I’ve been thinking about the word feminist for a long time. I’ve been thinking about it, but for most of my life, I haven’t been saying it.
There were big reasons and small reasons. For the most part, it was to do with my feelings about privacy and the right to be a weird little loner all lonesome by myself. Group movements and shared beliefs make me feel all fidgety and claustrophobic. I know it shouldn’t be that way, because great things can happen when people get together (including but not limited to a no-pants party), and I was raised in a house where politics was up for endless discussion. But there’s something scary in the idea of a group that can not tolerate ‘one isolated soul within its sphere’, to quote Don Paterson. Then there was the fear of being misunderstood. I had a lot of thoughts to squish into one imperfect word, if I was going to start bandying feminism about in conversation. And there were small reasons, like: this was a word that was a bit embarrassing to get out in public.
I guess the obvious question is: what kind of a mad regime did I think feminism was? Well, as a child, I was fairly sure that feminism = angry women in dungarees. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. The man-haters. ‘The Raging’, as they could collectively be called.
I’d like to blame the 1980s for this impression (it was a time when Jim Davidson was allowed on telly, which says it all really for that regrettable decade) but I’d also like to blame myself, for going along with this cliché. As a child and youngster I was probably not quite fully able to grasp the divide-and-conquer logic that had led to feminism becoming synonymous with ‘harpy’, ‘pain in the arse’ and ‘just not sexy enough’. It was the oldest trick in the book to make young women feel afraid of identifying as feminists, in case men didn’t like them. Our culture-at-large had pulled a fast one on us, and it had worked.
By the late 1990s, even though girls dressed in baggy boyish clothes and sometimes even doc martens, feminism was still a dirty word. ‘I’m not a feminist, but …’ Heaven forbid that any of the boys should get the impression that we were with The Raging who didn’t like to have fun. I mean, we were teenage girls. Getting boys to like us was a major priority. (Quite possibly the only priority, given that I failed Standard Grade Maths.)
An accidental upshot of all this was that my own belief in the equality of men and women formed in a personal and private way. By the early 2000s there was no group movement that I could see around me. There were no figure-heads. We just had to work it out ourselves. Sure, being a teenager is just a fog of sweaty confusion and bad choices, but even so, there were a few things becoming painfully, unavoidably apparent to me. Like the inkling that I was allowed the same rights as everyone else, and that the world at large might not actually agree with that fact. And dear reader, it seemed to be something to do with having tits.
There I was, fuzzy fringe, second-hand clothes, deeply uncomfortable in my own skin. As if life wasn’t difficult enough. I’d only just gotten used to the idea of having tits, and now they appeared to bring with them all kinds of political implications. Teenage-me noted sagely that Tammy Wynette was right: sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.
Within the safety of friendship, with other girls, I would rant righteously, but I did nothing useful or effective with my rage. I knew that I felt a creeping sense of horror at how barbaric the world actually was, and so did many friends. And that was that; mired in cowardly dithering, I took it no further.
There was clearly a lot of shared feeling that was sorely lacking a name. But how disarmed and impotent a feeling becomes once it is robbed of the words to describe it. I grew up a bit, my fringe grew out and I earned enough money from Saturday jobs to buy very short skirts. Without thinking that the word feminist applied to me, I would carefully plot a path through the minefield of gender politics, to try and express the idea that I kinda just wanted to be myself. Not specifically A Girl. I liked high heels and inappropriate ‘sexy’ dancing, and I also liked being unsexy and lazy. I was told by a boy once that maybe if I had a sister I would have learned to be more feminine. This was said disapprovingly, and I felt a little frisson of pride that he was so offended by my unsexy ways. In later years I made the joyful discover that he had unwittingly been riffing on that famous quote from Simone de Beauvoir (‘one is not born a woman, but becomes one’). Had he but known it.
Anyway… I liked dancing to Whitney Houston and crying to The Offspring. JUST LET ME BE ME, WORLD, I probably yelled drunkenly at some point when I was 18.
Most of all I felt that there wasn’t as much difference between men and women as the world seemed to believe. Even then I was annoyingly liberal and lefty enough to say that everything exists on a spectrum, and please imagine me slurring this to people at 4am while The Big Lebowski played in the background. Essentially, I liked men and thought they were often pretty cool, just as much as I liked women, or, if we’re looking for the umbrella term here, people. I didn’t think the men I knew were personally attempting to oppress me and be all patriarchy about everything. In fact, I loved quite a few of them (family, friends) and didn’t want them to have to live up to ridiculous notions of masculinity, either.
No matter how lovely and cuddly all that sounds, in the world at large, I could also see that there were some things going disastrously wrong. There were women being denied control over what happened to their own bodies, denied a political voice, denied their human rights. Suffice to say, this is not angry rhetoric or a middle-class hobby. This is about things that are happening in the world. It’s about the monumental victory of Roe v Wade and the reactionary wave of hate in Texas now, in 2013, that has led to abortion clinics across the state being shut down. It’s about Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti and his now infamous advise to college students, that to stay safe from being raped they must ‘avoid dressing like sluts’. It’s about an Australian PM being continuously derided by the opposition for being a woman. In her poignant speech before she stepped down, Julia Gillard said, “it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that and I’m proud of that”. That is the talk of one who has had to fight.
There are the big things, happening in world out there, and the world nearby, next door, right here. Then there are the small things. The relentless cultural critiquing of the female form. Uni Lad and the damage they have done, witlessly, for modern masculinity. I like my men courageous, compassionate and, oh yes, funny. Y’know what, there’s a lot of them out there. Just not on Uni Lad.
Then there’s the ever new and tortuous methods of achieving the ‘right’ look, the acceptable face of feminine, usually involving pain and money (I’m talking waxing, tanning, bleaching, hunger, surgery).
It was tempting to give in and think, well, it’s fucked up, but what can you do? By the time I was in my early twenties and had read enough radical and saucy literature to gather a bit of confidence in myself, I would timidly say, ‘well yes, I am a feminist, obviously’, because it seemed insane not to be. But I would also painstakingly clarify exactly what I meant by that word, and then tuck it away again, like it was a secret.
Then, in recent years, there were a few strange and exciting occurrences in the midst of the popular culture to which I am so in thrall. In Vice magazine, of all places, a ‘guide to girls’ included F for Feminism, and in their typically flippant way, they came out with the gem that all feminism means, for a woman, is that you don’t hate yourself. My little ears pricked up. Was it just feminism lite – the final insult, that it was now so harmless as to be a Vice joke? Or was there something else afoot … by gads, there was, because now came Caitlin Moran and her hilarious How to be a Woman in 2011, and now the show Girls, which, while it was about white women having sex in New York City, was far more wobbly, interesting, strange and funny, than the brittle, brutal unreality of Sex and the City.
And then all of a sudden, feminism was everywhere, and it was irreverent and brave and more witty than that I could ever have dreamed of. Recently Glamour magazine covered the fact that the BBC over-report cases of women ‘crying rape’, when in fact, this is an extremely rare occurrence in a country where (as a government report in 2007 stated) between 75% and 95% of rapes still go unreported. Then they dared to ask why this might be – can open, worms everywhere. That was when I knew feminism was going mainstream.
The internet has obviously had an enormous part in all of this, because, much like I am doing right now, people suddenly had a way of communicating to a bunch of other people, without, say, standing on a box in the street and shouting really loud. Just as it was culture back in the day that had branded feminists as ‘man-haters’, it was culture, now, filled with the voices of the previously unheard, the unknown along with the famous, all clamouring together, that dismantled this ridiculous cliché of the past and regained a word, and in doing so, regained the momentum of feminism. For every Uni Lad there’s Jezebel, XOJane, The F Word and The Hairpin, and so many more. Also a special mention should go to one of the greatest phenomenons to have happened in recent times, Feminist Ryan Gosling. And these are just the small things.
In keeping with the flurry of dialogue, the splintered, debating, collaborating opinions on feminism, the central tenet of this new phenomenon is that it is for everyone. Because duh, women’s rights are human rights. So to be a feminist, the only criteria is that you be a human. A human who does not believe that any one kind of human is better than any other kind of human. How hard can it be?
Which brings me back to my own fidgety horror of being subsumed by any kind of group. I have realised something: feminism is like a sibling sticking up for you in the playground when everyone is teasing you about your stupid shoes. When there are people out there saying that women can use witchcraft to end unwanted pregnancy (we sure kept that one a secret, but Todd Aitkin found us out); that your body is an available object; that your sex life is everybody’s business but yours: feminism has got your back. It’s not about obliterating the nuances of the individual, but about letting the individual be free to bound about in the sunlight, without the fear of being picked on or pushed about because of the number of x chromosomes they have. You are your own person, but you are not alone.
The moment when I finally realised that I could call myself a feminist without fear of being misunderstood was when I sat around at a party with a bunch of other people, all freely talking about assorted Serious Issues, and many of us called ourselves feminists like it ain’t no thang. Nobody said, ‘BUT LET ME IMMEDIATELY OFFER ALL OF MY RESERVATIONS ON THIS WORD’. It was understood that it was a good word to use, and that we all had our own personal feelings on the matter, too. How things change.
Words can’t be trusted. They fail us. They say things for us that we don’t exactly mean. But they’re all we really have, so we just have to do the best we can with them. I spent many years worrying away at the word feminist, and all that time, I knew that I needed a few good words to be able to convey how vital I felt equality to be.
So I’m just going to be ok with it. I’m a feminist. I have so many feelings on the matter. Oh, the feelings. I think the society I live in is still unequal, but this can change. I think we should care about the lives of other people that we don’t know, in countries we’ve never been to. I don’t think tits are public property for anyone to have a say on (how big should they be? How small? What does the random drunk man in the street want to tell me about mine? Let’s see: I don’t care).
I also like to be excited about shoes, and bake cakes and cover them in glitter, and discuss the hows and whys of body hair. I may even buy some dungarees: according to Vogue they’re back in. I think there was always a part of me that knew ‘angry-woman-in-dungarees’ was a fantastic look.
Which segues seamlessly to the main question: what does a feminist wear? The answer, ofcourse, is WHATEVER THEY WANT TO! Wayhey. *raises whisky glass*
But I love clothes, and style crushes, so look what I found on the internet you guys oh my: