Friday, 15 November 2013

Why I Became a Feminist - or 'Why I'm Becoming a Feminist'

When I was little, my parents taught me that I could be anything that I wanted to be. One day I wanted to be an engineer, or a doctor, or one of those women who wore suits and seemed so busy. The next day the dream was teaching, or maybe training to be an airline pilot. 

At my school, all of the teachers looked like less glam versions of Angela Lansbury (kindly, wrinkly, and very female); and at secondary school the story was more or less the same. I played on sports teams full of intelligent, athletic, opinionated girls, but my main friendship group was pretty much 50:50 girls and guys. I remember sleepovers at which we'd all sleep in our sleeping bags curled around and over each other like cats in a basket. It was all so innocent and platonic, we were all just friends, people, human beings undivided by gender.

Fast forward to me stepping into my first lecture at university. I was suprised to find that out of around 100 students, only 10 students on the BA English Literature course were of the unfairer sex. Seminars felt a little strange to begin with: 'who would be up for debating?' I thought, gazing sadly at the women around me. With their perfect make-up, cool vintage clothes and unwillingness to be the first person to speak in the room, these people were of a species I just didn't know how to deal with. I started to feel nostalgic for the heated debates which made my sixth form English class so exciting, and which had influenced my decision to choose the subject for further study. 

But soon I was taking modules which included gender / queer theory elements. This was my first real life encounter with feminism, and probably the most tangible beginning to my 'feminism path' (TM). Judith Butler, and her theory of gender as performance prompted me to really stop and think for the first time about what the terms 'male' and 'female' meant. Amazing friends started to talk about feminism, and use terms like queer and trans and LGBTQI. 

At first my interest was out of pure academic curiosity: these ideas and the stories that came with them were just thought experiments, abstract. Facing oppression as a result of your gender identity was still something that happened to other people, not to me. I found myself empathising with people who I read about who suffered because they were women, or because they didn't feel their identity fit into the traditional binary options, or who preached that the patriarchy was something at work in everyone's lives. But my empathy didn't extend to taking action - - it still felt like these issues happened to everyone but me.

A friend set up a fledgling Women's Campaign group at the students' union, and again, out of curiosity, I went along to one meeting. But I didn't feel comfortable using the words and ideas that I'd read so much about in conversation. Hearing a girl sitting next to me talking about the need to reclaim the night, I just felt bewildered. Why didn't I feel the same? Am I missing something? Am I part of the problem? Is she just making up a problem? I hit the wall that I think a lot of privileged women come up against: I just couldn't see how being a woman had ever worked against me, or women I knew. I couldn't help coming to the conclusion that maybe if she stopped feeling like a victim, this girl who spoke so eloquently would stop being a victim.

Then I graduated and got my first job, as a sabbatical officer for my university students' union. Whilst the SU itself was the epitome of diversity, the first meeting I attended as an SU representative on a University-run project looked exactly like this:

Okay, I exaggerate. But, all the reading (see my old reading list at the bottom of the post!), all the discussions with brilliant (more enlightened) friends, all the thinking I'd been doing about sexism and feminism had started to work their magic: I had started to take more notice of what sort of people I was surrounded by. I suddenly realised that all that theory, all the blogs I'd been reading, were more than a collection of personal anecdotes. I guess it's a shame that things had to get personal before I took my first tentative steps into figuring out how I could really fit into the world of feminism, and how I could more actively do something to undo the damage of centuries of institutional oppression.

Whizz forward to the present day, and here I am, furiously trying to condense the tangle of feelings, uncertainty and excitement that I associate with 'becoming a feminist'. I'm really not going to reach a catchy conclusion.

Reflecting upon and writing about 'my journey to feminism' is really, really hard as I still feel like I'm not finished. Every single day, a new idea, a new word is flung into my path, and the road to becoming a feminist takes another twist. Twitter and blogs have perhaps been the biggest influence to my feminist thinking. Terms such as 'intersectionality', 'cis-sexual' and 'privilege' all began in the twitter-sphere for me. I actively try and follow people who have new and different ideas, seek out blogs which tackle problems that I find difficult. I try and grapple with my privilege - I know that even having the choice, the support, and the platform to write this article might mean there are some important issues which fall under the remit of feminism that I can never fully understand. 

And over the last few years I also have started to break my old self-imposed Facebook rule of not posting anything 'political': I now feel some sort of responsibility to be that 'feminist kill joy', to share that uncomfortable article, to share that story of someone who has done something brilliant but has gone under-recognised, or to question if one of my 'friends' should post something misogynistic disguised as 'banter'.

I think that's what, for me, calling myself a feminist is about: learning more. Talking more. Finding ways of spreading ideas that are bound up with struggle caused by oppression. Accepting that I don't understand everything, and probably have a lot of things wrong. Maybe I'm approaching it too academically, but I don't really know other ways of doing things. This makes becoming a feminist more and more difficult for me the more I try, as intersectional campaigners have revealed the extent of the damage created by centuries of dominance by white, rich, European men in culture, society and politics. At least in Britain, up until fairly recently, it has been these people making decisions at the top, doing the hiring and firing, writing the history books, and speaking in the media. I want to be a feminist because I think that needs to change - for the benefit of all of us, no matter our gender.


Reading list (these are just some of the awesome people and blogs that - at the risk of sounding melodramatic - have changed the way that I see the world) Anita Sarkeesian articulates an idea that so often causes the haters to call feminists who enjoy pop culture hypocrites: 'it is both possible - even necessary - to simultaneously enjoy media whilst also being critical of its more pernicious aspects'. Reni Eddo Lodge writes brilliantly on race/feminism and more, her stuff is challenging for me, as I sometimes feel out of my depth, but it's provocative and important work. Awesome frank discussions of sexuality. All of these. Read a range of them. Read columns by people you wouldn't usually gravitate to. See how EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and how can we solve it all argh it all feels so helpless. But then realise that actually you're reading these articles in mainstream media. Horay! some of the most varied, fun and readable articles not necessarily about *feminism* but always written with the feminist spectacles on.

Gender Trouble, Judith Butler.

Before the Closet: Same-sex Love from "Beowulf" to "Angels in America", Allen Frantzen (those medievalists have some awesome ideas about gender, I tells ya).

To be added to... but these are some of my formative reads! I'd love to know where to look next... suggestions in the comments please!

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