This is what a feminist looks like

Today I am wearing my Fawcett Society This is what a feminist looks like T-shirt. I don’t wear it often, mainly because I fear it makes a hostage to fortune of both feminism and me. While wearing the damn thing I feel doubly sure I’ll be unable to park my car, or perhaps I’ll fail miserably to laugh a joke which was, by all objective standards, hilarious. I just can’t risk inadvertently confirming a whole range of anti-feminist stereotypes so generally the T-shirt stays in the drawer. Today, though, I’ve been staying in so it’s felt reasonably safe to give it a go (hence this is what a feminist looks like: someone who spends a Saturday afternoon cleaning the bathroom while listening to a That’s Christmas! double CD).

The best thing about my feminist T-shirt is that it makes my tits look ace. No, seriously. I look hot in this thing!* Perhaps I should wear it in public, just to mess with the heads of sexists, who will be extra-specially inclined to objectify me and yet be simultaneously repelled by the words emblazened across my ample bosoms. Ha! That’d show them! (I’m not sure what, but it would.) They would learn, if nothing else, that feminists, given the right T-shirt, can have ace tits. Then perhaps they wouldn’t notice me failing to park my car or being unable to laugh at hilarious jokes.

I’ve never worn this T-shirt in front of my friends from school. These are not people I know in a “feminist” context and if I’m honest it would make me feel a little uncomfortable. This isn’t because of the breasts thing (hell, most of them have seen all that already) but because I’d feel like I was patronizing them. They know I’m a feminist; I wouldn’t want to suggest they had preconceptions which they lack. I’ve no desire to be confrontational with people with whom I generally agree. Very few of them have told me that they are feminists; this doesn’t bother me. What would bother me would be if they were to actively tell me they weren’t.

I think there is a real difference between not saying you’re a feminist and saying you’re not a feminist. It’s more than just playing around with syntax (although the linguist in me loves the fact that these little differences can mean so much). There are all sorts of reasons not to actively reveal one’s feminism to others. In some cases this might enable a woman to achieve individual or broader feminist goals more effectively. This is something about which I used to be shamefully intolerant. It took me a long time to realise that this isn’t just a matter of self-interest. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of coming from a background in which making active feminist statements might leave one subject to ridicule, but not to the additional restrictions that others would risk enduring. I’m also conscious that while not all women who’ve had the same privileges as me identify as feminist, the expectation that they should – simply because they’re women – seems an unreasonable pressure in itself, yet another demand that they do something which men don’t have to. I don’t think that’s fair. And yet to me it seems equally unfair when privileged women use their public position to specifically advertise their own “I’m not a feminist” status.

Katy Perry and Carla Bruni are the latest to announce their non-feminism to an eagerly receptive audience. That’s nice for them; they suddenly look all feminine and non-threatening despite being incredibly rich and despite not suffering from many of the restrictions of choice that the vast majority of women face due misogyny and gender prejudice. However, as Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in a brilliant response to this, “you can call yourself or not call yourself whatever you want, but consider this”:

Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more gloatingly self-congratulatory about it, or happier about what “real” women don’t need than someone who doesn’t like women very much, especially not the uppity, outspoken, wanting pay equity and reproductive freedom types.

Publicly distancing oneself from feminism is not a passive act. It can and does hurt other women. And yet even then I wouldn’t think this applies to any woman who does this. In particular women who have felt themselves to be maginalised by the real or perceived privileged mainstream of feminism have legitimate grounds to be wary of the word “feminist”. While Carla Bruni saying she’s not a feminist is, I think, misguided self-promotion, another woman’s “I’m not a feminist” statement can be seen as a challenge to other feminists to ensure they’re as inclusive and open-minded as they claim to be.

Three days ago Julie Bindel sent the following tweet:

Those women that proclaim “I’m not a feminist” should be paid less than men, have no maternity benefits, no access to refuges, and no vote.

This is of course complete crap, even if the point is to show that feminism might have benefited your life even if you refuse to acknowledge it (and a subsequent tweet suggests that wasn’t just the point anyhow). I don’t want to discuss this in detail as stavvers wrote a brilliant post in response and anything I’d have to add would look a bit rubbish. But it does get me thinking more about intolerance – both the intolerance upon which some “I’m not a feminists” seek to capitalise, but also the intolerance of those who can’t see that hostility to feminism doesn’t just come from misogynists; it comes from women who might have a lot more to lose than you do.

Anyhow, having written all this I now feel even more guilty for never wearing my feminist T-shirt in public. I should go for it, shouldn’t I? In the name of tolerance. And because (if you only focus on the torso) I look fucking ace.

* NB This is something of an exaggeration. But it does amuse me, in a sad sort of way, that part of my response to this top is ‘ooh, don’t I look appealing!’


5 thoughts on “This is what a feminist looks like

  1. I have to amplify the “Bindel tweeting crap” sentiment, because, at least in Bruni’s case, she’s explicitly saying, not that feminism was never necessary, but that it no longer is. So she’s a post-feminist/past-tense feminist/feminist in hindsight, as opposed to a full-fledged “back to the 19th century and loving it” type. Which is still pretty idiotic, but a step down from the level of idiocy JB imputes to her. It’s not quite the “anti-unionist pocketing the results of collective bargaining” — at least, not explicitly or acknowledgedly so.

    Perry’s comment may well indeed be fully that idiotic, but given the lack of much in the way of context, and the low levels of expectation attaching to pronouncements from that quarter, analysing it it depth seems unlikely to be a fruitful exercise.

    The “definitional issue” leads me to have a degree of empathy with people not sure whether to identify as feminists are not. But not to the extent of these two, who are as you say, just using their public positions to further promote themselves in thoroughly self-serving manners. Or at the very least, exhibiting a very poor forethought::publicity ratio.

    Also, just to add fuel to the fire of self-doubt and angst: isn’t looking hot (can’t italicise in comments, but clearly they should be understood) in a feminism-themed t-shirt very much opening yourself up to “funfem” heckles, and such like?

    1. Also, just to add fuel to the fire of self-doubt and angst: isn’t looking hot (can’t italicise in comments, but clearly they should be understood) in a feminism-themed t-shirt very much opening yourself up to “funfem” heckles, and such like?

      Yes, I take your point – I added this more because I’m amused but also saddened that my response to this, of all T-shirts, is so conditioned by the pressure to look “hot” (which I don’t, tbh. But it is a flattering fit. But even writing that is such compromise!)

  2. Insightful piece. Zoe Williams was writing in the Guardian yesterday about tackling DV in the muslim community. She talks about a women’s resource centre opposite the East London Mosque & says “if Jagonari [the centre] were to become known as a strident, or even campaigning space, that would make it difficult for some women to go there, and those would be exactly the women who needed it”.

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