned about it as a label. There are some who associate the word with exclusion, with a movement that prioritises some women over others. Why should they have to make do with a name which doesn’t capture their struggle? To me, this makes sense, even though I’m privileged enough never to have experienced this alienation myself (and feel I owe too much to other privileged women to metaphorically reject them). In a similar way I have understanding for those who feel distant from feminism for fear of disapproval or not coming up to scratch. We don’t always trust each other’s motives and priorities, particularly when we suffer the indignity of being told we’re wrong or see others unwittingly exclude us from their definition of “women”. It feels personal; the conclusion that however much we care we have nothing to offer is, I think, a wrong one, but I can see why some women reach it (especially with the dreaded twitter). Yet what of those other women, those who see no need to advance women’s rights at all? Those who reject feminism not just in name but in spirit? I can’t believe I’m the only one who’s sometimes tempted to yell “just what is WRONG with you?” (this only applies if the woman you’re yelling at doesn’t earn masses writing for the Daily Mail, in which case the answer’s obvious).
I didn’t grow up amongst feminists. Like many, I was fed the line that they were hate-filled extremists yet it was in the context of this environment that my own feminism developed. There are various things that stand out – wanting to do things only my brother was allowed to do, wondering why none of the adult women I knew earned their own money or drove cars – but two incidents in particular, both of which took place in my late teens, stand out. I knew by then I was a feminist, but couldn’t for the life of me work out why no one else seemed to be. At this juncture, these two occurrences proved enlightening:
- I am in the kitchen with a female relative. A report comes on the radio, mentioning that MPs are considering making marital rape illegal. I am shocked; I cannot believe I have grown up in a country in which it wasn’t. I say this to my relative and she shrugs, telling me she disagrees: “when you marry, you give yourself to your husband.” The thought of all this “giving” does not, as far as I am concerned, bear thinking about, but it is presented as a fact of life.
- A local man stabs his wife to death. His children attend the school where my mother works; she sees the police arrive, sees the children crying. It is truly awful. In the aftermath I discover that, contrary to what I’d previously believed, we all know this family – people whom I’d never met – in intimate detail. We all know what a nag the man’s wife was, how she made his life a misery. Adults, but women in particular, say this again and again. They are horrified at the death, horrified that a woman could be so unbearable as to bring this on herself. It is bizarre and terrifying. Apparent domestic bliss is entirely reframed.
Now obviously I’d heard about rape and domestic violence before then. Even so, I’d assumed – naively as it turned out – that amongst the women I knew, all real, empathetic, kind human beings, there was some kind of consensus that these were terrible things. I thought it was a given. I was wrong. I had never had a boyfriend, let alone a male partner, but the message was clear: if ever you do, there are ways to keep yourself safe. It’s not rape if you always consent and no one will kill you as long as you keep your mouth shut.
For me, this shifted the world a little. It was, if you like, a consciousness-raising moment. It made me aware of the unspoken, internalised culture of fear that surrounded me. Women were afraid of being destroyed by men and flattered themselves that they had the power to keep a lid on things, that the reason they didn’t suffer was because they played by the rules. It struck me as both ridiculous – a gross misreading of the will and potential of most men around us – and chilling. The more blame you can heap upon victims of violence, the less likely you are to feel it could happen to you. And then you start to understand the value of not being a feminist at all. If you simply deny structural inequality and ingrained antipathy towards women you are, on the face of it, safer. Blame yourself if things go wrong, blame other women if they’re violated or have their throats cut. It doesn’t have to be a conscious decision. To a greater or lesser extent we all find ways of interpreting the world which prevent us from collapsing in shame and fury at the inequality of it all. This, I suspect, is one of them.
And yet it’s also the reason to be a feminist – regardless of whether or not you choose to call it by that name. Without feminism, you have only superficial safety and blood on your hands. You’re not looking fear in the face but you know it’s there all the same. You don’t acknowledge the weight of other women’s oppression but it’s crushing you nonetheless. I don’t think women should have to live like that. Feminism won’t necessarily bring us love, support and harmony at all times but it will bring us honesty and change. It can make us more ourselves.