Why are some women hostile to feminism, depsite all the freedom the movement has given them? Lara McKinnnon looks back at an experience which may shed some light on the problem.
A few years ago, when rectorial elections rolled around at St Andrews University, a group of us decided to run Germaine Greer for the post. She’s well-known, outspoken, intellectual, and seemed like a strong candidate for exactly those reasons. This is not a story about Germaine Greer. Greer herself barely features, because who she is didn’t actually seem that important during the campaign. This is more a story about culture and about how we discredit those who might cause problems. It’s a story about women and it’s a story about feminism.
It’s not shocking or original to suggest that feminism is maligned by the (largely male) media because it scares them. Take the popular phrase “hairy-legged feminists” for a moment, pop it under the cultural microscope and dissect it into component parts. We all know from television that women don’t have body hair. Women are smooth and entirely unrelated to apes, after all. Secretly, everyone knows that this is a lie, and for that reason we have colourful and oddly-shaped shaving implements, or chemicals with discreetly incomprehensible names. Feminists aren’t feminine, they aren’t like real women and from this it follows that they aren’t real women and thus not real people. They can helpfully tied to lesbians, who are the other set of ‘fake’ women who cause similar but diverging problems for the patriarchy.
Given this background, it probably should have occurred to us that “Go For Greer” was never going to sell. No one even talks about “the patriarchy” anymore. My generation of women lives with the advantages of the concessions the old movement won, but we don’t feel grateful, somehow. Dworkin and Greer are a shameful past, and we’re not a generation that’s likely to check A Room of One’s Own out of a public library. More than once, faced with the vitriol young women were showing towards someone who shaped the way they’re we’re allowed to live I thought “these people don’t deserve to be emancipated”.
Partly it’s cultural, of course. When I was eighteen I found the feminism shelf of the local library. Then – and only then – did I realise I wasn’t abnormal. I was thinking along lines that had already been explored. I can’t really express the relief, the sense of finally understanding that I didn’t have to be what the culture around me said I should be. So, yeah, I fairly well-disposed to Germaine.
What quickly became apparent was that people at the university had heard of feminism but weren’t especially sold on it as an idea. It just wasn’t something people felt connected to. Young women don’t feel especially oppressed anymore. The problems we face aren’t as obvious as they once were and the while the cultural obstacles are still there it’s harder to rally the troops when the major barriers (like the right to vote) have already been overcome.
Of course, feminism and feminists have changed with the times, but the image is still of the seventies. I don’t think feminism should become apologetic or hide from the world, but I do think more could be done to explain that you don’t become equal overnight when you get the vote.
I’ve never been especially into Women’s History, and when it turned up on a course syllabus I wasn’t really bothered either way. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when the class I was in didn’t see the point of it, though. We’re told that women are equal now, we’re told that there’s nothing to hold us back. That’s a simplification of reality, but it’s one we grow up with now. How can we be expected to rally when the problems aren’t immediately apparent?
This is the generation of “I’m not a feminist, but…” They’re not saying it to mean “I don’t believe in equality, but…” they’re saying it to mean “Feminism is dead”.
To say we’re feminists now seems like we’re looking for outside forces that are holding us back – the infamous blame culture, as it were. The thing is, I don’t think we do live in a “blame culture”. I think we live in just the opposite. It’s intellectual culture theory that expresses the significance of the wider social conditions, not ground-level assumptions. Most people are perfectly happy to think they’ve got a fair chance at anything and everything. If it’s at all possible, we’ll take the path of least resistance and assume we’ve got all the opportunities we could ever need. Feeling oppressed isn’t exactly heart-warming, so is it any wonder that the average woman nowadays thinks the battle’s been won? We can work, we can socialise, we can get an education. In many ways that’s true and it’s a wonderful thing, but it does mean we’re less willing to engage the issues that still exist, partly because we’re afraid of being seen to shift the blame and shirk responsibility for our own lives.
Germaine lost the election, of course. There was an “anyone but Greer” campaign towards the end. There’s no sympathy for the firebrands because they did succeed, they did change the world, and when the culture concedes a little there’s so much less to be angry about.
Now, if you’re thinking that we still have plenty to be angry about, you’re right. The problem is that the issues are generally a bit more abstract. Modern feminism is about examining the culture, looking beneath the surface. The obstacle here is that the surface is so very appealing. Who wants to stop and look for things that might one day work against them?
And meanwhile, as life was getting better for women, the culture adapted. Sexism became acceptable as long as it was “ironic” and language was deployed to discredit the forms that would have made us more aware of the problems hidden in this new, changed culture. Feminism became something that hated men and wanted them dead. Where on Earth did that come from? Feminism hates men, men are no longer openly oppressive, therefore feminism is dead. Underneath it all there’s a lurking assumption that this is as good as it gets. We’ve won all we’re ever going to win, we should just accept that. The sheer weight of apparent futility kills so many sparks of rebellion.
So, in the end, I learned some final lessons from Germaine Greer. I learned that most people, most of the time, will be happy with the status quo. I learned that we don’t always like to acknowledge our cultural debts. It’s not enough to take the concessions and run, and we’ll always need someone to be unpopular and say the things that need to be said. Change takes time and it’s never quite enough. Awareness is the most precious commodity that exists in any culture. Know your enemy, of course, but also know your allies. And most importantly, underneath all of this, learn from your failures.