Monday, 8 March 2010

I'm not a feminist, but...

Many years ago, I went to a press conference involving the two then government women's ministers, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Jay, and their colleague Helen Liddell, launching some initiative on women I now forget. I asked all three of them whether they would define themselves as feminists. One by one, they all squirmed and wriggled and said something along the lines of, ooh, well, er, no I wouldnt say a FEMINIST exactly, but....
This is daft. I knew all three well enough to know that in private that's exactly how they'd describe themselves (in fairness, I guess they'd now be happy to do it in public: this was back in the late 1990s, the Labour government was new and very nervous, and I was working for the Daily Mail.)
But it's also very common. "I'm not a feminist, but..." is a mad thing for any thinking woman to say. (But what? But on the whole, I'm in favour of having the vote? But ideally, I wouldn't stone women to death for adultery? But I'm not a total idiot either?)
The problem is with feminism's image. To many women it equals killjoy, man-hater, harridan: it equals not being allowed to shave your legs, banned from appreciating fashion or fun, lacking a sense of humour. This American poll illustrates the problem nicely: 70 per cent of American women wouldn't call themselves a feminist, but when feminism is defined for them neutrally (and accurately) as 'someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes', suddenly 65 per cent of them are feminists after all.
Similarly while over a quarter think the women's movement made their lives worse, when asked what made their lives better, the answers - equal pay, or more choices in life - lead straight back to the scary old women's movement. We just don't like to give it the credit.
So for anyone still hesitating, here are some myths about feminism laid to rest.
1. It's rubbish that stay at home mothers can't be feminists. Yes, Germaine Greer argued that economic independence from men was the foundation stone of women's freedom. If you rely solely on a male breadwinner for the longterm, you need to know you're gambling your economic future on the risk of divorce, bereavement or male redundancy.
But feminism is also about the right to make your own intelligent choices: it's about saying that nurturing other people shouldn't be regarded as 'lesser' than paid work, just because it's women who more often do it. Feminism can be about attacking the way working life is organised (to suit men with a wife at home) rather than about forcing women to fit into a male pattern of work.
2. It's not compulsory to hate men. Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century philosopher and early feminist, said she did not wish women 'to have power over men, but over themselves'. You can live with and love someone without having to be completely subservient to them.
3. Feminists do wear lipstick. They just do it knowing precisely who they're dressing up to please (could be men, could be themselves, doesn't matter) and they don't torture themselves to unnatural and/or ruinously expensive degrees trying to meet some loony vision of female attractiveness (corsets so tight you faint, cosmetic surgery that leaves you maimed, a size zero figure that means you can't actually eat).
4. Stuff doesn't happen by accident. If you enjoy having the right to vote, to get a mortgage in your own name, to get contraception without requiring your husband's permission, to be paid the same as the man sat next to you, to get pregnant without getting sacked, to an education, to say no - then you should give credit where credit's due. Happy International Women's Day.


  1. Ive been hovering for a while now but wanted to say i really enjoy your blog. this is a brilliant post, such a misunderstood phrase, and so well put. Thank you.

  2. I love this post! In light of some posts i've been seeing recently it really does bring up some very important points :)

  3. I don't know why Britain doesn't celebrate International Womans Day more. Here it is absolutely huge, with men everywhere carrying around flowers today to give to their mothers, girlfriends, wives, sisters, any important woman in their life. I like it.

  4. Ps I blogged about your article- hope you dont mind.

  5. everything I always say to people - especially my sons - only said so much better!

  6. seven years later this
    is still the best description of a feminist I have ever found.

  7. I agree entirely that the problem is the image of feminism. I think the word has been tainted by a very small minority who abused the term in a way that was hostile to men (and did both sexes a huge disservice).

    The ideals of equality, of male/female partnership rather than competition, valuing things like childcare as a vital part of the economy (whether carried out by men or women) are so important. Many men would be feminists by the definition you give (I certainly am), but I think most would probably find the label extremely uncomfortable.

    Society is also not very accepting of house-husbands. There is pressure on men to be the breadwinners. To give women more choices men also need to have the complementary choices. So focussing entirely on women doesn't actually help women. Ironically it's the sex-based name that's part of the problem. We need a gender neutral term for the movement, one that enlists men as active allies, rather than alienating them from the cause.

    But what do we call it? I'm at a loss for a good word.

  8. Number 1 is exactly why I'm quite pleased to say, "I'm not a feminist, but . . ." I think that this argument is horrible. And so does the state of California, thank goodness. In the event of divorce, everything is split 50-50 and the salaried spouse owes the stay-at-home alimony. This isn't the ideal fix, but it's better than scaring women into working outside of the home, which is disgusting.

    The better fix in the long term is that society recognize that stay-at-home carers do the most important jobs on the planet: raise the next generation. And, we need to start paying them like they do the most important jobs on the planet. They are already working enough. We don't need to scare them into a second job outside of the home.

  9. hooray hooray hooray. I can't hear the word feminism enough and am proud to be a feminist. I am horrified when I hear women say they're not feminists. So glad to have someone like you out there putting this into such readable words. I get so indignant that I can hardly think of what to say to them. I'm a stay at home mum, a former chartered builder and a FEMINIST and I see no contradiction in those things.

  10. hang on, they get FLOWERS in bosnia? mr hinsliff is celebrating international wimmins day in the pub watching football.
    hannahb loved your post, and the artwork! pete think the idea of a neutral label is interesting - though i can't think of the word either....
    chandadeepti im sorry you think that argument is horrible. have no intention of scaring women into working outside of the home (I can't even scare myself on this one really) but i do think no matter how enlightened divorce law becomes, it doesn't cover the significant minority of men (in the UK anyway) who dont actually pay the maintenance they supposedly owe; usually doesn't exactly replicate the living standard previously enjoyed by the wife; and doesn't help at all if the sole breadwinner loses his job or dies.
    none of which is to say women have to work: they might well decide it's worth being worse off financially but having more time with their kids (I should know: that's the decision I made). but I think it does mean they have to run those risks knowingly, and work out how to mitigate them.

  11. I'm not sure Germaine Greer would agree with your point about staying at home and nurturing, especially if part of that nurturing is being a home educator, but...happy International Women's Day!

  12. Nice entry, pleased to see this being tweeted by MPs...

    One point,

    But feminism is also about the right to make your own intelligent choices: it's about saying that nurturing other people shouldn't be regarded as 'lesser' than paid work, just because it's women who more often do it.

    The crux of the argument is that the role of a mother/housewife *should be valued as highly as* full time employment and warrant the same respect for that choice.

    However, there should also be an awareness that it is not a compulsory role. Battles are still to be had over how the term "hormones" has replaced the term "hysteria" in female subjucation. With "science" promoted as the whole truth, people put too much faith in article that lack scientific warrant - one recent example details alleged reasons why women cannot park based on gender differences. When you look into the study you realise it was a study of 500 people, all of whom were white, middle class British and the study loses all substance.

    Chuck disasterous fiction such as Bridget Jones and Sex in the City in to the mix and it becomes clear why people have coined the term "feminazi" and most people will avoid the subject.

    I will also say, the recession of the 1980s has had a significant blow for feminism in the UK because it is no longer possible for one person to support a family of 3 on one wage. This means that the "primary care giver", male or female, turns to dependancy on the state.

    This, of course, translates into the glass ceiling, Men are better paid so stay at work, and so the myths perpetuate.

    I am proud to be a feminist, refer everyone I meet who is unsure to Marilyn French and continue to fight oppression where I see it. And yes, some people think I am "dull" or lack a "sense of humour" when I take offence if referred to as "chick" or "girlie" but I continue regardless.

  13. '[S]omeone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes' is an egalitarian, not a feminist. Feminism can only be defined by the reality of feminists' actions and words, and many of them (Harriet Harman would be a classic example) are mysandrists rather than egalitarian.

  14. Bravo. Hear hear. Why are so many women scared to declare themselves a feminist? You've hit the nail on the head and I shall be forwarding "Yeah, buts" to your post from now on.

    MD xx

    ps FLOWERS!!! We need IWD in the UK too. Sod Valentines.

  15. Yes I'd like to add my voice to the chorus of cheers.

    I get extremely irked when I hear women say 'I'm not a feminist but...' Women have fought hard for our basic rights to things like the vote and free and legal abortion - we owe them a little gratitude I feel.

    I watched a programme on the history of feminism on BBC4 last night. Marilyn French was speaking on it. Inspiring stuff.

  16. Feminist and proud of it, always have been. Hope my boys and girl grow up to feel the same. In fact I'm getting even more disgruntled and stroppy about equality as I get older and experience more of life.

    Issue of "housewives" for me is that, like other caring and domestic roles (cleaner) it's always been an undervalued role because it's traditionally been a female one and unpaid or poorly rewarded. More stay at home men might help, but only if they join in their droves and drive the pay and conditions up!

  17. hold on... only 65% of american women are for social, political, and economic equality between the sexes? So 35% of the female population here don't want that? Wha...?

    That is something I just cannot fathom.

  18. Would you feel happy if you were supporting a house husband Gabby , would he ? Do you find the idea of a house husband an attractive one , you know , doing his equally valuable and gendre non-specific hoovering... is that a sexy idea , the musky smell of Fairy Liquid ?

    I read recently that some East German Towns are so depopulated of women ( all off chasing fat West Geremans), that the men just hang around drunk and fighting and real wolves have come back as well.
    Struck me as a good image of the future for men .

  19. "I'm not a feminist, but..." is a mad thing for any thinking woman to say. (But what? But on the whole, I'm in favour of having the vote? But ideally, I wouldn't stone women to death for adultery? But I'm not a total idiot either?)

    The clear logic of this argument is that if you are against stoning women to death you are a feminist. What utter nonsense. The word feminist is as debased as "liberal" or progessive. Most liberal progressives I know are illiberal and regressive. You really must explain what your views are rather than hiding behind a term like feminist, which all "right on" people, especially men, claim to be. While we at it, I'm a masculinist, whatever on earth that means.

  20. Can a man be a feminist? Well, if campaigning for women's rights counts, then I am a feminist.

  21. Hmm. See, I'm not a feminist, because of feminism's long and difficult history of bigotry. Particularly racism (do you know about "womanism", where many women of colour left feminism in droves to start their own movement because of the racism?) and trans misogyny (you talk about Greer here, have you read her chapter "pantomine dames" in her book "The Whole Woman" where she comes out with some of the most bigoted, nastiest, transphobic statements you've ever heard?), but there is a lot of other bigotry within feminism (go read Julie Bindel, celebrated feminist, on children; go read, well, pretty much any radfem on sex workers, and so on, and so on....).

    That's why I'm not a feminist. And why anyone else who calls themselves one has to realise they're associating themselves with a movement with a deeply troubled history. One thing to be a feminist and acknowledge the trouble and the problems within the movement.

    Another thing to totally ignore them and pretend they don't exist, and promote feminism uncritically.

    Personally, I don't wish to associate myself with a movement where some members promote hate. Some people want to try and change the movement from within. But here, it looks like you're doing neither.