A few months ago I read Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, a rallying cry to reclaim feminism. Very funny and heartbreakingly honest, I re-read it almost immediately. One paragraph especially stood out:
“Again and again over the last few years I turned to modern feminism to answer questions that I had but found that what had once been the one most exciting, incendiary and effective revolution of all time had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read.”
Something shifted inside me when I read those words. The impact it has had on how I view the world and my place in it has been immense.
I have always considered myself a feminist, but I was a “closet feminist” as I was not a fan of feminism’s supposed representatives. Academics in ivory towers co-opted a movement that conveniently gave them a syllabus, potential tenure and material for magazine articles. That’s not what feminism is about.
Not that I’m knocking the great thinkers – Germaine Greer et al are great writers to read, but you do not have to study them to call yourself a feminist. Feminism belongs to all women and it is time we took it back. As Moran says in her book, the fact that you have the power to have an opinion at all makes you a feminist.
Feminism transcends class, race and culture. Feminism lives in the real world, not in a library. Whether it is the shelf-packer who fears for her personal safety on public transport when she wears a skirt, or the financial executive who ignores a pinch on the bum because it is simply not worth making a fuss. Excuse the simplistic examples, but this stuff happens every day. Yet some women worry about whether dying their hair makes them less of a feminist.
The new feminism also defies gender. I know men who are greater feminists than many women, simply because they see women as equal partners in life and work, and would never assume to pigeon-hole, disrespect or subjugate them. Even Moran partly attributes her feminism to her husband. Not all men are pigs and not all women are saints – we are all people with different strengths and weaknesses.
The old feminism developed a reputation for exclusivity, hypocrisy and judgment. Just because you kept your maiden name when you got married does not mean you are fighting for the cause.
I knew a feminist academic who was vocal in her disgust at Redi Direko changing her surname to Tlhabi when she married. This same academic looked the other way when her husband had an indiscreet affair, refusing to acknowledge it when friends tried to help her – the same friends who changed their surnames when they got married but would never put up with a cheating husband.
Who is more of a feminist? The woman who keeps her name, but lives in denial and sacrifices her beliefs to keep a man? Or the woman who changes her name then gets divorced, but admits she made a mistake and starts a new life? Feminism begins with self-respect, not symbols.
I recently worked on a strategy that involved research among low-to-middle income teenage girls. The information made me despair. Feminism was seen as something for the elite and young girls felt “spoken down to” about it. They regarded feminism as a polemic that ignored their reality, which naturally led to them rejecting it. Ironically, they dreamed of success and making their own way in the world. It seems the current owners of feminism have alienated the next generation of women who could best lead it into the future.
And this is why we are our own worst enemy when it comes to rallying our cause. By mocking and decrying other women for saying they’re not feminists, we become the very reason many women are reluctant to call themselves feminists. This has been more effective in diminishing the feminist movement than any patriarchy could have hoped for.
But guess what? It’s 2012 and we make our own rules! You can have children, stay at home and be a feminist. You can lead a JSE-listed company and be a feminist. You can have your father walk you down the aisle and be a feminist. You can wear a lace push-up bra and be a feminist. You can wear red lipstick and be a feminist. You can dress like a man and be a feminist. You can dress like a woman and be a feminist. You can read trashy novels and be a feminist. You can have kinky sex and be a feminist. You can bake and be a feminist. You can love your husband and be a feminist.
Of course, we should absolutely look back and thank our forebears for their sacrifices, but it’s time to carve out a new feminism for ourselves – a feminism where the only thing we will be burning is our elitism and preconceptions.
Now excuse me while I put on a pair of heels and go show the world why I am a brilliant woman who respects myself and others.