I am a twenty-three year old, white, middle class, cis-gendered female, living in London. And I cannot, in all good conscience, call myself a feminist. Yes, I do believe that I should have the same rights and the same freedoms as men; yes, I do believe that I deserve to be paid just as much as any man who does the same job as me; yes, I do believe that I deserve to make my own sexual choices without discrimination; yes, I do believe that I should be in charge of what happens to my body. And perhaps you’re reading along, perhaps even nodding along, thinking that all these things make up the baseline of why feminism is important. But to my eyes, this is not how you are representing. If I woke up every day to read the words of feminists who were campaigning for a pregnant woman’s right to choose her own course of action, I would be right behind you. But I don’t.
What I wake up to looks nothing like the feminism I was raised to believe in. What I see is women telling other women that they can’t understand because they are too privileged; because they’ve never been raped; because they’re not mothers; because they’re white; because they’re middle class; because they’re straight. Exactly who are you fighting for? Because all too often I feel like I would only be allowed an opinion if I were a working class, black, lesbian, transgender, single mother of two. Yes, I understand that I am incredibly lucky; I do feel privileged to have had an incredibly good education; to have never worried about where my next meal was coming from; to have always received fair and equal pay; to have always been able to make my own sexual choices. But I am sick of feeling that because of these things, my opinion is not valid. I don’t want to have to tell you that my Mother worked sixteen hour days to give me – and my brother! – the life every child deserves. I don’t want to talk about my abusive relationship in order to make my views on rape valid. I don’t want to be heard because I’m female; I want to be heard because I’m human.
And this brings me to the second thing I see when I read the word “feminist”: on a weekly – sometimes daily – basis, I see feminists telling men they cannot be feminists because they don’t understand; they’re not female, so they don’t get it. My Father did just as much to give me freedom and choices as my Mother did. But, what? Because he has a penis, he’s not allowed to be a feminist? Oh no, I’m sorry: it’s because he’s also a white and middle class; because he’s privileged. What if I told you his Mother threw him out when he was eighteen? What if I told you he lived in a squat? What if I told you he worked every day of his life to live comfortably? What about supporting his partner through chemotherapy, whilst battling his own cancer? Can he be a feminist now? Has he been through enough hardships? And then there’s my brothers; and my male friends; and my cousins; and my friends’ little boys. I don’t want any of them to live in a world where they have to apologise for their gender. None of them tried to silence suffragettes; none of them have ever raped a woman. None of them have ever been given advantages because of their gender. In fact, I see men being shamed for their gender far more than I see women shamed for theirs. I have sat in seminars on feminist literature and watched male students squirm, unable to speak because they feel so weighed down by the inherited shame of their male ancestors. When men don’t feel able to express an opinion on Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – which, by the way, strikes me as a far more elitist text than a feminist one – because of their gender, isn’t that oppression too?
This leads me to two further points: first, perhaps the most heinous argument I have seen from feminists: the “women have been oppressed for thousands of years; it’s time for men to know what that feels like” argument. Okay, it is not an argument I see from the majority of feminists, but the fact that it is out there at all, tarnishing the term “feminist” adds to the reasons I do not identify with the term myself. I have never seen any self-proclaimed feminist attempt to create difficulties for men, but I have seen women who, when confronted with issues which negatively effect men, say “so what? We’ve suffered.” This is disgusting and completely undercuts what I was raised to believe feminism is: I thought women wanted equality because we are human! And actually, I do see socially accepted ways in which women are given privileges men are not: for example, female-only groups are often celebrated, whilst male-only groups are condemned. Why is it okay for women to celebrate their gender, but not for men? Feminism is not supposed to be about getting back at men, or about empowering women at the expense of men; it is supposed to be about equality! After all, an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
But to my second point: and here we have something I rarely see discussed. That patriarchy that the suffragettes fought against, that women want to be free of; the patriarchy that pervaded our society for hundreds of thousands of years; the one that put men on top? Well, women were there too. Women were complicit in the way society was structured. This patriarchy was not something that was done to women; it was something human beings constructed, agreed to, and lived by. Men didn’t change at the turn of the century; women did. Women decided they wanted the vote; and they weren’t fighting against men! they were fighting against the status quo: a status quo that both men and women created. If women had wanted to, they would have changed things earlier. There were female monarchs long before that; powerful female role models women could have allied with; women always had the strength of mind and the will to earn themselves power and freedom. But for a very long time, they didn’t. Women were complicit in the patriarchy right up until the moment they decided they wanted change. And then they started working for that change. And as far as I was every taught, feminism now is supposed to be about continuing that change; about relearning and restructuring society in a way that works in the modern world.
The way in which consciousness has evolved means that, yes, women deserve and need a lot more freedom than our ancestors wanted before. But what we’re living in the shadow of is not men; it’s the hangover of a patriarchy everyone created. And the term ‘feminist’, for me, puts too much emphasis on gender. It’s not about being female, it’s about being human. And I would like to note here that our use of the term now is very modern. The women who really lived under that patriarchy, those who first campaigned and marched to earn themselves the right to vote called themselves, first and foremost, suffragettes, not feminists.
A few weeks ago I spoke to a friend who said she felt that in many cases women are the weaker sex; that many women do want to be taken care of by men. Now, I don’t believe that women are innately weaker, nor that we need to be taken care of. But I do believe that there are those amongst us who want that. And looking back at our patriarchal history, it seems a few other women understood that feeling as well. My friend went on to explain that because of her desire to be a wife and Mother, to take care of her children and keep a home, and be taken care of by a man, she feels shamed by feminists who tell her she is perpetuating a dangerous stereotype. The thing is, she is not stupid. She is smart. She is conscious She understands those who want independence and equality; but she believes in making choices. And in my eyes, she is making her own informed choices about what she wants. To me, that is what feminism should be. It should be about getting the respect of other people, regardless of how you choose to live your life. And that’s not what I see. What I see is women telling women they need to be independent and career driven. But if you don’t want that, isn’t being pressured into it just another form of oppression?
Perhaps you have read this far and feel that I have got the wrong end of the stick; that my views are skewed and out of focus. In fact, I hope you do. I hope I am wrong. I hope my view of feminism is unrealistic and untrue. But, sadly, this is what I see. This is what I am presented with on a daily basis. And I’m not stupid. I understand that things aren’t perfect. In fact, often they are dire. But doesn’t the fact that this is my view of feminism, worry you? This is what the young generation of women are being presented with. And as long as this is what we’re seeing, we’re not going to call ourselves feminists. I know very few people my own age who can identify with this picture. And that is my problem. I think that if I were ever properly shown the true, grassroots of feminism, I would probably agree. But I’m not.
I am incredibly grateful to all the people – feminists included – who have come before me, and fought for my right to vote; for my education; for my freedom of expression; for me as a human being. I recognise how lucky I am to live at a time when I have been given the same respect, support and opportunities as my brother and I will always speak up against oppression; I will always support freedom and equality, for everyone and anyone. But as long as I am represented with this picture of feminism, as long as these details pervade my view of female empowerment, I will not wear the term ‘feminist’.
Please, change my picture.