An Open Letter to Modern Female Feminists

FeminismDear feminists,

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.

Yours faithfully,

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16 Responses to An Open Letter to Modern Female Feminists

  1. steveh11 says:

    Heard an item on the radio the other day about Mary Ward, or Mrs Ward Humphry as she’d have preferred to be known. I think you’d have got on well with each other, even though you’d have probably differed on some points.

    As a man I do feel constrained to be quiet when women talk about Feminism with a capital “F”, because any sign of disagreement is usually met with such a vituperative response it renders actual philosophical argument impossible. Thank you for standing up and saying that the modern Feminist doesn’t represent real feminism, they don’t want equality and they won’t accept that other people’s choices are valid, when I’m not allowed to.


    • Harper Eliot says:

      Thank you for this. I loathe that you feel constrained to stay quiet when women talk about feminism. If women ever needed an ally, it’s men. To cut out half of the human race is so fucking stupid.

  2. Brigit Delaney says:

    Like any group, the ones who are heard are those with the loudest, and often most irritating voices. And they usually give the whole group a bad name. I fully agree with you. I wouldn’t call myself a feminist either, but, like you, it’s not because I don’t believe in equality and choice and freedom for women. It’s because I would be embarrassed to identify myself with such judgmental, exclusionary ideas as those feminism has become associated with. That militant, angry, accusatory, man-hating stereotype, like all stereotypes, is couched in truth – or it wouldn’t exist. Yes, it’s the extreme. I agree with you also on the point that men are getting the raw end now-a-days. We’ve gotten to that point now where white, middle class men are actually in the minority – and yet they are still treated like they are holding the world hostage simply by being what they are. I’m married to a white, middle class man. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think he’s better than anyone else just because he sunburns faster and belongs to an economic class that is barely holding on.

    Excellent Post, Harper!

    • Harper Eliot says:

      Yes! And I think, really, what I’m asking is that the feminists who aren’t judgmental and exclusionary come out a little and show me what I’m really supposed to be supporting.

  3. Janine Ashbless says:

    Hey Harper

    You are a feminist. You’ve expressed it completely clearly in this article. The thing is, there is not just one form of feminism, “One True Way.” There many threads of feminism – and there always have been: I’m old enough to remember feminists arguing that Lesbian Seperatism was the only way to freedom from the patriarchy! There are egalitarian versions, gender-war versions; academic versions and pragmatic versions; left-wing, liberal and libertarian versions. Sex-negative versions, sex-positive versions.
    You sound like a liberal egalitarian version. You don’t have to feel belittled by the people who want to play “more feminist than thou” because (for example) they see everything through the lens of class analysis. That’s just their paradigm.
    Feel confident in yours. You do not have to be ashamed of the “F” word – claim it back.

    • Harper Eliot says:

      You know, I’d never thought of it that way, but it seems obvious now: of course there are different versions of feminism; different ideas, different facets. And I have, at times, called myself an “egalitarian”, which I am, but then I get shouted down for side-stepping the term “feminist”. But as it stands I can’t call myself a feminist; I know so many smart women, who talk about feminism in a real, honest, and inclusive way… their voices just aren’t loud enough. I don’t want to be associated with the loud ones. But you can count me as a feminist… just a quiet, non-labelled one.

  4. James says:

    I agree with your general argument. I too have been severely tongue-lashed by feminists on Twitter for daring to have an opinion, even though I thought I was supporting their point of view. The result is both a certain amount of embarrassment for my apparent ignorance and anxiety about saying anything now in support of women for fear of being ridiculed again.

    My only challenge to your position is that I do feel that all is not as rosy as it seemed to me you’re implying in your piece. Men still overwhelmingly run the world and the major corporations when it would in my opinion certainly be a better world if more women ran more things. But women aren’t, I feel, still being excluded because they choose to be, it’s because the men in control make it that way, through inequalities of pay, education and opportunity and because women are made to feel guilty about child care and their responsibilities to other family members.

    Your point about women colluding with patriarchy doesn’t sit well with me. Prior to the early 20th century the main task of the majority of women (and a lot of men) was to survive and to ensure that their offspring survived. There was no time or energy to fight for equality. Women had precious little education, no property, no vote, no inheritance rights and violence against them by their husbands was seen as acceptable, even appropriate. They were essentially owned, first by their fathers and then by their husbands.

    Women didn’t collude with patriarchy for thousands of years, they were shackled and subjugated through physical and emotional force (in my humble opinion). Only in the past 100 years, thanks to better education and the fact that they began to realise how vital they were to an industrialised world did women begin to have some leverage to start the change process that is still evolving.

    Thanks for your post. I enjoyed reading it and chucking my tuppence worth in.

    • Harper Eliot says:

      I know that this article is written very much from my personal – and rather privileged – viewpoint. And I understand why I come across as feeling that everything is rosy now; I don’t really think that. I’m lucky that I haven’t had to deal with prejudice because of my gender, and I know there are places in the Western World – particularly certain industries – where there is still a huge imbalance. If there wasn’t, I would have written an article telling feminists to shut up. I still think that what is at the heart of feminism, or whatever you want to call it, is relavent. I still believe we have work to do to make the world an equal, and just place. I just don’t like how it’s being done.

      As for my point out women being complicit in patriarchy… I think I’m looking back a little further than you. If you look at the 17th and 18th centuries, yes, I think you’re probably right: but by then women were on the cusp of revolution anyway. That’s what happened at the turn of the century. Everything you listed is why we had suffrage when we did. However, it started somewhere; and I’m willing to bet it wasn’t just men taking over; it was women letting men take over. We have a role to play in the world’s history. And actually, since before the reformation (when education was somewhat overhauled) there were tutors educating girls and boys in private homes; sure, education for women may not have been available for the masses, but it was available for some. And none of them attempted to change the status quo. Even when Elizabeth I was queen, we still had a partiarchy. And I think it’s comparable with some cultures we have now: look at Islam. You may feel that Muslim women are terribly oppressed, but I believe many of them are happy with the way their society is structured. For many, it IS a choice. And what we need is to allow everyone the choice. But that’s a modern need.

  5. Modesty Ablaze says:

    Oh Harper . . . I couldn’t possibly add anything further to your own words, or to those of some of the people who have commented, other than to say this is a WONDERFUL post !!!
    I wish I had your way with words and reasoning . . . so well written and presented.
    Just wonderful . . . should be compulsory reading for everybody.

  6. Ian Jade says:

    A very well-written and clear analysis. I can only hope that they will be listened to.

  7. David says:

    Very well said, wise young child.

  8. Faile says:

    A very thoughtful and well written piece. As a supporter of equal rights for human beings who is increasingly coming to dislike labels I sympathise with your point of view.

    Feminism as a word is often used to describe the ugliest side of a desire for equality and that discourages many people (including myself) from identifying with it.

    • Harper Eliot says:

      It’s a really tough one; because I want to ally myself with the people who use the term and act in good faith… but the term is so mutated by others.

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