Perhaps I’ve been lucky to take equality for granted and not feel that I’ve fallen foul of the patriarchy. Perhaps that’s also lucky, given that I’m a product of single-sex education, but far from my schools being girlification-factories, they made gender seem irrelevant. I had bloke-mates outside school (courtesy of having a brother) and earned a bit of status by being the chief-introducer of boys into my friendship circles. It’s also fair to say I sported looks that I only grew into in my 20s. These were perhaps a blessing in disguise as I was accepted as a mate rather than viewed as totty with a lobotomy.
After being at an all-girls school, it was perhaps inevitable that most of my mates were blokes at Uni, with friendships enduring as boyfriends came and went. Before getting married I even had a ‘Cock Night’ (…yeah, I know, not a great phrase…) with my close male mates (involving beer and an American diner); in addition to a classic ‘Hen weekend’ (featuring sparkly dresses). Despite it being the era of ‘Cool Britannia’, Geri Halliwell’s Girl Power felt too contrived for me, yet whilst I was neither shouty or angsty, being equal to blokes was just a given. I didn’t feel the need to do bad ass kicks, wear a Feminist t-shirt, or buy tickets to the Vagina Monologues to prove it.
‘Feminism’ felt a bit too bra-burny – Germaine Geer seemed to take herself far too seriously. There was some-sort of Feminist module on my psychology course which spent a lot of time appearing to split hairs in order to establish two opposing schools of thought: firstly that women share more similarities than differences to men; or, on the other hand that women are different from men in valuable ways and that they should be celebrated. I felt in the first camp, whereas ‘feminism’ seemed to be about the latter (and appeared to diss men in the process).
Those I knew who were on the F-bandwagon seemed to be fervent, angry and spent a lot of time complaining about their ex-boyfriends (which, after a few drinks invariably led to a lot of Alanis Morissette being shouted-along-to on dancefloors). I didn’t feel angry or angsty, I had good mates who were blokes and liked getting dolled-up – it didn’t feel like a contradiction to me, but neither did it appear to fit the F-profile.
Subsequently, I worked in a male-dominated profession in a part of the business whose acronym was CMS. It had more women than the other areas, so it was referred to jokingly as ‘Chicks who Make Slides’. It was so overtly sexist, it made me laugh – I didn’t take it seriously, it was just part of the banter (just as IT guys were called geeks, regardless of whether they were or not). My impression of feminists is that they couldn’t and wouldn’t let that lie (someone I knew took offence at a kid’s animation referring to ‘scantily clad mermaids’…). Of course, ‘banter’ isn’t on when it’s used to excuse pernicious behaviour that’s better described as ‘bullying’, but I wasn’t insulted because it wasn’t underpinned by a disparaging view of women – it’s all about the context.
So, my experiences continued to reinforce views that I happily took for granted and further distanced me from the F-crew – I was a girl in a man’s world and that felt ok. It was only when I got married and had kids that my friendship groups shifted from being predominantly male to female. It started with maternity leave and has since grown over time; seemingly by having a baby, I quite literally joined ‘the club’. I don’t really know whether my female mates would identify themselves as feminists (I’m sure that they’d vary), yet I also know that they’d certainly take the principles as a given.
Now that I have two boys, I don’t feel ‘outnumbered’ in our household – even though they’re more likely to wrestle one another than sew, gender isn’t a big deal (after all, we know girls who’re wired the same way).
That was until the morning that White Van Man parked over driveway, blocking me in. Fearing a ‘late mark’ from the kids’ school, I bounded next door to ask if the van belonged to one of their workmen and turned out it did. The guy came out the house and said, “all right princess, I’ll move it in a minute”. This was no banter, no turn of phrase, it had a ring of the patriarchy about it and immediately triggered my F-allegiance. Would he have called my husband “princess” in a ‘calm down dear’ voice? NO! Am I an actual princess? NO! Then WTF?! So, I replied, “You don’t need to ‘princess-me’, just move your van”.
Low and behold, when I returned to the car, the first thing my sons asked was “why did that man call you a princess?”, which led to their first lesson in feminism during the 10-minute commute to school. Their question unlocked viewpoints that were so fundamental, I’ve never explained them before, but White Van Man triggered a vehemence that I didn’t know I had. I borrowed from Roald Dahl’s Matilda to explain the basics: “the man thought he was big, but really he was small”. Now even my 5-year-old knows: never call someone a ‘Princess’, unless they are one, or you’re about to marry them (but even then, best not as it’s just too cheesy…).
Although my words may have gone over their heads, I’m sure the sentiment won’t. Having bought “Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World” as a birthday present for a few of their mates recently, I now actively talk-up their sparky female friends as ‘strong women’. This description was initially refuted by my 5-year-old who corrected me: “she’s not a woman, she’s a girl” – the ‘strong’ bit wasn’t in question.
So here I find myself, drawn towards the term that I previously avoided. It doesn’t just feel that it’s me who’s changing though – these days feminism takes many forms and there’s less rigidity and ‘biker-chick’ about it. There’s even a comedy podcast called ‘The Guilty Feminist’, reflecting how feminists are now laughing at themselves, making others laugh and embracing their femininity.
But as the incident with White Van Man taught me, feminism isn’t just a theme for female households, our boys are half of the story. There’s an unspoken expectation of what it means to be a boy, and whilst we’re rearing modern-day girls to be more like boys, things will only be equal if boys have a wider scope too. Maybe we need to raise them to be more like girls to avoid the ‘boys don’t cry’ trap? A bit of wrestling and sewing for all then? Big-up the sisterhood, but also the brotherhood!
Standard Issue Magazine Current Affairs Podcast and Comedy Gigcast
The Guilty Feminist Comedy Podcast
How to raise a feminist son NY Times article
Why I’m raising my sons to be feminists by Parent.Co
It’s OK for Women not to be Ambitious by India Knight
Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst, Book Review
‘Feminism needs a revolution’ – Alanis Morissette Time article