I’ve had a frustrating couple of weeks.
It started gently, with a hugely intelligent PhD student telling me that he thinks it’s harder to be a man in this country than a woman. And be genuinely baffled why I could think otherwise. It progressed to a man attacking my beliefs about the intricacies of gender-based violence. It seems I’m the evil one for discussing it instead of brushing it under the carpet. Finally, I waited nervously to see how the case of Tom Martin, probable crazed male supremacist and holder of dubious views, versus LSE Gender Institute, general do-gooders and academics, would go. He lost. But the support he garnered from men’s rights groups concerned me. He claimed the Gender Institute was anti-men and he was discriminated against. His reasons varied from ridiculous (hard chairs uncomfortable for men?!) to just about passable (course material containing anti-male views). I studied German at undergraduate level. Maybe I should have sued for anti-semitism because they showed me Nazi propaganda that advocates the extermination of Jews. No, clearly not. Not all course material reflects the view of the institution or lecturers – that’s not how studying works. Still, the bizarre nature of the case struck a chord, despite it being thrown out before it got to the courts and Mr Martin being ordered to pay LSE’s legal fees.
Overall, these three events made me reflect on the fact that a lot of the world doesn’t understand feminism, or even take an interest – and those that do often take an interest in order to oppose it. It is hard to be a feminist and believe so passionately that what you’re doing is right, and yet come up against such persistent and unmitigated resistance. I have even felt strangely changed in relation to my friends. Not that anything in me has changed, but that my new ‘coming out’ as a feminist has changed the way they see me. Suddenly, my charming eccentricity is political, and therefore threatening. Suddenly, I must be anti something they believe in, because that’s what feminism is, right? Generally anti everything? In addition, people often like to contrast the gravity of feminist issues with other issues. I was recently asked if I would abolish racism or sexism if I had the choice of just one. How helpful. Differences in feminism between countries are also viewed with scepticism. So trying to improve body confidence is often pooh-poohed in the face of, say, female genital mutilation. I find this highly unhelpful. Anything that works to improve anyone’s quality of life anywhere in the world is beneficial. If we constantly subordinated our needs and desires with the explanation that they are not as significant as an orphan’s in Africa, we’d never get anywhere. I’m all for first-world feminism, and I’m all for third-world feminism. I’m just all for feminism!
All of this general antipathy towards the label of feminism has left me tempted to rebrand myself as an anti-rape campaigner. In doing so, I suspect people would react positively, recognise I am doing something well-intentioned and potentially take a genuine interest in the hows and whys. And when it comes down to it, I am an anti-rape campaigner – of course. But you cannot be an anti-rape campaigner without being a feminist, and vice versa. A lot of the time, the problem is not actually with the issues that I raise as a feminist, but with the label. People perceive me as radical, different, and as Simone de Beauvoir would have it, ‘othered’, when I pronounce myself feminist. But as an anti-rape campaigner, I’m a humanitarian with the patience of a saint, surely?
I recognise, as Richard Dawkins points out, that human beings need to simplify the horribly over-complicated world. They need categories. Because from the perspective of human beings, with all our limitations, we can never fully understand the world. If could see things at cellular level, if we had better sight, smell, hearing, the world would look so different. Everything is about perspective. So I understand that feminism’s historical branding as a movement of hysterical, ugly, man-hating lesbians is hard to shake off. I understand that for some people the anti-feminist prejudice doesn’t even go that far. It’s just a vague sense of not knowing a lot about it, but feeling that anything they have heard is negative. Feminism unnerves. What it is? Why does it need to exist? Do feminists prioritise women over men or do they really want equality? The answers aren’t simple (except to the last one, where the answer is clearly that being pro-women does not mean being anti-men and that equality is for everyone) – so I understand the confusion.
Yes, I understand the miscomprehension, and I can rise above it. Because it’s so hugely important to me. And I think it’s hugely important to the world for everyone to be treated with equal worth and have an equal say in how the world is run. And the fact is, women make up half the world, and how much say do we have around the world? So little. In many countries, women don’t even get to say that being repeatedly beaten and raped is wrong. At least in the UK, we can say it. But we’re still not being listened to enough. We’re not feeling supported enough to report it. The statistics of sexual violence are still too high. So there’s more to be done. And yes, I may be taken for a female supremacist when I ask for more women in UK parliament that may (or may not) bring more gender-based issues to the forefront. I may be taken for radical when I try to change societal attitudes which are highly likely to contribute to an atmosphere that fosters rape, or rape apologism, of which we see so much. I may just be taken for a general loony. But I have to remind myself that other people’s ignorance is not my problem when it comes to labels. Feminism can’t bow to ignorance.
So to answer my own question, no. A big, galloping, giant no. Equality would benefit everyone. So let’s keep the label and dismiss the doubters.
- Is feminism sexist? (newstatesman.com)
- Are We Trying to Dictate What Feminism Is to Women in the Third World? (blogher.com)