Beth Hamilton-Cardus spends a week noting how sexism affects her day-to-day life
It began with a tiny flicker of interest, just a swift glance, which blossomed into a flirtation and ended in heart-wrenching, stomach-churning obsession. My love affair with feminism had become, over the course of mere weeks, a serious relationship, the type that fills your brain all day long and becomes a constant topic of conversation (leading you to bore everyone else around you).
The fault for my affliction lies with Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, a book I’d been vaguely intrigued by, and then gulped down with increasing exhilaration as though, in book terms, I’d found ‘the one’.
I promptly ordered The Female Eunuch (at that stage having not been aware of the criticism of Germaine Greer’s transphobia) and begin excitedly browsing online for other musings from potential feminist soul-mates. I began to write short stories inspired by all this mind-broadening content, just like I churned out chronic poetry in honour of my first love. This time around, however, I don’t have to break up with Mary Wollstonecraft for being a bit selfish and leaving dirty mugs all over the flat – this is a relationship that can develop and thrive throughout my life time.
Having begun this dalliance with feminism, I decided to record my reflections on this burgeoning romance over the course of a week, attempting to note down every time I felt I was treated in a sexist manner, and to consider how feminist theory links to my daily life. As you’ll see, I discovered I could write a dissertation on how much came up.
But first, a bit of background. At 27, feminism is not a new concept to me – as an English literature student, I ended up surfing the odd feminist wave, and was even vaguely involved in a campaign to publicise the discrepancies in marks awarded to male and female students, as it had transpired that the men’s grades jumped up by around 10% when their gender was known to the marker (however, I will admit to letting this slide when it began to cut into my valuable pub time).
But I was not greatly impressed by the feminists I met as a student. One was adamant that men couldn’t be feminists and also that I could not be one, seeing as I liked handbags.
It felt like this thinking represented yet another stick to beat women with – just as there is allegedly a correct way to appear feminine, there seemed to be a correct way to appear to be a feminist, with ironic hats, hairy armpits and a lack of humour on the subject seemingly being mandatory.
Besides, I had a lot of male friends, and felt that there was pressure put on them to conform to stereotypes too – this was a far off time when men taking a primary role in childcare was still considered to be an anomaly, for example (I know, almost unimaginable).
By the time I went on to train as a community educator, the level playing field I’d assumed I’d enjoyed at school and university was starting to look decidedly wonky. I began to realise that everyone around me, from lecturers to my parents’ friends, just thought that my male equivalents were a little bit better than me and my fellow females, and that the concept of the ‘likely lad’ was still alive and well (despite equal opportunities policies apparently dictating every inch of our lives). I was indeed living in a world where men were more likely to get top marks or be offered good jobs than women.
Despite such gripes, I still did not directly link such irritations to the concept of gender inequality as a society-wide issue. I continued to accept that working women simply had to work harder to prove themselves and, simultaneously, look perfect. I attempted to shrug off these issues, partly due to gratitude that, in comparison with previous generations, young women now are apparently allowed to have it all. Except it became increasingly clear that this isn’t merely an option, it’s become an expectation which pushes many women to the brink of collapse on an almost daily basis.
In our efforts to embrace all we’ve apparently been so kindly given, while also keeping up in the race towards those feminine ideals which are still expected of us (perfect grooming and boundless maternal skills), I have witnessed the women of my generation and background, including myself, dropping like stressed out flies, albeit flies with a tidy bikini line and the latest iPhone. At this point, in my struggle to put aside the gargantuan to-do list that society had forced on me in favour, simply, of happiness, I read How to be a Woman and had a thoroughly cartoonish light bulb moment.
As my mind opened to the possibilities of feminism, I realised that every time I’d quietly wondered to myself “is that a bit sexist?”, the answer has pretty much always been a resounding yes. Of course it is – if they wouldn’t treat you like that if you were a man, then that is sexist. No wonder Germaine Greer (see disclaimer above) is so keen to illuminate society’s disparaging attitude to so-called female intuition – which is really just the seriously undervalued ability to understand others. If women allowed themselves to listen every time their ‘spidey senses’ tell them that how they are being treated is a bit off, then there’d be a full blown revolution. Or a lot of men making jokes about PMT, one or the other.
I came to realise that almost everything in my life that had been so thoroughly pissing me off and making me feel inadequate could be linked directly to society’s treatment and expectations of my gender. The family members that think it’s almost good of my husband to allow me to earn more money than he does, but consider it to be ‘disgusting’ that I can’t cook (don’t even get me started on all the people who refuse to believe that I’ve kept my own name and address our Christmas cards accordingly).
The colleagues who assumed that planning my wedding day would be the only topic of any interest to me, and who were appalled that I didn’t see it as an excuse to be a princess for a day. The friends who want to talk about weight loss constantly, who congratulate each other for dropping a dress size but not for the qualities like kindness or sense of humour which led to the friendship in the first place (and not just friends – my mum is only just beginning to accept that I’m okay with having gone up one dress size over the past 10 years).
So, back to my week of recording every incident of sexism I experienced.
I have the day off work, so I spend my afternoon working on a short story. I’m interrupted by my dad, who’s popped round and seems to be expecting to stay for a chat. I send him packing as I’m literally in the middle of writing a word, which doesn’t seem to be a popular move despite me having spoken to him on the phone for half an hour yesterday. I wonder if this grumbling would have ensued if I was his son, if he would expect cups of tea and nattering even when I’m busy doing something that matters to me a great deal. I think, not for the first time, how difficult I’m finding it to have time and space to myself, and promptly go on Amazon to order A Room of One’s Own. (I’m all for resolving angst through book purchasing).
Later, I walk past the ‘beer garden’ (or rather the smoking area) of a nearby pub, where I’m assailed by a young gentleman who’s displays great interest in how I am and what I’m doing. I consider whether men think being chatted up just for being female is taken as a compliment – in my case it is not. I am also forced to spend part of my evening being patted at by a man old enough to be my grandfather, who I suspect believes this allows him to get away with being a flirt. I have been told many times, always by older men of course, that this is one of the perks of ageing, and that it is the woman’s role to take this in good part, seeing as the man is now presumably too old to be an actual sexual predator. These men never seem to ask young women whether they mind this – clearly, whatever age they are, some men are simply programmed to believe that being a sex pest is charming and they’re not going to allow the truth to get in the way of this.
I end the evening by doing some sewing in front of America’s Next Top Model, and consider whether this is exactly what the patriarchy would wish me to do. I console myself by thinking that Tyra is always in favour of being ‘fierce’, that she controls her own image and has made millions from it (admittedly this image does seem to consist largely of pouting into a wind machine) and that, even if the cast occasionally earn their crust through shivering in bikinis, at least if the Bechdel test were applied to TV, America’s Next Top Model would pass, as the contestants are far too busy bitching about bad weaves and cleaning rotas to talk about men.
As for the sewing, I am at least doing it through choice, plus cross-stitch is a much healthier way to unwind than drinking wine or taking valium.
As we prepare for bed, my husband and I continue our long discussion on whether or not to have children – what with all this feminist thought swirling around my brain, I can’t help but conclude that people generally seem to have children because they think they should, that it is in part inspired by the egotism of creating another version of yourself, that most would-be mothers grossly underestimate the commitment raising a child requires, and that I still fundamentally want to have time to myself, rather than expelling all my energy through combining long working hours with weekends at soft play areas and evenings spent dealing with unpleasant bodily functions. Then I think about how adorable fat little knees are and my womb aches – seeing as becoming a parent clearly makes little logical sense, it should have been obvious that the hormones would have to storm on in there with a casting vote.
Last night, the whole baby debate revisited me in the form of dream – I am holding a tiny baby (gender non-specific) which I then drop on the cobbles of George Square at the University of Edinburgh campus, where I spent my student days. As it’s spilling brain matter all over the place, I have to rush to get it repaired at a hairdresser. Clearly, I’m worried about being able to cope with parenthood, fearing that I’ll destroy my imagined child due to my own aspirations.
Or I’ve been watching too much neurosurgery on Grey’s Anatomy.
Later that day, I see an adorable three-year-old girl running excitedly along the pavement in a powder pink coat, and I decide that I’d like to be a mum, although I still don’t want to completely subsume myself in being a parent when I feel I’m not really done with creating myself yet.
At work, I double-check with a male colleague that I’m following the right IT procedure – even though I am, he instantly leaps across the room to look over my shoulder and ensure that I’m managing. I would previously have considered this to be over-zealous helpfulness, but I just find it condescending now.
In the evening, I am meant to be doing ironing but decide to allow myself a night off. I don’t think I would have fared well as a 1950s housewife – I have to leave virtually every domestic task to my husband because I’m both inept and utterly bored by chores, so thank God for full-time employment.
I’ve had another dream inspired by my feminist musings – I was struggling to slide down a giant banister wearing a long evening gown and heels, at the bottom of which I am greeted by the cast of The Only Way is Essex, who politely inform me that those jeans I wear sometimes give me a muffin top, which I respond to with smiling gratitude. It’s fairly obvious that my dream represents my contemplations on society’s expectations of how women should look, and how we struggle to achieve this; it’s also pretty disappointing that no one from Jersey Shore bothered to turn up to make me feel bad about myself.
Later, I have a chat with my mum about How to be a Woman, which I lent her with many warnings about the references to porn it contains (she’s a former Brown Owl and a church elder; I want her to be emancipated, just not shocked, appalled and emancipated).
My mum’s response to the book that has recently become my bible is that she’s finding it difficult to read without feeling sorry for the teenage Moran – I try to convince her that this is kind of the point of the book, that young women do have difficulties with establishing their identities and this needs to be addressed, but I’m not sure I succeed.
It strikes me that, unless women like my mother are willing to examine troubling gender-related issues, like the emotional mincer that is adolescence for most young women, nothing will change for the second sex.
I’ve been rushing about all day, due to multiple over-run meetings where my own politeness prevents me from an early escape, meaning that I don’t have any lunch until 4.30pm. During a chat with my mum that night, I begin to wonder whether my gender has anything to do with my inability to say no and place my own needs first (even those really basic human needs like sustenance and regular toilet breaks).
Put it this way, I’ve lost count of the number of times my mum has skipped lunch or made it home an hour or two late in her effort to do everything she possibly can for every client she comes across.
My dad pretty much had his lunch at 12pm every day of his working life – and he’s the one who ended up in management (so perhaps he had the right idea).
This doesn’t stop mum and me querying the success of all those women who appear to scale the career ladder due to behaving like the worst type of men, the ones who favour aggression over sensitivity, even in the ‘caring’ professions.
I’ve been feeling for some time that being sexist in the workplace is clearly not just the reserve of men – even in the voluntary sector, a female-dominated area, I have seen men encouraged towards promotion over women who were more capable, as though any man who deigns to work for a charity must be tremendously gifted and just darn wonderful to boot. It’s also the first day of my period, which would inspire more ire if it wasn’t for Germaine’s suggestion that we shouldn’t treat menstruation as an illness (although, to be honest, it feels remarkably like being ill, what with the tiredness, the grumpiness and the feeling of being turned inside out).
It might make me a failure in the her eyes, but I’m not going to be tasting my menstrual blood any time soon, so I’m clearly not keeping up the emancipation standards.
This evening, I have spent over an hour hand-making a mothers’ day card – I’ve been hassling my husband all week to simply go out and buy one for his mum.
The differences between the genders are becoming clearer to me every day (in this case, in terms of women being brought up to be religiously diligent, while men get away with being more slap-dash), as well as the realisation that this is purely society-led.
I also watch White Heat, as tearing apart offensively obvious, wilfully anachronistic television is a hobby of mine. I am particularly offended by Charlotte, an alleged staunch feminist, going weak at the knees for a posh tool pretending to be a socialist (who actually shows himself to be utterly conservative in most situations, except when it comes to shagging). The programme appears to suggest that emancipation automatically leads to sleeping with undesirables, and we all know that in TV land, such sexual freedom for women can only lead to profound unhappiness and botched abortions.
I’m in St Andrews today with my parents as a sort of early mothers’ day celebration. At lunch, we discuss Mary’s Bottom Line, a Channel 4 series about Mary Portas’ efforts to manufacture 100% British knickers – a programme I found surprisingly moving, given that it’s about pants.
I’m particularly taken by the story of a young man going to work at the knickers factory for the sake of his child – he’s also annoyingly better at operating a sewing machine than I am after months of attempts.
My dad seems dubious about men having the ability to sew as well as women, as he feels they wouldn’t be as dexterous.
Despite my assertions that, historically speaking, men have been pioneers within sewing, being the first tailors and embroiderers, he remains unconvinced. I can see that many people readily accept truisms around what men and women excel in, believing that such differences are justified by nature, rather than being created by society.
Our lunch is rounded off by me putting my debit card down to pay and the female waiter assuming that the card belongs to my dad.
As we wander round the shops, we notice that the students in St Andrews appear to be involved in some kind of large-scale fancy dress event – it’s not clear what the theme is but the men are all dressed in plus fours or lederhosen, while the women are wenches. While everyone, irrespective of gender, looks similarly silly, I note that it’s only the women who are also expected to look both sexy and servile – and surely young women should aspire to more than that.
I’ve spent the morning flicking through a book of St Trinian’s cartoons that I bought yesterday and come to the conclusion that, while the films (especially the recent ones) can depict some of the most disturbing examples of ‘school girl totty’ fantasies that can be dreamed up by middle-aged male producers and then forced into a franchise apparently designed to be enjoyed by the whole family, Ronald Searle’s original cartoons may just have a touch of feminism to them.
For a start, there is the focus, almost entirely, on girls and women, in the form of the terrifyingly rebellious pupils and the lackadaisical teachers. None of them conform to the stereotypes of women of the 1940s, when spinsters were meant to be repressed and the school girls should be neat and lisping.
The anarchic little girls in particular are non-conformists who can misbehave as well as any boy – they drink, burn down houses, steal hippos, drug sporting opponents and behead each other with total abandon. I’m not sure whether there are many similarly joyful, intriguing portrayals of teenage girls produced now.
Although feminism and I are now going steady, I’m still discovering new things about it all the time, and am continually reconstituting my ideas on the subject.
The fundamental problem I had with those first feminists I encountered at university was that, for them, feminism was prescription-only and for me this seemed about as emancipating as a Nuts reader thinking that being a proper woman requires hairlessness – both viewpoints are about putting women in boxes.
For me, feminism has to be about knocking down the sides of any box we’re placed in, and demanding to be treated as, first and foremost, a person. I think feminism is too important to just buy into what anyone else tells you it should be anyway – my interest may have been ignited by Moran, but that doesn’t mean I agree with her wholeheartedly, and I certainly differ from Elizabeth Wurtzel and Greer on some points.
Rather than espousing any one theorist completely, I want to be able to continually construct my own theory of feminism, one that allows me to both watch trashy TV and wax lyrical on inequalities in the workplace, one that can leap off the page into my real world.
For me a crucial concept within feminism, the aspect that underpins my commitment and ‘marriage’ to it, is summed up by a quote from Henrik Ibsen, which I discovered in The Female Eunuch – “My duty to myself.”
The idea of having a duty to yourself is crucial for women of all ages in the modern world – acknowledging what you deserve and working towards it should be at the heart of all feminism, I believe.
I continually come across women of all ages who focus solely on their duty to others, who give so much to their friends and yet never bestow a 10th of the kindness they offer to others on themselves.
I myself have, during periods of stress, put everything I needed to do for everyone else first before taking care of myself; the need to reverse this and acknowledge a duty to myself is why my auntie sent me a card last year stating “Every day, reserve a little time just for yourself”, why my husband has banned my lists of things I ‘should’ do, and is, I have found, a fundamental element of happiness.
That is the real reason for my continuing love affair with feminism – being a feminist helps me to be a happier person and that’s a crucial factor in any relationship.
First image of street art depicting a cartoon girl underneath which is written “HATE BOYS,” uploaded by Flickr user energetic spell. Second picture of some knitting and a Penguin “A Room of One’s Own” mug, uploaded by Flickr user satakieli. Third picture of a loveheart sweet reading “JUST SAY NO,” uploaded by Flickr user donnamarijne. Fourth picture of a sign with a stick figure man and woman; next to the man, the sign reads “NO SHIRT NO SERVICE” and next to the woman, the sign reads “NO SHIRT FREE BEER,” uploaded by Flickr user Lynn Friedman.