I realise that many people reading my blog (well, the one or two I know about) will expect me to classify myself as a feminist in the same way I officially have to brand myself as white, female, middle-class, single or unmarried, etc..etc…etc… and they would be right. I am a feminist, following three generations of family feminists (maybe more, but I have to wait for an invitation from the BBC\’s Who Do You Think You Are? in order to find out – every day I check the post, but, so far, I remain shamefully overlooked) and I have been surrounded by feminists in both my work and playtime for as long as I can remember. Ergo, my world has never been anything other than a feminist world and I would say that my modern feminist views reflect most of the opinions which define my personality so they matter a great deal to me; if you try to sell me women’s liberation, I will buy it and then offer my services as a saleswoman.
I have, however, sometimes hesitated to align myself overtly with feminism as I find that I am invariably considered to be “all about women” and I hate being so thoroughly misunderstood. As a misunderstood feminist, I am persistently classed by most of the global media and huge swathes of society as someone who must want women to benefit even if the rest of society have to suffer when, in actual fact, I am “all about” improving social conditions for everyone – men, women, children, badgers (no meaningless culling please) …
The feminists in my family and social circles are representative of my view as they consist of a mix of women and men who care about the same issues but address them from different perspectives. My brother and father have no problem classing themselves as feminists; neither did my grandfather and I know that my male friends willingly accept the same label. But it is a very complex label for women to adopt today, as there is an abundance of redundant baggage and re-branding attached to it which always manages to overshadow its relevancy, thanks mainly to bad press, public disinterest in the facts and “false feminism”. For example, Sarah Palin adopting the title of “Pro-Life feminist” is laughably disingenuous but, according to many US commentators, my cynicism makes me a traitor to the feminist movement because, in spite of our opposing views on everything, they believe that feminism’s core goal is to get women (any women) into positions of power, no matter who they are or what they represent. Unfortunately, women like myself, find dangerous, ignorant and prejudiced members of our sex who throw the term “feminist” around as if they had invented it, without the least idea of where it came from or who has been aligned with it before them, insulting rather than inspiring.
The aim of improving society and reducing prejudice remains the goal of all the modern feminists I know and, contrary to popular belief, feminism has nothing whatsoever to do with downplaying the role of the housewife, promoting abortions or denying women the right to look beautiful and feel sexy. As someone with a moderately good grasp of feminist theory, I think I can speak for most feminists when I say that feminism is, above all, the pursuit of greater choice and fairness. So, when people like Sarah Palin provide lip-service support to women’s rights issues and brand themselves feminists, they are merely trying to accomplish a poor magic trick, held together with too much smoke and too many mirrors, which attempts to commandeer liberal terminology in order to make regressive and reactionary views easier for moderates to accept. This is extremely manipulative as reproductive rights – including the right for any woman to have a safe, legal abortion up until the 24th week of pregnancy – are at the heart of the modern feminist manifesto and no advocate of women’s rights could ever willingly support Palin’s Pro-Life (i.e. the introduction of laws which would make it difficult for women to obtain legal abortions and contraception education) policies.
Feminism’s history dates back a number of centuries but it never drifts far away from its liberal philosophical beginnings; whether an example of a socialist or liberal feminist wave, it is all much of a much-ness politically, as women who want the world to change are unlikely to be espousing society’s most inflexible values as they criticise the status-quo. As a child of the late 70s I have a soft-spot for the bolshy Second Wave feminists but I personally prefer the views of the Third Wave. I also particularly like the ambiguous and imperfect stance of Mary Wollstonecraft whose work included A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman (1798). I am always impressed by the measured and gender-inclusive message in the former, as Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mum, if anyone didn’t know) succeeds in arguing for women’s rights without criticising men as a sex or insulting the establishment view of marriage and the classic family unit. All Wollstonecraft wanted was for women to be educated to the same standard as men as she believed that this would be beneficial to all (including her God) – making women better mothers and partners, and leading to happier, stronger male-female relationships – and she eloquently argued for these rights by asking men to become activists for change. Not everyone considers Wollstonecraft to be a feminist, as her religious references, submissiveness and selectiveness regarding women’s issues do not always appeal to radicals, but context is everything and she certainly has far more right to claim the title than Sarah Palin.
My main 21st century problem with the term “feminist” is therefore that it so often mistakenly isolates women and forbids them to criticise their own sex as, no matter how much time you spend explaining what it means, people still like to think that Third Wave feminists only want to fight against inequality by swarming en masse, shrieking, while they beat men and high-heeled women with sticks. As with the issue of street harassment, women’s issues are never all about women and feminist activists are far more likely to be addressing cross-gender racial, security or employment inequalities via educated debate than they are to be parading in the streets with placards reading “women are great; men are rubbish”. Man-bashing certainly has no place in the feminist movement I support but neither does the assumption that every single working mother is automatically a feminist.
As people are so keen on re-branding and spin these days, I suspect that feminism, if it is going to survive in its recently evolved form, is due a much-needed PR makeover as the time has probably come to give up the waves and encourage more male activism. But, in the meantime, I am happy to be called a feminist, just so long as all other real feminists everywhere continue to try to wrestle our brand away from language-sadists and false-feminists like Sarah Palin.