Emma Cosh suggests some reasons why young women shy away from feminism, despite supporting and believing in equality. Feminism today, she argues, involves not just changing the law, but changing the very way we think and behave towards others, and to constantly challenge others to do the same. Is it any wonder that this difficult prospect is unappealing to some?
What does feminism mean to my generation of women in their 20s?
It’s anachronistic; no woman I know would unapologetically describe herself as a feminist. If the concept and importance of gender equality as an issue has crossed her mind, then there is only one acceptable way of communicating this: “I’m not a feminist, but…” for this read, “please don’t think I’m a lesbian/man hater /being difficult…” In short, feminism is a dirty word, and only by denying it are we happy to use it in our vocabulary.
While few women would disagree with the need for gender equality, a wedge has somehow been driven between this and the cause of feminism, the two are no longer synonymous. To most, the mere mention of feminism evokes rolled eyes or an indulgent chuckle, it is a caricature of its former self and deserted by my generation like a elderly parent forced to rely on the state for care in old age.
The conspicuous battles have been won; we can vote, we have the right to equal pay, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of gender (in theory, at least). So why are we afraid to be seen as feminists? Because it is a now euphemism for being awkward, for pointing out difficult, uncomfortable things people don’t want to hear.
Feminists stand up for women as three-dimensional people with more to offer than a smile and a vagina; feminists are those who are willing to fight the endemic misogyny that saturates society. The battles that remain are now more esoteric, harder to pin down. They require a change in individual’s and society’s attitudes. We’ve become lazy: we thought that the judiciary could do the job for us. In fact, legislative changes to are merely the minimum, not sufficient conditions for equality of opportunity.
Just as ASBOs cannot solve youth crime, anti-discriminatory law cannot absolve us of responsibility for promoting equality. However, such collective disengagement is not confined to gender issues, but is symptomatic of an ever increasing severance from our communities, a reluctance to become involved with society’s wider issues.
In the bad old days women were only baby makers and home makers. Feminists broke the mould: they became trouble makers. It is simple to believe now that those they troubled were only bureaucrats and politicians far removed from their own social circles and easily demonised. Much harder to remember that women had to fight for acceptance in their everyday lives, and to admit that we ourselves as well as those we love are responsible for proliferating the same discriminatory attitudes. This is where the battles remain – in the everyday way life is lived. To be a feminist now means challenging those around us, our family, friends and colleagues, to be aware of their behaviour. This is a notion that seems exhausting and intimidating. The risk of being ostracised for our beliefs feels all too real.
We are all complicit in the objectification of women as merely sexual beings. A woman’s sexuality is now public property: anyone who does not “make the best of herself” i.e. wear make-up and high heels, is ridiculed as an ugly prude (that most heinous of sins). It is inconceivable that she may want to keep her sexual being limited to an intimate relationship. That a woman’s worth is based upon her display of sexuality is reinforced by the ’empowered’ female role models in the media, all of whom trade primarily on their looks. “I’m strong, but look at my ass!” is the not-so-subtle message from the women in music videos and lads’ mags. Empowerment shouldn’t mean getting paid for being ogled. Empowerment should mean the liberation of men and women alike from false value systems.
We have not travelled so far from the days where the sight of a woman’s ankle was considered unseemly; yet the underlying assumption both then and now is that women are valued by their flesh. Whether the fashion is to cover or display it is immaterial; the idea of sexuality as female currency remains and will do so as long as we allow it to.
The most significant barrier to gender equality is not the actions of others, but our own. The reason that many of us are afraid to call ourselves feminists is that doing so would separate us from the crowd. We are afraid that the friendships and networks which we value could not withstand the strain; secretly we’re afraid that neither we, nor our friends are up to the challenge.