Ask A Feminist #1: My friends don’t get it

In our first Ask A Feminist feature, a “spectacularly frustrated” feminist reader is looking for ways to convince her friends that feminism is still relevant…

Dear Jayne,

I’m a feminist, secure and happy in that, but seemingly inarticulate when trying to explain both why I am and why feminism is still needed. More importantly, I struggle to explain this to my own generation, early 20s, and particularly males, in a way that they find accessible and engaging. Almost all my male friends – including my boyfriend – either don’t believe that women are still treated differently or cannot comprehend that the way society is structured is not just inherently normal and natural. What’s more, many of my female friends would be similarly perplexed at my annoyance that they wouldn’t deem themselves feminist.

It is futile to give them a copy of an overtly feminist book, or a highly politicised blog post, or even just quoting a series of statistics (detailing the pay inequality for example), because these things don’t speak to or engage them. What should I do?! It is not that they fundamentally and completely disagree, rather that they’re ignorant but willing to consider other perspectives.

– Spectacularly Frustrated, 23, Newcastle

Firstly, rest assured that we’ve all been there! It can be really difficult to explain something that seems so obvious to you, particularly when you are personally and emotionally invested in it.

I want to start with your boyfriend, who you mention in more detail your email. You say you don’t want to just give your friends a book, but I think in the case of your boyfriend it is wholly reasonable to ask that he spend a bit of time learning about something that is so important to you. Why not buy/borrow him a copy of The Equality Illusion? It describes quite clearly the gender inequality that still exists in the UK today, backing up its claims with plenty of case studies and evidence. It might be a bit of a heavy read, but it will give your boyfriend a basic understanding, enabling you to move on to more engaging and personal discussions about the issues you face as a woman and why you are a feminist.

With the rest of your friends, I think you need to encourage them to look at the world around them and to think about how things could be different. People tend to pay more attention to the conclusions they draw themselves than what someone else tells them they should be thinking. Their immediate responses will probably reflect the usual justifications we hear time and again when we complain about sexism, but that’s because it’s what they’re used to hearing too. Be prepared to come back at these and encourage your friends to think more deeply about what they’re saying. Try working statistics and personal stories naturally into the resulting discussion, rather than just throwing them out as conversation starters.

For example, you could ask them how often they see women’s sport on TV or in the papers. They will probably say women just don’t play sport or that women just aren’t as good at sport as men so no one wants to watch them. You can then lead this into a discussion about gender socialisation – how girls can be put off sport at school because of homophobia (only lesbians play football!) and the pressure to look good all the time. Suggest that maybe the lack of focus on women causes women to take less interest in sport, rather than the other way round. Mention the Sports Personality of the Year debacle, where highly talented sportswomen were completely ignored by a bunch of male award panellists.

Or ask why they think so many women still take their husband’s name when they get married. What does this say about who is most important in a heterosexual relationship? Your female friends may say it’s romantic, but ask them why putting men first is considered normal and romantic.

These might not be the biggest problems facing women, but they are everyday examples of the fact that we don’t live in a 100% equal society, and once your friends recognise this, they’re more likely to listen when you do talk about the big issues. You can also use these everyday examples to lead into discussion of the bigger issues, as they tend to be minor symptoms of major problems.

Another good approach with your male friends is to show how sexism and gender stereotyping affects their lives as well as women’s. Point out the disparity in parental leave – why should men be entitled to so much less than women? Why should they be the ones to bear the financial burden of supporting a child, just because they’re men? This could lead into a discussion of the pay gap and how women earn less and have more limited career opportunities because they end up being the primary caregiver whether they want to be or not.

When they inevitably say that women are just designed to be the main parent, or are naturally more caring, ask them to look around them and see how different individual women are from each other. I bet they have female friends who never want kids and can remember female teachers who were much meaner than their male counterparts. Does it really make sense to generalise about billions of people?! Most people know a variety of men and women with different personalities, interests, temperaments and lifestyles, and the stereotypes tend to melt away in the face of reality.

By encouraging your friends to question the status quo rather than lecturing them about what’s wrong with the world, you’ll help them to see that what they thought was normal and natural is often the result of sexism; hence why you’re into feminism.

These are just a few ideas that I’ve found helpful in my own life – there’s lots of other ways you could approach feminism with your friends – so I’ll open the floor to everyone else: what advice can you give Spectacularly Frustrated? Are there any resources you’ve found useful in getting your family and friends to engage with feminism?

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