Although I have always identified as a feminist, 2014 has been the year the word has really come alive for me. I finally feel I have a much better understanding of what feminism means and what sexism is; and why it is important to scream about the former and call out the latter.
Here are some things I have learnt about feminism in 2014 – the year feminism has become ubiquitous again.
Sexism has become sneaky
It’s used to be that sexism was blatant: cat calling, being told you’re a “typical woman driver” (read: bad driver) or brazenly being expected to do all/most of the domestic duties or being called a slag for “sleeping around”. Don’t get me wrong, this type of sexism still exists, but most men know they can no longer get away with such blatant discrimination. So, instead, sexism has become increasingly sly and often, conveniently, dressed-up as being merely a ‘joke’.
For example, at work there might be a free invitation going around that involves attending a sports event or meeting a well-known sports personality and, instead of the invitation being sent around to all team members as usually happens, it’s forwarded to the men only, and you find out about it a latter.
The Evening Standard columnist, Rosamund Urwin, wrote recently about how, on many occasions, when she has picked up her male colleague’s phone the caller has assumed she is his PA.
Caitlin Moran In her book ‘How To To Be Woman’ provides another example, which I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen or experienced at some point. You’re on holiday with family and friends and you notice the men are doing around half the housework or childcare the women are doing, while saying mournfully: “I’m just not as good at that stuff as you are,” as they sup beer and play on their phones. Another is what she calls “ironic sexism” whereby you might get called “Tits McGee” and told to “go and make a fried egg sandwich,” but which is meant to be seen all as a “joke”.
Now, you might seem petty for calling-out these instances of what I like to call ‘undercover sexism’, or seen as playing the ‘gender card’. But as Urwin puts so well: “If you point out sexism, you’re not actually the one playing the gender card, the sexist is. They’re the ones using gender to try to gain an unfair advantage…
“If people don’t speak up — whether on the tiny pinprick or the sharp stab to the female spirit — nothing will improve. So rather than trying to sniff out a whiff of “feminist bias”, shouldn’t we focus on addressing the great stench of sexism?”
How can you tell if someone is being sexist?
My answer to this question comes entirely from the amazing Moran, whose book, ‘How To Be a Woman’, is so completely invigorating and spot-on about so many of the trials and tribulations of being a woman, I recommend you read it, right now!
“How can you tell when something sexist is happening to you?” Moran asks, “It’s simple, just ask yourself, is it polite?”
I think this is a great maxim. Take gender out the equation completely, then, as patronising as it might be, you can’t be accused of ‘playing the gender card’. Simply ask: is what just happened polite? Was that ‘joke’ a bit of fun or did it hurt my feelings?
As Moran says “Even the most rampant bigot on earth has no defence against a charge of simply being rude.”
If you’ve just got married, many people will have an opinion about your name
You may think it’s your name and your name only, therefore it’s entirely your choice what you choose to call yourself after tying the knot; but you’re wrong, completely and utterly.
After much internal deliberation I decided not to take my husband’s surname. At first, it was just assumed by many people that I would, and indeed had, taken his name. But when I informed them of the contrary it prompted numerous discussions about my decision. I was told, among many uncomplimentary things, that I was double-barrelling our names solely ‘to prove my feminist credentials’. It felt like I was somehow letting the side down. It’s worth mentioning that there were also many people who were very supportive (and non-critical) of my decision. Many, quite rightly, couldn’t of cared less.
In the media, I’ve heard some feminists are of the opinion that woman taking her husband’s name signals her submission to him and reinforces to their own children the idea that women are inferior to men. Some also believe it can be detrimental to a women’s career. Clooney’s wife Amal Clooney (nee Alamuddin) has experienced such criticism for deciding to change her name.
I personally think no one has the right to have an opinion on a personal decision such as what you call yourself, much less force their opinion on someone else. It’s up to the bride if she wants to change her name, and incidentally, it’s up the groom if he, too, wants to change his.
It’s important for us all to be honest
I think much of this ‘fourth wave of feminism’, as it is often called, comes from women simply being more honest and sharing their experiences in the public sphere of the internet. This is why The Everyday Sexism Project has been so successful. It’s given everyday women something to relate to, made them realise their stories aren’t unique, they’re not alone. By encouraging this mass sharing of stories, it has also brought the scale of sexism to light. And it’s fucking huge. Just look at the abuse many female public figures have experienced on the internet for speaking out and having an opinion.
I personally take encouragement from reading other women’s stories. Stories from the Everyday Sexism Project, rape and FGM survivors, personal stories from writers like Moran and journalist Laurie Penny. It doesn’t matter how big or small these stories are, if you’re a celebrity, writer or just a regular Jane.
When we share stories and are just a bit more honest with each other we realise we’re not alone, we’re all struggling a bit, in our own way. I recently interviewed the Chair of the World Energy Council, Marie-José Nadeau, the first female chair of the council in its history. We Spoke about gender equality on the boards of utility companies. Right away she told me about the challenges of having children and a career, pointing out the restrictions and sacrifices. I thought this was refreshing. The superwoman image often portrayed by high-powered women has always come across as false and unobtainable to me,probably because it is. It’s nice to hear some honesty.
You can be a feminist and still stay at home and look after the kids
Can you be a feminist and stay at home and look after the children while your husband goes to work? Sure, why not.
One misconception I have come across is that you have to be a high flying career woman, juggling children and a full social life, to be a feminist. Not true. To me feminism is about having the choice to do either without having barriers put in your way or being valued less than a man for doing either. Women should be valued for staying at home and rearing their children, but if they want to go to work, they should be given the same opportunities and pay in the work place as men. It’s about freedom of choice and equal opportunities. And it works the same for men. They should be able to stay at home and look after their children without facing ridicule or having their masculinity questioned.
Speaking to Elle magazine, Emma Watson said recently: “Feminism is not here to dictate to you. It’s not prescriptive, it’s not dogmatic. All we are here to do is give you a choice. If you want to run for president, you can. If you don’t, that’s wonderful, too.”
Confidence is key
One of my favourite quotes recently was from Miriam González Durántez, Nick Clegg’s wife, on confidence: “Women have been faking lots of things during history. No? So if you’re going to fake something, fake self-confidence.”
As I said before, I recently did a feature on the lack of women on utility companies’ board rooms and many spoke of having a lack of confidence or speaking to women who cite having a lack of confidence as holding them back. This is perhaps not surprising when the business world is predominantly made up of white, mostly middle aged, men in suits.
I’ve been to many conferences where this is the case and it can be quite intimidating. But this won’t change if we let our lack of confidence take over. In fact, someone told me that I’m lucky, I have an advantage as being a young (ish) woman, I stick right out. So now I try to use that to my advantage.
I’m going to take Miriam’s advice and just fake confidence until I have enough of the real stuff.
We’re all just people at the end of the day
Feminism isn’t about men vs women. As Moran says in the conclusion to her book: “It’s not as if strident feminists want to take over from men. We’re not arguing for the whole world. Just our share.”
She adds: “I don’t want men to go away. I don’t want men to stop what they’re doing. What I want, instead, are some radical market forces. I want choice. I want variety. I want more. I want women. I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.”
Image courtesy of Phoenix Dark-Knight flickr page.