Feminism has changed, but the backlash has not

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Illustration: Kyla Borg
Illustration: Miss Frantic, Kyla Borg

I am a feminist, and I am tired. Tired of having the same old debate, tired of being boxed into the same old stereotypes, sick to the teeth of answering the same old arguments from people who appear to have a patchy idea of what we stand for.

Reading the latest Palatinate Comment competition was particularly exhausting.  A narrow debate on the semantics of the term inevitably degenerated into a condemnation of the whole movement, with only the single pro-feminist piece exclusively debating language.  The other pieces ranged from making some pertinent remarks to relying on the same old depressing stereotypes that have dogged the movement from its start.

I am suspicious of the feminism being “outdated” debate. It was not even a century ago that women could not vote. And that is only the most basic recognition of citizenship. It was barely fifty years ago that contraception became widespread, twenty when women really started breaking into the workplace. To expect the legacy of thousands of years of women being second-class citizens to just vanish in this minuscule amount of time seems to me logically…well, a little daft.

People who praise these gains but feel current feminism goes “too far” forget how deeply contested that progress was at the time. Fun fact. We rightly celebrate suffragettes and suffragists, who campaigned for basic human rights. But at the time they were hated and condemned in much the same terms as modern feminists- Google “anti-suffragette posters”. And while you’re at it, look up the campaign for women to graduate from Cambridge in 1896. At a time that could conceivably have been within living memory when we were born, people rioted at the thought of women receiving full recognition for their studies.

It was not even a century ago that women could not vote. And that is only the most basic recognition of citizenship.

People who feel that feminists are illogical, unreasonable in their demands or simply unnecessary should be aware that these attitudes have been around right from the start. Perhaps the latest rash of criticism is at this point a logical response to feminism. But to me at least it looks a lot more like the same old story than a new one.

Reading through these articles, I found myself mentally doing the same thing as a formidable former teacher of mine. At points where our essays got a little vague or were backed up with insufficient evidence, she would scrawl in the margins “woolly!” or “yes, but?” or simply an irate “so?”.  Obviously, I do not wish to dismiss these opinions out of hand. But it was a shame some intelligent points were shot through with these unfortunate stereotypes.

For one thing, I would like to take this opportunity to bust once and for all the myth that men are not involved in feminism. At the university FemSoc, which I am involved in, the men make up some of the most committed members. Nicholas Burbach is currently treasurer of Castle FemSoc. Even Cuth’s Rugby has been cooperating with FemSoc last term. Feminism recognises that all genders suffer from rigid societal roles, and to say that feminism cannot include men is what is truly divisive.

A couple of articles maintained that women have mostly achieved equality- which, echoing my teacher, I would certainly deem “woolly”.  There is discrimination that goes deeper than legal restriction.  Attitudes may be hard to pin down, but they matter.  What is a little girl going to think about female sexuality today when a popstar twerking is more widely condemned than any atrocity committed that week? And there are still instances of genuinely jaw-dropping sexism –  look up the man called Kim who was only employed  when he made it clear on his CV he was a man.

If any of the writers were to come to one of FemSoc’s weekly meetings, they would see people wearing dresses- and even a touch of eyeliner or mascara here and there.

Finally, there were the downright bizarre views that cropped up – like the idea that feminists condemn women for wearing dresses and make -up, or were obsessed with legislation and “red tape”. If any of the writers were to come to one of FemSoc’s weekly meetings, they would see people wearing dresses- and even a touch of eyeliner or mascara here and there. We’ve so far restrained ourselves from barring them from discussions.

And if they came along, they would know that legal restrictions are not our main concern. Mostly what we are about nowadays is social change; for example, calling out everyday instances of sexism.  Look up the Everyday Sexism twitter project to get some idea. Another big development, which none of the writers acknowledged, was the growth of intersectional feminism, which looks at how different forms of oppression – race, class, gender, sexuality, mental health – interconnect. It is one way the movement remains new and exciting today.

In fact, I would like to invite all the people who critiqued feminism in the competition to come to one of FemSoc’s meetings, and see what we’re actually about.  Then perhaps we can leave these old stereotypes behind for a more productive, honest discussion of equality.

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