Friday, 25 October 2013

A Response to "A Response to Feminism"

Hang onto your florals, ladies. It's going to be a bumpy ride. 

Sitting on my train back to London yesterday, I found myself feeling unaccountably blue. Not the normal Sunday-afternoon-train back-to-school-tomorrow blue, something more lasting; I've felt like this for a few days now. Yesterday on that train, I worked out why: last Monday, a friend posted this this article (Melissa Bond's subtly argued, ahem, 'Response to Feminism') to me on Facebook, apologising in advance for ruining my day. Well, it's ruined my week.
To be frank, it hasn't been a brilliant couple of months for the feminist cause. The freak storm of violence and vitriol over social media directed at women who successfully campaigned for women's faces to be represented on banknotes. This UN Women campaign reminded us how deep online misogyny runs. Mostly the fact that it took David Cameron almost a week - no doubt filled with many soul-searching glances out of windows - to revise his answer and realise he was, in fact, a feminist when asked whether he was in an interview by RED Magazine. I suspect this change of heart might have coincided with some bright spark giving him the heads up that women are allowed to vote these days, so he possibly ought to try to make them like him, the dears. 
And then this "Response to Feminism". I know I really ought to ignore Ms (or as I'm sure she'd prefer, Miss) Bond, she's clearly very young and very misguided, but I can't. Particularly as it demonstrates so, so very clearly why we need feminism. 
Where to start though? Firstly, it isn't quite Hallowe'en just yet, so let's put Angry Feminist back into the costume cupboard. You seem very concerned that I'm trying to take away your florals, so let me reassure you I'm not. Feminism isn't and has never been about dictating clothing choices; it's about freedom to choose, whether or not what you're going for is the norm. See suffragettes and their adoption of trousers for an early example. Or power suits in the 1980s. Personally, I find flowers a little twee and chintzy, but if Dorothy Perkins is the look you're going for, go for your life.
I must say though that choosing the desire to wear florals as a significant differentiator between men and women is rather puerile. Couldn't you think of anything else? Feminism is about ability and aspiration, and I don't think even you would deny that there is no meaningful difference in what men and women can achieve. Women should be born and grow up with (others') affirmation and (their own) belief that their frame of ambition is identical to a man's. You might argue that physical differences mean that women are less suited to some jobs (haulage, mining, the army) than others, but in the same way as many men just won't suit these professions, many women will. And bear in mind that the International Olympic Committee thought that running a marathon would be beyond a woman's capability and detrimental to her health until 1984.
Let's move onto the political issues. Now, of course there are feminists of all political colours (Baroness Ann Jenkin of Women 2 Win is a personal hero) but Harriet has a point - it's true that there are fewer in the Tory Party than others. Conservatism is about maintaining the status quo, and the status quo is that women are underrepresented in boardrooms, Parliament, the Cabinet, senior management positions and are not allowed to become bishops. This is not about the numbers going into these institutions, it's about the lack of numbers at the top, and I pray that you don't genuinely think that this is due to a lack of ability or suitability. Quotas are not universally endorsed even among feminists but, whether you agree or not, the theory behind them is that they are a way of levelling the playing field until it is genuinely even; of changing workplace cultures so that they don't put women off, of getting rid of any lingering sexism in party selection boards, and of giving young women and girls high-achieving female role models, so that they know they have the option of becoming a nurse OR a doctor - whatever children's costume manufacturers have to say about it. 
Oh, and Margaret Thatcher. I couldn't agree more, she wasn't a feminist. As a number of people have pointed out, including Angela Merkel, she broke the glass ceiling and put a cement one in its place, never doing a thing for women before or after. You're right. And again, you're right, Beyonce, Katie Perry and Taylor Swift aren't either. I like their music but TBH I'm not too bothered by that. If I want pop culture feminist icons, I have Meryl Streep, Annie Lennox, Romola Garai, and Jennifer Lawrence. Awesome!
Now, the awesomeness of Romola Garai brings me to the lads' mags. You argue the models choose to do it; I don't believe it's a real choice. I think they see it as a route to fame and fortune, to a better life, and this is based on a belief that the only thing they have that is of value is a DD cup. In many cases, I'm pretty sure no one has told them that they also have the choice of becoming a lawyer, politician or doctor. And as long as the media and society continue to publish Page 3, to tell girls they're pretty and boys they're clever, and to present women as objects, they simply won't realise they have so many options. Feminism is about a full range of choices and fighting a paucity of ambition.
Banknotes feed into this. You can't say that everything ever achieved in Britain has been achieved by men, and that's what all-male banknotes would do. And no, the Queen doesn't count; please don't make me explain the difference between being renowned for real achievement versus accident of birth. I think the Queen is wonderful, and has done her job extremely well - but she was born into that job, and it's one best done by keeping everything ticking over nicely, not by changing the world. Jane Austen is great, I love her novels and I do think that she was quietly making a feminist point about the world she knew; I'm delighted she was chosen. But the suffragettes and Mary Wollstonecraft changed our world, so yes, one day I'd also like to see one of them on my tenner.
Now, if we're going to talk about the developing world, I couldn't agree more that women - and certainly middle class ones - in Britain have far, far less to complain about. FGM, early and forced marriage, slavery, rape as a weapon of war; these are just the headlines of the daily realities women face elsewhere. Privilege duly checked. But we're women, we can multi-task (forgive my casual reverse sexism there). Let's tackle the residual inequalities in our cultre AT THE SAME TIME AS lobbying our governments to do more for women in the developing world, shall we? Cos this isn't exactly the land of milk and honey - I bet Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy and Laura Bates, with enough death, bomb and rape tweets between them to fill a medium-sized novel, would probably agree there. Not to mention the shocking numbers of rapes and other sexual offences not prosecuted or not reported in this country. Isn't it great that Robin Thicke can go ahead and sing about how sex without consent isn't really rape in our wonderful, liberal, free-speaking society?
So, Melissa (if I may), that's why I'm an out-and-proud feminist. Sorry if I got a bit Angry Feminist on you in places, I didn't mean to. Actually, I think you and I probably have an equally optimistic, confident and self-affirming view of what we can achieve in life, of how far our abilities and ambition can take us - anywhere we want to go. I (and all the other feminists) just want to make sure that every other woman both knows she can, and actually can, be whatever she wants to be and entirely on her own terms. And your floral dresses are safe. 

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