I never knew I needed feminism.
I was a daughter of a pastor with very strong ideas on gender roles for men and women. I was expected to wear dresses on Sundays, keep my hair long and defer to a mans judgement on any issue of any importance. It was made very clear from as early as I could understand, that my purpose in life was to be a devoted and obedient wife. My parents believed their duty was to prepare me for this, and nothing more.
As we grew older, my dad conceded on his harder lines. The expectation to be a wife and mother was always at the forefront in how he viewed us, but he did eventually decide that possibly we could have careers as well. At least in the meantime, but only gender-suitable ones of course.
“She’s going to be a missionary, she’ll be a nurse and she will use that to spread the gospel.” My dad stated to my mum once, discussing their hopes for my future.
“Why couldn’t she be a doctor?” My mum asked.
“She’s a girl!” My dad replied incredulous. I wonder how he really felt when I enrolled as a car mechanics apprentice at the age of sixteen.
Sex education was not something I was ever allowed to learn, in fact I’m sure my dad even made complaints about diagrams I had to draw for biology. I would be told that that was a subject for parents to discuss with their children privately at an appropriate time. That time never came. Little wonder I was pregnant at 17, much to the shame of my dad.
I was told nothing about my period. I remember screaming from the bathroom while everyone enjoyed their Sunday dinner, thinking something was terribly wrong. Mum appeared at the door, took a look at me and disappeared. She reappeared moments later with a sanitary pad, thrust it through the door, and quietly retreated back downstairs. We were never allowed to use tampons, my dad was convinced that would mean we weren’t virgins anymore and we’d never find anyone to marry us.
We were expected to dress appropriately, which meant covering as much of ourselves as possible in order to prevent the sexual abuse that would surely be our own fault in the event of an attack. When I told my dad that grown men had made sexualised comments to me as I walked home from school he wanted to know why. What had I been wearing? What did I do and say to elicit this attention? Women, like children, must be seen and not heard.
By the time my parents marriage fell apart and we all moved to England in dribs and drabs, I had a fair idea that my upbringing was a bit strange to a lot of people, particularly those with no concept of a strict religious regime. I had begun to realise that things I had been told were untrue. I began to realise my self worth, and that I was much more than those aspects of me which would make a good wife, or mother, or nurse.
Around this time, when feminism was a word I had begun using frequently, when those issues I had taken to be the norm became real issues of struggle and rebellion in my personal life, I came into contact with my first real, active, self-proclaimed anarcha-feminists. At least that’s what’s they said they were.
In reality, what I seemed to have stumbled upon was a hive of lunacy. I was led to believe that if a man looked at me and appreciated how I looked, then he was a disgusting pig. He couldn’t possibly just find me attractive. It must be perverse and oppressive – there was no mention of how I looked at the man.
I was also told that despite never having been allowed to wear makeup in order to maintain my chastity, if I now chose to do so I was a slave to the agenda that men had set for me. That if a woman wanted to be a wife and mother, then they were cowing rather than fulfilling themselves. The woman I wanted to be was not a good enough woman for them.
It felt very much as though I was being forced to walk a tightrope. On the one side, I was pushed toward society’s idea, particularly the church’s idea, of what a woman was supposed to be. On the other, I was pushed toward the stereotypical image of what a feminist must be.
You must cut your hair, dress differently, remove your makeup – I had thought the point of the feminist movement, in part, was to remove the norm of judging women on how they looked, but they were judging every woman who didn’t look like them. Feminism apparently had a uniform.
It seemed every nugget of truth and sense led to a labyrinth of contradiction and hysteria. Where before I may have at times felt coerced into sexual activity, now every sexual encounter was considered abusive, every recount of experience was combed for any sign of sexism that might be exploded and used to tar swathes of people.
Every argument I had with a man was used as an example of the rampant sexism on the left – even though the men around me were some of the first men I’d ever met who even cared about feminism and women’s rights. In fact, the assigning of their own negative gender roles and stereotypes was a daily occurrence.
Despite the mantra of equality, that didn’t seem to be the aim; women were always victims or ‘survivors’, whatever happened was always traumatic, and men, especially the ones closest to us, were always oppressing us in some way. Apparently women were never powerful or in control enough to make their own mistakes. Instead of coming up with ways to overcome sexism in society, the only thing it seemed a ‘feminist’ needed to do was ‘call out’ men over the smallest fault, and be needlessly cruel or bullying to the men in their lives.
Of course I want to be seen to be as clever, strong, fast and funny as a man. But I don’t think the man needs to be made to feel stupid, weak, slow and ignorant to do that.
This was not about the equality of the sexes. This was a power trip for a bunch of women who felt their subcultural friendship scene was a good platform to use to launch their own arguments and generalise them for the degradation of everyone.
I split up with a boyfriend for example, a bit messily, but nothing that would’ve ended the world. Within a week, this was a saga about my abuse and oppression at the hands of a wicked sexist who was out only to ruin my life for his own perverse pleasure.
People split up, people argue, people fall out and fall together. The constant use of ‘gender politics’ (which in this case was basically a game of top trumps – let’s not worry actually solving problems, let’s just have a competition of who can be the most oppressed) to launch personal vendettas was absolutely rife, and I’ve since discovered now happens across the left.
Men aren’t the only victims: as soon as they realised I wasn’t going to use my break up to help them lynch my ex, I was shut off, probably denounced as an apologist. The idea of having an analysis of oppression, like feminism or Marxism, is that we can start looking out our problems rationally with less fear and greater unity; it gives us more confidence to speak up, and help others to speak up for themselves.
It should make us feel more empowered and actually less oppressed. Instead everyone was constantly offended and aggressive, and I was terrified to open my mouth for fear of having a label slapped across my forehead to wear as an outcast.
I feel as strong as any man, but they would have me believe I am a waif with no strength other than that which I borrow from the feminist collective. Instead of encouraging bravery in women, they seem to encourage fear: everything is dangerous and traumatic, male and abusive.
If men are loud and aggressive on demos, they are ‘macho manarchists’ and are only acting that way in order to push out women. When I’m at a demo with women, I’m just as loud and aggressive. What does that make me? Why is it assumed those qualities and behaviours belong only to men?
Because of this I have always distanced myself from the feminist movement. I want to be part of a movement that makes us strong and courageous, and capable. A movement that facilitates us to work side by side with men, not drive a wedge further between us. I want to be part of a movement that Emmeline Pankhurst could be proud of.
What I’ve seen is not a movement, it is the mass ego massaging of a certain group of women who think they know more about what it is to be the woman I am, than even I do.
Today’s feminism, my experience of it, is not what I want to fight for. Women are treated so unequally in this world, there is absolutely a need for feminism as much as ever, to help us understand our enemy and fight for equality.
But by further splitting and splintering, chasing outrage and exclusion, we only alienate other women who really need feminism. Maybe not your brand, but you’re not every woman. Your personal experience is not more than everyone else – that doesn’t mean “check your privilege” it means collective analysis, targets, goals – solutions – are more important than petty vendettas and word games.
It’s only when we begin to actually see ourselves as equal and treat each other accordingly that we will be able to implement this in our politics.