My favourite F word

My favourite F word

Words and illustration by Alice Harper

As someone who did an English degree, I still feel like the best place to start is with a couple of 'fun' and 'instructive' 'quotes'. What follows are the thoughts of two women, expressed over a century and a half apart from each other. (The fact they are both from Yorkshire is nothing but a happy coincidence in this case, although it may be worth noting that Yorkshire produces some quality humans.)

‘... the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women… they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations, worshipping the heroines of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it fine – divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial… I’ll prove that in a magazine paper some day when I’ve time; only it will never be inserted: it will be “declined with thanks,” and left for me at the publisher’s.’

- Charlotte Brontë (writing as the title character of her novel Shirley in 1849)

‘I think the truth is that Hollywood doesn’t really reflect what’s going on in the way that books do necessarily, it more dictates it… and I think we’ve got to really watch out for that and make sure that women are being presented in fiction, in art, in the way that they really are… and that it’s not being dictated by studio heads.’

- Helen Fielding (speaking on the Feminists Don’t Wear Pink podcast, 2018)

(From this point on I'm going to abandon the essay-ish structure in favour of three parts numbered 1-3. I'm actually going to number the sections. My tutors would be swooning in horror).

1. The Patriarchy is a thing that messes up everyone's lives

One argument against feminism is that equality has been achieved and we're done with all that now. One good response is that we need feminism as long as the patriarchy exists. Until a couple of years ago I imagined the patriarchy as a boardroom full of old white men in suits, making rules to stop women doing what they like (that's not quite what it is). My understanding of it now is something along the lines of:

The patriarchy is not an organisation, group or manifesto. It is a word to describe the ideas and prejudices that exist in society and have become ingrained in all our minds over time. These ideas promote characteristics perceived to be 'masculine' over those perceived to be 'feminine', they sort everybody into unnecessary boxes and, in the long run, they benefit very few people.

In a way, I was very lucky to be brought up in an environment where feminism seemed unnecessary, because this meant I never felt like my gender was in any way a barrier to me doing what I wanted with my life. I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age, and I had a plethora of female role models doing exactly that.

Looking back now through a ‘feminist lens’ (tentative metaphor) I can see the small ways the patriarchy was affecting me, even as a child. The way I resisted having my hair cut short for years because, to me, the definition of feminine beauty was the long (predominantly blonde) hair of Disney princesses; my noisy rejection of Lego as a birthday present because it was ‘a boy’s toy’; even the aggressive behaviour of some boys at school that was put down to them ‘just being boys’ and which we, as girls, mostly endured. I certainly wasn’t explicitly taught any of these attitudes by the adults in my life, nor were they reinforced. My mum tried for years to persuade me to get my hair cut short, (she got through to me eventually) and the Lego turned out to be a real hit once I’d got over my learned categorisation of girls and boys toys. 

But it wasn't until I got to university that I started to recognise the patriarchy in my everyday life. It's true that, once you see it, you see it everywhere. I didn't even take a specifically 'feminist' unit in my degree until third year, but you don’t need to look hard to see the injustices in attitudes towards women throughout the canon of English Literature (especially the predominantly white male canon taught at my university). Then, when I actually started paying attention to the news, I didn't have to search hard for the injustices: sexist headlines about female politicians, attitudes to motherhood, menstruation and the menopause, the imbalance of male and female voices (and faces) in the media. This was before Clinton v Trump, before #metoo. Even then I could see it. 

But worst of all was the realisation that, up until that point, I'd been living a sheltered life tucked up in the Yorkshire Dales, away from the everyday sexism that just becomesnormal. One friend would repeatedly receive unwanted advances from men while reading on her lunch break, putting it down to her being 'small and blonde'; another was groped while walking up Park Street in broad daylight; and on multiple occasions friends have had to deal with men masturbating at them in public. I count myself lucky not to have experienced any of the above, although I have been on the all-too-familiar night out with the unwanted slap or grab, the unasked for arm around the waist, and the constant interruptions from men whose attitudes towards women have been shaped by a society that is inarguably biased in their favour.

This is just what the patriarchy looks like in the life of a comparatively privileged twenty-something living in a progressive city in a progressive-ish country. Sexism is not a thing of the past, it's very much alive and kicking (or more likely ranting in Facebook comments). The writer of Bridget Jones's Diary is discussing a problem in the 21st century that the writer of Jane Eyre brought up in the 19th: the unfair and inaccurate representation of women in literature and filmmaking. That alone should tell you why we still need feminism.

2. Feminism is not a dirty word

A second argument I have heard against feminism is that the word itself is damaging to the cause. It is true that, for a lot of people, the word feminist has only a few connotations, including (but not limited to) bra burning, men-hating, angry protests, and Germaine Greer. At the very least, this seems unfair to Germaine Greer.

People are calling the current conversations about equality 'fourth wave feminism'. All I know is that when one of my third year tutors asked those in the group who considered themselves feminists to raise their hands, and we all did, I have never felt so bolstered among a group of relative strangers. As far as knowing the history of the movement goes, I am relatively uneducated. I'm making an effort to change that now, and what is great about the feminism of social media is how easy it's become to learn things.

Because I did English (and also because I'm a giant nerd), I've tried to think about the meaning of the word itself. I think a lot of people object to it because they see the 'fem' prefix and do the following sum: 'fem' = women; 'feminism' = 'women are better' + 'women deserve more rights' + 'men are the worst' (I was never very good at maths). Part of me thinks that if you want to reject the word, that's fine, as long as you support the cause. But first, consider this:

The 'fem' prefix, rather than only referring to women, covers 'feminine' characteristics that have been consistently demonised and mocked throughout history. The word feminism acknowledges how those labelled with 'feminine' characteristics (accurately or not) have historically been worse off, while at the same time suggesting that it's about time we celebrated femininity and put it on an equal footing with masculinity. And yes, this might mean bringing masculinity down from the dizzying heights it has occupied for a long time, and agreeing that it's not always that great, at least not how we currently define it. Feminism is not an attack on men, because toxic masculinity does that job perfectly well all by itself with no help from the feminists. 

If you believe men and women should be given the same opportunities, pay and level of respect, you agree with feminism. If you acknowledge that the patriarchy attacks those who display too many 'feminine' traits and calls them weak, you agree with feminism. Feminists don't hate men, they hate the patriarchy, because it makes people hurt each other on a daily basis, sometimes without ever realising it.

3. I am proud to be a Feminist

To me, feminism means solidarity, like-mindedness, inclusivity, optimism. 

It means being surrounded by women who make me feel supported and proud and braver as a result of their friendship and their example. 

Feminism also means being surrounded by men who unquestioningly embody feminist values and support the cause with their words and actions, making me feel secure and hopeful in their company. 

I am eternally grateful to have been brought up by parents who taught me respect, humility and kindness, because these qualities are the basis of my feminism.

I don't think the word is a heavy weight impeding the movement's progress, or keeping us stuck in the past. Activists and campaigners from every kind of movement can teach us a million lessons, one of the most important being if you want to give power to your enemies, allow them to make a word taboo or controversial and use it against you. But if you want to give power to your cause, you have to take ownership of the word. 

Feminism is our word, and it has enough power to bring people together for the right reasons. I know I never mention it, but I did an English degree you know. I'm all about the power of words.

I was inspired to write this after reading, among other things, 'Feminists Don't Wear Pink and Other Lies', (an incredible set of essays which made me want to write down my own experience of feminism); 'The Descent of Man' by Grayson Perry and 'How Not to Be a Boy' by Robert Webb (two explanations of toxic masculinity which are fascinating and heartbreaking in their own ways).

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