The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge and there’s a lot of things I’d like to challenge when it comes to feminism – like the F-word, “a female” – a female what? A lot of people don’t understand why ‘female’ can be derogatory and bring up the old ‘well, medically and, er, technically…’. Yes, thank you.
Out of curiosity though, how often do you use the M-word, referring to a man? For instance: ‘Look at that male over there’; ‘We’ve hired a male’; ‘Quotes from inspirational males’.
Anyway, I’m not choosing to challenge others’ language. Instead I’ve pulled the Frida Kahlo and decided to go with the subject I know best: myself. I want to challenge my own battle with feminism and some of the things I’ve got wrong in the not-so-distant past (there’s actually tonnes) and things I’m still getting wrong today (again, tonnes). For instance, up until this morning, I didn’t really know what ‘intersectional feminism’ meant… I know, I’m sorry. I was just too lazy to Google it. I’m all for equal rights and opportunities, lifting women up and celebrating each other, but just like the people who use ‘female’ interchangeably with ‘woman’, I’ve made mistakes too, and I still do. This may even be one of them, we’ll see.
My first reaction to feminism is embarrassing and downright stupid. I was in high school when I scrunched my face up and scoffed ‘nah, I’m not a feminist’. FOR SHAME. I’ve mentioned before that I’m from a small town, where we sing songs about men being brave, honest heroes and occasionally women are cited, only as ‘bright-eyed daughters’, i.e. pretty. There’s a stigma there about women and Satan forbid you anger the little Shire folk and speak out about inequality – I’m not exaggerating when I say you’ll get wet paper towels thrown at you, hissed at in the streets and probably a couple eggs thrown at your house. It’s a quaint wee place, bless.
The problem with my dear hometown is that a lot of women seem to be fairly happy being naught but ‘bright-eyed daughters’ – there’s even a club bearing the name that seems to promote and preserve male chauvinism (although they prefer to call it ‘tradition’). As a side note, the townsfolk also sneer the word ‘female’ to talk about a woman and that’s likely why the word irks me so much.
I’ve always taken umbrage with that side of the town and was brought up well aware of gender inequality, so I wonder why I said ‘nah, I’m not a feminist’. Was I ignorant? Naive? Scared? All of the above? Why was I so ashamed to say that I believe in equality and want women to have the same opportunities? But back then we didn’t have social media the way we do now. Women didn’t have ‘platforms’. There were no activists and educators on Bebo – certainly not in my top 16 anyway. Women were constantly degraded and shamed in magazines – I don’t recall anyone to look up to in an intellectual way; women were only valid if they were skinny and pretty (and white). At that time, my only concept of feminism was the Germaine Greer types, who the media belittled as difficult old women or spinsters, prattling on about men holding doors open. I shaved my legs and didn’t mind a man holding the door open, ergo, not a feminist, right? I’m so disappointed.
My mum never really spoke to me about feminism either and I wasn’t interested in reading about it. I remember a friend asking whether I believed in equality and declaring me a feminist on the spot ‘right, so you’re a feminist then’ – I was probably late teens. I still felt uncomfortable then because of the stigma from the media, and it was years before I would stand tall and say ‘yeah, of course I’m a feminist’ but unlike my clear memory of denying feminism, I don’t have any particular memory of accepting feminism.
The truth is I still find the idea of feminism quite intimidating. In a bizarre way it’s similar to why I don’t openly call myself a vegan – I don’t really eat meat or dairy, but every now and then I’ll sneak in some real cheese and eggs – it would be hypocritical and dishonest of me, but I try. To admit outright that you’re a feminist these days implies that you’re an activist fighting for trans-women and BIPOC women and refugees and sex workers. I’ll be honest, I don’t do any of that. I want to be that woman but… actually I have no excuse, I’m just another shit, cis-, white ‘feminist’, lazy and not worthy. I do find comfort and solace in the Jameela Jamils, who speak up, seemingly without fear of getting it wrong or offending people, and admit they themselves have come a long way and still have a lot to learn and I think that’s where I am now. I know I need to read more, speak up more, do more, and I’m working on that. I know I said a lot of things in the past, or worse, didn’t say anything at all, and that was really shit of me and I don’t know how far I can use my youth as an excuse.
One thing I’ve noticed about social media is how quickly opinions and concepts change. I only recently found out what a TERF was, when did that sneak in? There’s a lot to keep up with and sometimes it overwhelms me, with so many different voices talking and ‘educating’ – it’s so easy to be misguided and follow the wrong people. Recently I joined Twitter and accidentally followed some TERFs, thinking they were just your average, inclusive feminists, but no-no.
For all that I said I’m not here to challenge others’ choice of language, the words we use matter. Recently the streaming platform Twitch came under fire for using the term ‘womxn’ in their latest campaign. It’s something that I questioned myself when I wrote about women’s health and smear tests. I used that term throughout the article because it’s what I’ve seen online, and even in my ‘diverse’ workplace, but I felt uncomfortable when I used it because it felt like I was differentiating between cis-women and trans-women, which is exactly why Twitch was called out for being transphobic and the term is already outdated – arguably was never in-date either.
I’m not transphobic (and to be clear, I no longer follow TERFs), but as I said before, I can do more to actively fight, especially for trans rights. When I used the term ‘womxn’, it was because I wanted to show that I’m aware it’s not only cis-women who menstruate and need to book their cervical screening tests, and I thought it might be the more ‘progressive’ language to use but it didn’t feel right to me and I should have trusted that gut-instinct. I won’t remove my article or edit it for now, I’d rather it served as a reminder and learning point for myself.
I’d like to say I’m at an age now where I will listen to my gut instinct, be stronger, and stand up for myself but I also know I’m not the type to confront people and that worries me. To take inspiration from Ru Paul, if I can’t stand up for myself, how in the hell am I going to stand up for anybody else? It’s a real concern and I hope I’m never put in that situation (again) but if I am, I hope I can handle it without regret. I admire the women who can just confront injustice head on, as soon as they see it or hear it, call people out immediately, but I’m not that woman (yet).
It’s not that I’m shy or cowardly; I’ve just always preferred to stay quiet instead of making a mistake, and that’s a huge problem. If I’m personally involved in a situation, my first response is denial – that I must be mistaken and somehow in the wrong. Afterwards comes the anger and that’s not a good look on me either – think ‘angry jigglypuff’ – but it’s a better response than denial. In general, I prefer to take a step back and see where the other person is coming from, but it takes a lot to put anger aside, and when some creep on the U-Bahn is groping between my legs, or a colleague is calling me a stripper, or, or, or… my first thought isn’t ‘let’s just take a step back’. I shouldn’t have to explain to these men why what they said/did was inappropriate. They have no plausible excuse or reason that I’m prepared to try and ‘understand’, but equally, I think change is borne out of level-headed conversations, so sometimes you do have to put that anger aside and say ‘hey, let’s have a talk’. Although to be honest, not once have I sat down with a harasser and talked it out, it’s not that simple.
Maybe I’m naive to think we can all be civil and build understanding through calm and collected conversations, but in today’s world, how many problems have been resolved through anger? It’s a start, for sure. Encouraging people to ‘stay angry’ is all good and well to raise awareness and pressure people, but encourage them to stay smart and collected too, otherwise we’re all just butting heads and shouting at each other and nobody is listening.
So yes, I’m a crap feminist, I really am, and I’m sorry. I don’t know enough about marginal groups. I haven’t read Maya Angelou. I get scared to speak out and voice my opinions, for fear that I’m wrong, but feminism isn’t about being part of an angry mob of women. Feminism is an evolving learning curve that I won’t ever master. As long as I’m trying and educating myself and holding myself accountable along the way, then I hope that’s enough.