One of my earliest memories is of being on a riverside beach in Cornwall with my mum, sister and some family friends. I must have been about two or three years old and was enjoying a traditionally damp English summer BBQ, pootling about amongst the pebbles when around the river bend came a boat full of merry holidaymakers. My sister and friends started to wave and shout cheerful ‘hello’s’… I mustered all the puff I had and shouted ‘FUUUUUUCCCCCCCCK!’
Time stood still, everyone turned and stared. My poor mother scrabbled around desperately for an appropriate punishment for this delinquent toddler. It was decided that I wouldn’t be allowed any fruit pastilles – sweets which I have never liked so, frankly, I was quite pleased with myself. They all thought that I didn’t really know what I was saying.
‘Fuck’ is one of the most contentious words in the English language. I have gone through life peppering my speech with it. It’s become one of my many bad habits… but strangely, it doesn’t seem to get as much of a reaction as the other contentious F word. Feminism.
Sometimes, saying ‘I’m a feminist’ wins you looks of approval and exclamations along the lines of ‘damn right, sista!’ (not that I live in Queens NYC, but you get the idea). Sometimes, saying ‘I’m a feminist’ results in shakes of the head and the assumption that you are an angry man-hater. Sometimes, I just end up saying ‘Fuck, I don’t know.’
What I do know is this. I grew up knowing that as an adult I would be able to vote, go to university, get a job, have children when I choose, have my own bank account and that my father or future husband won’t be able to commit me to an asylum as a result of my PMT or not wanting to do the housework (always a cheering thought as I would have been committed years ago based on that criteria). So, compared to my grandmother and mother’s generation I’ve got it pretty good. But, surely these are just examples of basic human rights? The Suffragettes might have won us the vote and the Women’s Liberation Movement might have given us birth control and the choice to be something other than a housewife but what are feminists doing for us now?
The debate is fierce and yet we seem to be going around in circles. On the one hand, we want a kick-ass career and on the other we want to have the choice to leave work to look after our children. At any moment we might celebrate the right to make our own choices and in the next moment we criticise women for changing their names after marriage. We want to have the choice to dress and look however we want without being judged by societal norms, but we pick apart other people’s appearances all the time. There is no harsher critic of a woman than another woman.
And that’s partly why I find feminism so confusing. We are in-fighting and it’s resulting in mixed messages. For example, our daughters are growing up to believe that flaunting their sexuality is empowering. I’ve witnessed British teenage girls abroad dancing on bars for free shots. They were having fun, getting drunk and having casual sex. I sat on a curbside craving my pyjamas, a book and a mug of horlicks, but then I started to talk to an 18 year old girl who looked like she had just walked off a glamour photoshoot. It became clear that she genuinely believed that she was an empowered young woman. In the early hours, I sat with her and a man at the hotel bar (I have no problem embarassing myself in the name of research!) – she was so drunk that she could barely speak but nevertheless, happily went back to his room with him. I just wanted to explain to her the difference between enjoying your sexuality and valuing yourself on your sexual desirability alone. I didn’t though, because she made her choice. But I went to bed feeling worried for a young stranger and for young women who base their self-esteem on casual sexual encounters. I’m not sure that’s what the Women’s Liberation Movement intended when they campaigned for women to have access to birth control. I’m not saying casual sex is wrong, but I am concerned that it is becoming too closely linked with feelings of self-worth for some young girls.
I hear women expressing gratitude that their partner has hoovered. I also hear them mocking their partner for not doing the washing up correctly. Each time I cringe because it seems to me that this is not only deeply patronising towards men but also implies that a woman should be grateful when her partner does some housework. The point is that both genders can hoover, iron, wash up and tidy as well as the other; there should be shared responsibility for the household. But, there are some things that we cannot do equally and it is these things that should be celebrated. I like that I can be carried over the threshold by a man, I also enjoy the thought that I can bear him a child. Alternatively, I enjoy the intuitive bond that women share and that, yes, we can multi-task.
But there are things that still need to change. At university I was harassed by a lecturer who made it clear that he wasn’t too fussed about keeping it professional. I didn’t know how to respond so cried in my room and spent the rest of my degree course avoiding him. I didn’t want to be perceived as having ‘made a fuss’ so I didn’t report him, but it made me feel cheap and angry at myself for not being more assertive. So, when a man shouted ‘suck my cock!’ at me from the window of his van I memorised his number plate, rang the police and reported him for harassment. I also reported the man who followed me home and I would have reported the bloke who grabbed my bum as he cycled past me but on closer inspection he was about 14 years old so I shouted after him that he was “behaving really inappropriately” in my best ‘I-am-a-grown-up-telling-you-off’ voice. These are minor incidents and some people have queried my response to them (which pisses me off frankly), but the point is this… I enjoy my body, I love being a woman but on no account will I be reduced to the sum of my parts. The policeman who took my call said that I had the right to walk down the street without being intimidated. He was right, but I wanted to point out that whistles, comments and occasional unwanted touching are a sad part of a woman’s life. And while we are dancing on bars for free booze and showing disregard for our self-worth, why would other people treat us any differently?
My own stance on feminism has changed over the years, I used to be angrily adamant that I would never ‘just be a housewife’ as if a man was going to come along and imprison me in the kitchen. Now, I know that raising a family is one of the most challenging, rewarding, and important jobs there is and that dedicating yourself to this doesn’t need to rule out individual achievement or aspiration. As with everything, it’s about balance, hard work and, ultimately, team work with your partner. I like being in the kitchen and I also enjoy my job. For me, feminism is equality for men and women. It’s about taking action if you are being groped on public transport and taking action if someone tells you that someone making inappropriate comments towards you ‘was just a bit of banter’.
Feminism is also about respecting each other’s choices, some women will stay at home to look after their children, others couldn’t think of anything worse. Essentially, third-wave feminism is furthering the work of our mother’s in the 1960’s and 1970’s but whilst we continue to strive for our rights, we have to remember the great things about being a woman and support each other’s choices. We are nurturing, emotional, complicated, fragile, resilient, resourceful and downright awesome. So, yeah, I’m a fucking feminist.