It would be unfair for me to state initially that I am an expert on feminism, or that I know of all the facts, situations, testimonies and stories surrounding what I am about to say. It would also be a lie, to say that at some point in this essay I am not going to contradict myself, because undoubtedly I probably will. All I am asking from you, as a reader and audience, for this essay is some open-mindedness and willingness to listen, because I really think I may be able to clear a few things up about what it means to me to be a feminist. I also ask that you respect my opinion, and in return I will respect yours. Please comment any thoughts below.
Let’s start with the definition of feminism. The Oxford Dictionary states that feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of gender equality. This means that feminism is a publicly supported or widely commended political and societal cause that supports the idea that men and women should have equal opportunities and rights in all aspects of life, e.g. political, societal and economical. Personally, when someone asks me for my definition of a feminist, I ask them if they think that men and women should be equal to one another, if they say yes, then I reply that this is what feminism is – the belief that with effort men and women can be equal in a fair and just society. A lot of people, especially teenagers my age, seem to think that feminism is not a valid cause anymore, and that sexism does not exist. My argument is that sexism is less of an issue than it was 50 years ago, of course, but that does not mean that the fight is over. Ironically, a lot of people who tell me that feminism is pointless are male.
I am a feminist, and I am also a heterosexual, healthy, normal 15 year old girl who is barely any different to the next person. Feminists do not have a certain shape or mould that they all fit into, they certainly don’t all believe exactly the same thing and we all are ordinary people. Of course, in any population of people who believe in the same cause, there are exceptions that distort one’s view of that community, but this can change. It can change by educating people, especially young girls and boys, on what feminism is, the validity and prominence of sexism in society today all over the world and how these causes affect everyone’s day to day life.
A commonly asked question to me is ‘what do the feminists want changing, specifically?’. To me, this is an extremely easy question to answer because there aren’t any specifics. This is like asking a victim of racism what he wants changing about the racist views – the change that we want is the end of the racism or sexism or homophobia or any number of the pressing issues that still exist today. There aren’t specifics, it just needs to stop. I think that the best way to stop this is to begin to unlearn all the gender stereotyping lessons we have picked up unconsciously during our childhood and adulthood, and this is what I am trying to do.
A speech by an inspirational and incredible author called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie really influenced me and my ideas of feminism, gender equality/stereotyping and sexism. There is a particular story she tells of when she went for a night out with her male friend called Louis, and had her car parked by a car park attendant. Because the attendant was so, well, attentive, she gave the man a tip. As quoted “As we were leaving, I decided to leave him a tip. I opened my bag, put my hand inside my bag, brought out my money that I had earned from doing my work, and gave it to the man. And he, this man who was very grateful and happy, took the money from me, looked across at Louis, and said “Thank you, sir!” Louis looked at me surprised, and asked, “Why is he thanking me? I didn’t give him the money.” Then I saw realization dawn on Louis’s face. The man believed that whatever money I had had ultimately come from Louis, because Louis is a man.” Chimamanda is a Nigerian lady and this happened in Nigeria. What scares me is almost the exact same situation happened to me and my parents a few weeks ago when we were out at dinner. Do people honestly think that this is normal, right or fair? It is an issue, whether you choose to ignore it or not. Therefore, I ask for an ounce of respect when I ask those who call my cause ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unnecessary’ to at least look around them first.
I think the biggest issue here right on our doorstep in the UK is this; there are slightly more women than men in the world, roughly 52% compared to 48%, yet most of the prestigious and powerful positions in the work place are held by men when the women competing for those jobs are just as qualified, suited and right for that job. This was referred to a lot in the recent US elections in the form of the ‘Lily Ledbetter Law’. Obviously, there are exceptions where the male is better than the female in terms of qualifications, and this is fine. Now, men and women are different in many ways. Women can have babies, men can’t (yet), men are generally physically stronger than women, although there are many exceptions. We have different hormones, sexual organs and biological abilities – these things cannot be changed. Power used to be determined by physical strength, and therefore generally because the male is more likely to be physically stronger than the female, men had the higher up jobs. This made sense a thousand years ago where strength was the best attribute for survival. Now a leader has to be more attentive, innovative, creative, and intellectual. There are no biological things like hormones that make these attributes solely for men. All these things women and men both are, so why is it that the Lily Ledbetter Law still applies? It seems that we have evolved, but our ideas of gender have not evolved with us. Whether you’re a feminist or not, this must seem absurd?
Furthermore, different names are given to the different things both men and women do in the workplace. For example, if a woman leaves a meeting to speak to her child on the phone, she is said to have other priorities and is not seen as capable for the job. If a man leaves a meeting for the same reason, he is seen as dedicated and caring. A man never has to worry about looking too smart to go to work; a woman is more likely to be more worried than the man about how her appearance comes across to people because of the characteristics her appearance will entail. The woman is told that she must look attractive, but not too attractive, for example. This happens to men as well, but the characteristics his appearance entails are fewer: e.g. does he look smart enough and therefore serious enough? If anyone’s seen the film ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ then you’ll catch my drift here. (If you haven’t seen it I recommend it, SJP is awesome in it).
Another point that Chimamanda makes in her speech, is that women are taught to be ashamed of their femininity. From a worryingly young age, girls are taught to compromise for men. We raise girls to see each other as competitors for male attention, yet they are discouraged from wearing revealing clothes, from walking around the streets alone at night, from wearing too much make-up; God forbid should a girl bring her boyfriend home, but a boy’s girlfriend? Fine. We control and confine girls too much to this competition of ‘attractiveness’. We teach girls to be ashamed of themselves for their natural femininity – ‘cover yourself’, ‘put it away’ etc. We praise girls for virginity, but not boys – which doesn’t really make sense seeing as the loss of virginity usually involves…well, you know… two people.
We also teach girls shame. Victim blaming is a very common example. Take the hypothetical example of a gang rape crime, where a teenage girl is raped by four males. When this has happened in the past, some people have had the cheek to ask what she was doing in a room alone with four boys anyway. This not only is an example of disgusting inhumane and inconsiderate voicing, but it shows that people are taught to expect so little of men that the idea of them being savage sexual beings is somehow okay, and so now it’s the victim’s fault, because the woman is believed to be inherently guilty. I, for one, will not cover myself up because a male cannot control himself. I am not asking for attention, I am not asking for you to make a comment on how slutty I look or how I shouldn’t wear revealing clothes because I will be more likely to become sexually abused by someone and I am definitely not asking to be raped. I shouldn’t have to. The slogan of the movement ‘SlutWalk’ (which originated in Toronto when a police official stated that a rape victim was asking for it because she looked slutty) ‘my little black dress does not mean yes’ comes to mind. Slut shaming is one of the most prominent features of feminism and rape culture that affect our young people today all over the world. Girls, do not be ashamed to wear that low cut top if you want to, it does not say anything about whether you want sexual attention or not. Be proud of your femininity. (Disclaimer: I am not encouraging girls to be raped, I am discouraging the idea that women are inherently guilty for looking how they want to and that it’s somehow more okay for a male to not be able to control his penis around a woman).
I think everyone on this planet is subject to gender stereotyping. An easy example of this is if two teenagers of opposite genders who come from the same social and economic background and who have the same amount of pocket money go on a date, the male will almost always be expected to pay. It’s a huge pressure on the male, because he has to display his masculinity. I wonder why the policy isn’t something that makes more sense, like ‘whoever has more should pay’. On saying that however, due to the historical situation, the man will have more money anyway and so still pay. Is the male just being kind, or is he proving his masculinity to the female he is trying to impress? Why can’t the female pay? why can’t she prove her femininity and try to impress the male? Because gender stereotyping teacher us that the female should not overpower the male, the male must sweep the woman off her feet and not the other way round. By doing so, the female emasculates him. Girls are taught how to cater to the fragile egos that boys have because of how we bring them up. Boys are blue, girls are pink; girls play with baby dolls, boys play with fake guns and toy planes; this isn’t fair. We are not fair to boys in the way we bring them up because we teach them to be afraid of vulnerability, fear and weakness. By raising children differently, in 50 years’ time, the boy might not have the pressure of having to pay anymore and to me, that’s a cause worth fighting for.
These teachings are what I am trying to unlearn, I am trying to teach myself to not conform to what I have been brought up to believe. On the first date, I’ll insist on paying
My little sister actually asked me the other day when I was explaining to her what feminism is whether I felt worried that boys and men would feel intimidated by the fact that I am a feminist. I told her that it didn’t worry me, or had ever occurred to me to worry, because the sort of boys/men who feel intimidated by me are exactly the sort of boys who I am definitely not interested in. As a female, I am taught to aspire to marriage, and if I am not married by my late forties then I have probably experienced some deep personal failure. Men don’t get this; if they’re not married by their mid-forties then they just haven’t found their match yet. This is something my unmarried auntie gets a lot of pressure from. It still happens today when it shouldn’t.
Someone posted a status on Facebook yesterday, and said that it’s easy for women to say ‘no’ to the oppression that they face and ignore it, but the reality is it’s not as easy as that, although it should be. Many people, mainly boys, have said to me that my argument of feminism is very interesting, but he doesn’t think like that – and this is exactly the problem with gender. Many people do not actively think about gender and notice gender. Although feminism is encouraging women and men to say no and not conform, it’s not as easy as that. The reality is that we need a cause like feminism to actually get people to actively think about the oppression they are facing – boys and girls. Imagine how better the world would be if we didn’t have the pressure of gender stereotyping?! We would be able to be true to ourselves and change the culture that pushes us to conform into these gender cages. People make culture, culture does not make people – people can change the ideas of gender, gender shouldn’t be able to change people. Some say that it’s within our culture for women to be subordinate to men and to bow down, like they did in the past. But, the point is, the past is the past, we don’t live in the middle ages anymore, we live in the 21st century where sexism and feminism is still something going on. Culture is about the preservation and continuation of people in society, and it is constantly changing so the idea that we can’t change it because it is in our culture is frankly, ridiculous.
As you can probably tell, I’m angry – furious, in fact, at the injustice gender serves us all on a daily basis. We should all be angry because it affects everyone all over the world. And the worse thing is, with a conscious effort on all of our parts, we could change it, or at least begin to change it so that in 50 or 100 years our grandchildren can live in a world where they are actually equal. Human beings have already proved that they have the ability to remake and regenerate themselves into better people, so although I am angry I am very hopeful. I’m hopeful that in time, as the past has shown us, if we keep on fighting for feminism we will create a fairer world gradually. This will happen if we change we way we bring up our children; start unlearning the ideas of gender that do not suit who we personally are; encourage people to reclaim the word ‘feminist’ to describe themselves; discourage the stereotype of feminists being lesbians who hate bras and don’t shave; and dismantle the injustice we serve men and women every day in all aspects of life. The biggest feminist I know is my dad, and he is also a kind, gentle, understanding, intelligent and masculine man. Thank you for reading.