Feminism is not just for women with high-flying careers, and feminists must do more to engage women who feel alienated from the movement, argues Samantha Jay
As a teenager I was a passionate feminist. Living in a small ex-mining community in the North of England, this made me an unusual figure. I liked the label and I wholeheartedly believed in the cause. I wouldn’t say I was militant, although I did once melodramatically burn a pile of Barbie dolls. As a lone voice in a tough comprehensive there was much I didn’t feel brave enough to do. I did, however, love to read, and I quietly stoked the flames of my passion with lots of academic material from the city library. I read all the big names: Greer, Millet, Wolf, Wollstonecraft. They meant more to me than anything I ever learnt at school. I scoured the Sunday papers for articles by leaders of the movement. Among my friends, I made my beliefs well known and tried to stick to my principles in my daily life.
I didn’t know many other feminists. My friends venomously rejected the label, my mother always said she wasn’t (although she acted suspiciously like one), but I knew deep down that I was. Moreover, I was proud to be one. By the time I left school, I was well versed in women’s issues. Like many teenagers, I naïvely dreamt for hours about what my adulthood would be like. My life was going to be that of a pioneer, full of freedom and exploration, travel and books, music and film, politics and passion. I knew one thing: I never, ever wanted to be dependent on anyone, let alone a man. Settling down was not my bag, neither was the idea of your typical 2.4 screaming kids. More than anything, I wanted to escape the small pit village I grew up in with its right-leaning narrow mindedness.
After the time finally came for me to leave home, I travelled the world for a year. I got places on various scholarships and expeditions and explored many different cultures. It was everything I’d hoped for (and more). I then went on to university. I chose Lancaster: a progressive and liberal institution, over ones with more of a prestigious academic record, because I thought I’d be happier there, politically and socially. Despite my high hopes, I found settling in difficult. I’d had rumblings of depression since the second year of my A levels and had been on anti-depressants for a while. A few weeks into my university career, I suffered a full blown implosion. I was quickly diagnosed with bipolar disorder by the university psychiatric team. I had to drop out of my course and concentrate all my energies on staying sane. I went, almost overnight, from being someone who was vivacious and full of life to an empty shell.
I slept for up to 17 hours a day, didn’t change my clothes or brush my hair for weeks. I became too scared to leave my room, even pissing in the sink to avoid the communal toilet. Every aspect of my functioning was impaired. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, watch TV or even listen to my beloved music. I stopped cooking and existed only on packets of crisps and sausage rolls. I couldn’t travel, as public transport caused panic attacks. I became detached from reality, even psychotic. I mutilated my body with razors and lighters. I often drank myself into a stupor and became increasingly dependent on the illegal drugs I had always had a weak spot for.
Worse than this was the eternal death wish. Waking up in the morning and wanting to die. Having lunch in the afternoon: chewing a stale sausage roll and wanting to die. Going to bed at night feeling like a coward for not having had the courage of my convictions to end it all, like I knew I should have done. The tablets they gave me didn’t work. The therapists who counselled me talked nonsense. The only thing that consoled me was I knew I couldn’t carry on like this forever. At some point I would crack and do myself in, this stupid fear of death would only last so long. It was only a matter of time before it was all over.
Yet it is nearly seven years later and I am not dead, nor do I want to be. I went back to my university course, achieving a 2:1. I kicked the drugs and I cut down my drinking to a sensible level. I have never been the same since the breakdown and progress has been slow, with many relapses. However, my life these days is happy, balanced and fulfilled. The reason is not a miracle drug, a new form of talking therapy or even a life changing religious experience. What then is the reason?
I’ll tell you: he’s called Tom.
We met and fell in love during the first week of university. I wasn’t looking for a relationship. I was in fact looking forward to some no strings fun and frolics as a fresher. But it happened, we got bitten by the love bug. We knew it was the real deal and have stayed together ever since. When I first got ill, it was very serious, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate from my description.
Most fully grown men wouldn’t have had a clue how to handle those circumstances. Tom was just an 18 year old boy with patchy facial hair and a penchant for computer games. He’d never had a proper girlfriend before. In fact, these were his first few weeks away from home. By rights he should have run, as fast as he could, in the opposite direction. Instead he nursed me tenderly and with as much patience as my mother would have done. Tom became responsible for everything about me: from making sure I ate, slept, washed, dressed, brushed my hair, cleaned my teeth and all the other things that ordinary couples in the first month of their relationship don’t think about. Hardly the ‘feminist vision’ I had wanted for my adult life.
It was not unusual for him to take hours out of his morning just getting me out of bed. At night time, he sometimes stayed up all night, just watching me, making sure I didn’t do anything daft. He took me to appointments, liaised with doctors, psychiatrists and nurses. He learnt the names of drugs and therapies, memorised what medication I should be taking and made sure I took it, even though this could lead to some blinding rows. He would always sit with me while I cried, listened to me for hours moaning about what an ugly bitchy shit-head I was. He ate microwave food with blunt cutlery because all the sharp knives were thrown away. He accompanied me on every bus and train journey because I couldn’t face them alone, he walked with me in town because all the people could trigger psychosis on a grand scale. Thanks to his love and devotion, I gradually recovered. When I finished my degree in 2004, I proposed to him. He accepted my unusual token of a beef-flavoured hula hoop and, in typical Tom style, ate it. In April 2005, I married the man who saved my life. I have never known a happier day.
Yet this is not the end of the story. Life goes on. I am still bipolar. I have been unable to undertake paid work for more than a few weeks at a time. When I try to work, it often causes a backward step in my health, or the pressure wears me down. On one occasion I tried to work at a hotel. I was so excited about my return to work after a long spell of illness, I bought posh new clothes and got my hair cut to celebrate the occasion. However, after only a few minutes I was having panic attacks and suicidal impulses. I gave it a few nightmare days to allow these feelings to subside, but they didn’t. I quit after four days and did not attempt work again for another year. This is typical of my working pattern. I always try, I give it a go, but I find it so hard. Sometimes I am more successful than the above example, but my placements, when they are not deliberately temporary, always end up being short-lived and usually result in a quite dramatic feeling of burnout. This effective halving of our earnings has meant living in poverty for many years, especially as, for various reasons, we have never received government benefits.
As well as now being an ambitious full time PhD student (sans-funding) with a two hour commute to his university, Tom additionally has to look after me as my carer and work two paid jobs spread over 30 hours a week, to provide us both with just enough to scrape by. He hardly ever takes a day off. Yet in terms of carers, Tom is one of the relatively lucky ones. Most of the time I am high-functioning and capable of doing many jobs independently, although within a limited sphere. I see myself as an equal partner in the marriage, despite not being the bread winner. I take on many of the household duties to relieve pressure from Tom. I cook, clean, shop, wash our clothes, iron and do many other domestic jobs that come with being a housewife. Most days, even though it is not strictly necessary, I will rise from our bed at the same time as him and devote myself all day to the smooth running of what we call ‘Team Jay’. We have come to an arrangement, a working partnership where we both give it everything we’ve got in our separate ways.
I contribute my talents to the household in any way I can, from the domestic chores I listed above to mending broken Freeview boxes and working on ingenious money-saving schemes. I am not a natural housewife, but I find that, when I start to devote myself to something, the jobs become numerous and rewarding. At first it would take me a whole day’s energy just to clean the toilet. These days I can walk a mile to Sainsbury’s and carry £40 worth of shopping home on my back. I plant and tend the herb garden which enables our cheap meals to taste delicious. I fix faulty broadband connections, fetch books from the library and help proof-read Tom’s emails and academic thesis.
I also see my role as being an emotional support to Tom in his very busy life and that involves treating him as he deserves. I am always thinking of little treats I can give him to make his tiring life a bit more fun and less stressful: lingering footrubs after a hard day at the office, an ‘election night’ party because I know his nerdy side would love it. I do everything in my power to make him happy and I put every ounce of my being into doing so. He does the same for me in return. Consequently our home life is often, even when I am in the throws of illness, an extremely joyful affair, full of mutual respect and giving. Yet there is no denying that we are divided along traditional gender lines. Does this compromise my feminism? As a woman who is dependent on her loving (but still inescapably male) husband I can’t say that I have never had doubts.
Being a housewife may not be the job I envisaged myself doing, but I am content and I find myself surprisingly busy. My happy home life, stable relationship and domestic labour is a genuine achievement for me. Often I am so unwell that going to the shops is harder than most people would find running a marathon, or making a simple vegetarian chilli takes for me the effort of cordon bleu cookery. I believe this is the same for many other women in my situation, yet so many of us feel like what we do is worthless when we announce our ‘profession’ to other people.
I don’t want to have to apologise for who I am, or what I do, yet if I get one more bemused look when I explain I’m a 25 year old housewife living in 2007 with no kids, I will scream! In terms of my feminism, I am as committed as ever. I try and contribute to the movement, I write feminist articles for blogs and online zines, I stand up for my beliefs in conversations with family and friends. These days, however, I find myself ashamed when I talk to other women, especially when I suspect they have feminist credentials. In their company I often become flustered and embarrassed. I dread meeting them at Tom’s work or university functions and finding myself, in the ultimate self betrayal, saying the horrid phrase: “Who, me? I’m just a housewife.”
I have told you the two threads to my story: one being my ideal life as an independent woman, the other being the way it’s panned out in reality. I would now like to bring the two threads together, to explore the implications of my story for the feminist movement. I say this because I believe that I am not alone. There are many women who, for whatever reason, can’t become self-sufficient and find their lives revolving around the domestic sphere. Not necessarily because of mental health problems, although I can’t resist sneaking in the statistic that one in four people will suffer a mental illness over the course of their lifetime. As well as ill health or disability, there are plenty of other reasons why so many women can’t avoid dependency on their partner or the state. Maybe they got pregnant and can’t afford childcare, maybe they have legal restrictions on what work they can do, maybe they are under qualified and can’t get a job. Through talking to other women and reflecting on my own experiences, I can say that the views of this under-represented group have massive implications for the feminist movement.
Feminism has over the years become so associated with values of independence, financial self-sufficiency, the wholehearted promotion of a woman’s right to work and equal pay that when you don’t meet those criteria it feels hypocritical to call yourself a feminist. You feel unworthy or like you somehow don’t ‘fit the bill’. Even among enlightened women who know better than to think of feminists as man-hating angry lesbians, the perception remains that to be a feminist you must be a modern woman with a job, money and an education. I suggest that there are millions of women in the UK who don’t feel that this picture describes them, so conclude that they don’t have the right credentials to be a feminist. They are not clever enough. They never went to college. They had six kids rather than going out to work. They are not white or middle class. They can’t walk. They live in a council house. They don’t speak English very well. Consequently, they reject feminists because they see us as an elite clique.
The message has come across that somehow being a housewife isn’t good enough and I think that’s made a lot of women angry, partially fuelling a backlash against feminism. This message has more to do with media representations of feminists than what feminists are saying themselves. I have never read a feminist who said anything other than women shouldn’t be obliged to work in the domestic sphere, they should have the right to work in traditionally male dominated areas and they should be paid an equal amount for doing so. Right on. I have also never read anything that says that should you choose, or find yourself through circumstances, to be a housewife then you can’t also be a feminist.
The common perception of a feminist is of a woman who ‘has it all’. What if you don’t want ‘it all’? What if juggling a career and a family is either not desirable or, in my case, too much for you to handle? What if you need to be taken care of? I do not consider my vulnerability to be a result of my gender, but of my illness. Yet the fact remains that I am in need of assistance from both the health services and my husband to live a ‘normal’ life. If being a feminist means I have to prove I can ‘have it all’, then I can only conclude that I am not well enough to be a feminist! It sounds silly when you see it written down, but consciously or unconsciously there will be many women out there thinking along these very lines.
In health groups, hospitals and voluntary projects, I encounter many women who feel like they can’t be a feminist because they don’t fit the mould. Yet these are often the very people who are in desperate need of liberation, whose lives could be radically improved by engagement with the woman’s movement and its empowering messages. I have gained such strength from feminist writers and activists and it saddens me that these women are missing out. It is hard for any woman to be a feminist, considering the abuse and slander we face from the media and ignorance from much of the population. But if you are a minority within a minority, it is even harder to stand up for what you believe in.
It is the responsibility of all feminists to make the movement more inclusive, more diverse. We can do this by reaching out into the hearts of our communities. I feel that currently too many women’s groups in the UK are centred around university campuses and colleges. I don’t say this to discourage or grumble about the amazing consciousness-raising work that groups of student feminists are undertaking all over the country. However, we have to realise the limitations of this approach and how it may be unknowingly fuelling resentment amongst the wider population. We have to realise that holding our lectures and groups on university campuses can be alienating for those people not involved in higher education and genuinely frightening for those who already feel themselves unworthy feminists.
The next stage of liberation has to be to get the dialogue flowing in all parts of the community: our libraries, mother-and-baby groups, workplaces, schools, pubs and cafes, places of worship and community centres. We must go and spread our messages of equality, empowerment and inner strength in the places that are frequently forgotten about. These are usually the places that we are most scared of: the prison, the immigration centre, the old people’s home, the council estate, the local psychiatric ward. The women in these places need the hope and support that female solidarity can bring more than anyone else and it is indisputable that these groups need more representation within the feminist movement. There are many worthwhile projects that feminists can support within these areas, from female-led advocacy to assistance with campaigning and fund raising for woman-centred projects.
If you can relate to my story in any way, if you are a feminist who breaks away from the media stereotype, then for goodness sake don’t perpetuate the myth and hide in a corner, but shout out the truth! Sometimes the only way to dismantle lies is by proving them wrong with your own actions and example. The message we have to focus on is that anyone can be a feminist, there has to be room in this movement for all. We have to take practical steps to realise that message or the feminist movement is in severe jeopardy of being viewed by most women as an exclusive group of the healthy, educated and rich.
Whether our daily grind involves a laptop or a dishcloth, a spanner or a stethoscope, we must always remember our fundamental equality. Over the coming decades, the movement must broaden its horizons or risk increased isolation. Most importantly we should hold this vital lesson in our minds: the more of us who are waving feminism’s banner and proclaiming its liberating message, the more powerful we become. Maybe it’s time we challenged the common assumption in the women’s movement that housewives need feminism. It would be wiser if we started to see it the other way around: that feminism needs housewives. There’s more to running a happy home than being nifty with a mop: housewives are a talented, dedicated and hardworking bunch with many resources and talents to offer. By publicly forging stronger links with those who work in the domestic sphere, it is my belief that feminism can only be strengthened and the flames of this horrific backlash might finally be extinguished.