Women of the world, if you want to see steam coming out of my ears, there are three things you can say to me:
1. I ate the last of the cake. That’s okay, right?
2. It doesn’t really matter where the apostrophe goes, does it?
3. I’m not a feminist.
The answers to the first two are: “it is not okay. Waitrose is five minutes away, off you go. ” and, “Yes. It. Does.” The answer to the third is trickier. Of all the women who have ever said to me that they are not feminists, not one of them , when questioned, would reject the basic tenets of feminism, ie that women should have control of their own bodies, and equal rights in the workplace, the home and politically. Nevertheless, one statistic suggests that only 29% of American women and 42% of women in the UK would call themselves feminists. It seems to me that the reason women say they’re not feminists is that somewhere along the line, they have met or seen a woman who calls herself a feminist and thought, “I don’t want to be like her.”
I can understand why so many women reject the outward face of feminism. I grew up in South Africa, and went to Wits University in the late 1980s. Wits was Nelson Mandela’s alma mater, and when I went there, was highly politicised. There were anti-apartheid protests every Thursday and every Thursday the police would come onto campus to subdue, beat and arrest students. I lost count of the times we were teargassed in class. You couldn’t not be politically aware, and the women’s movement was very powerful. Unfortunately they were also very militant, and prescriptive. If you shaved your legs or even wore a skirt, you’d be frowned upon. I remember one acquaintance illicitly applying lipstick in my car after she’d left a women’s movement gathering. She’d been far too scared to do it in the meeting.
There is no doubt that my instincts have always been feminist, but I could not buy that version of it at all. It seemed to me that if I was going to shrug off centuries of the patriarchy telling me what to do, I wasn’t going to trade it for another bunch of people telling me how to dress and behave. Nevertheless, over the years, I’ve read loads of feminist literature. I’ve also distilled my life experience (daughter of a strict, sexist Italian-Afrikaans patriarch/ above-mentioned left-wing university education/ ten years as a single mother) to develop a belief in female equality that makes sense to me, and I’m proud to call it feminism.
But feminism, in my opinion, is at a point of crisis. While on some levels women in the western world have made enormous progress towards equality, billions of women in the rest of the world are as badly or worse off as ever. And over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve seen a gradual backsliding in media and social interaction in the way women behave and are treated (see my post on Slut kicking). We should be gathering more women, not fewer. But somehow, the word “feminist” has become almost an insult. Just when we need it most, the brand of feminism has become something undesirable and unlovely. We need to bring in one of those think-tank creative firms in Soho, run by girls called Jocasta and boys with droopy trousers, media hair and black-rimmed glasses to put the sexy back. The feminist movement needs rebranding.
I could surround a delightful dinner table with the fine people who have told me to read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. It’s a bestselling book by a very popular writer, which sets out to do exactly what I’m saying here: rebranding feminism in the eyes of modern women. It’s sold squillions of copies. I ummed and ahed for ages, and eventually just knuckled down and read it. And bless her award-winning heart, she’s done a cracking job. She debunks a lot of myths and does it with endless humour. It’s a rollicking good read, and I’m sure thousands of women have read it and come out of the other side, saying, for the first time, “Well, maybe I am a feminist after all.”
But in the same way the “womyn” at my university got on my tits a bit, I have to say How to be a Woman did too, after a while. Every behaviour that Moran challenged, she offered her own prescription. Don’t shave or wax your pubes like a porn star, she recommends, grow a nice bush. Don’t have plastic surgery but do care about fashion. After six or seven chapters, I wanted to suggest that the book be retitled, How to be a Woman… just like me.
And while that’s going to work for some women, and has, it’s not going to work for everyone. Because in my experience, women really, really don’t like being told what to do, or how to be. I know I don’t.
I’ve been thinking back to my university days, to a life-changing moment early in my first year. It was the first drama theory class with Malcolm Purkey (an inspiring man and teacher, now heading up the legendary Market Theatre in Johannesburg). He began the class by telling us, “At any point, feel free to put your feet up on the desk and say, ‘Malcolm, you’re talking bullshit.’” It was the most exhilarating thing anyone had ever said to me, because (a) we would get to put our feet on the FURNITURE, (b) we could call a teacher by his first name, and (c) we could swear! What he didn't tell us was that if you did try the “Bullshit!” manoeuvre, he would fix you with his intimidating gaze and say, “Really? Why?” And you would be expected to substantiate your argument. You would have had to have read all the material, read around the subject, and have an intelligent, cogent thesis to present, or he would crush you. It was a splendid life lesson.
And so, at risk of telling you what to do, I’d like to offer you the Rosie Fiore feminist manifesto. It’s very simple.
1. Whatever the issue, inform yourself. Read what people have said about it, preferably from as many different angles as possible.
2. Do what you want.
I mean it. Do exactly what you want. Shave your pubes or grow them to your knees. Have a face-lift or don’t, have children or don’t, be pro-choice or pro-life, vote or don’t, wear a burqa or a thong, work, or don’t. But do it all because you’ve thought about it, and it’s your choice and yours alone. That’s what being a feminist is. It’s about being a grown-up, and making your own choices. And it’s fun.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.