But is it time we gave up on feminism?
Not the principles. Not for even a heartbeat would I suggest that. But the word. Yes, yes I know what I’ve said about it before, and how angry it has made me in the past when I’ve heard women say they aren’t feminists. I can hear the muttering and growling already from so many readers, but let me explain further.
This past weekend, I was enormously privileged to attend Blogfest 2013, the annual conference for members of the Mumsnet Blogging Network. I arrived at King’s Place near King’s Cross and walked into a room which can only be described as awash with oestrogen. It was the single most exciting space I have been in in years. Women’s views ruled. In the opening session, journalist Toby Young interrupted Stella Creasy, MP, and tried to shout her down to make a point. The audience hissed. For once, a middle-aged white man was not going to get to shout the loudest or tell a woman to “calm down”.
The Internet has, in many ways, made publishing democratic. People can make themselves heard with little more than a mobile phone and an email connection. The gateway to an audience is no longer controlled by a media conglomerate, nor is money a barrier. Good blogs rise and are shared. Social media gives us all the right to reply and express our opinions. This is the first time in history where lucky women have the chance to speak for themselves, and on behalf of those who live in situations where illiteracy, cultural constraints and Internet crackdowns prevent them from speaking.
So there we were, sitting in a room full of women – but not just any women – blogging women. Women with a voice, a voice they claim for themselves. Women who have ideas and carve out spaces for themselves on the Internet: having opinions, shaping opinion, writing, making, photographing. They tell stories, give advice, build businesses and make art. Women who, in my definition of the term, are the living embodiment of feminism, every last one of them.
And then… well, then. The final session was named, “Can you be a ‘mummy blogger’ and still be a feminist?” It was a title sure to cause controversy. Those quote marks around ‘mummy blogger’. The choice of ‘mummy’ rather than ‘mother’, or just ‘woman’. Why not just ‘blogger’ without a qualifier? And why ‘still’ a feminist? And unsurprisingly, the session soon degenerated, and in the main, it degenerated over issues of semantics. Can you be a feminist and make jam? Or wear heels? Is ‘mummy’ a derogatory term? Is motherhood the full-stop to your life?
And through it all – the shouting, the scrolling, angry twitter feed on the screen that was eventually turned off as it threatened to upstage the action onstage, the sudden and unceremonious exit of the panel, I wanted to stand up and shout at everyone…. “Listen to yourselves! You’re arguing about the meanings of words because you can! Because you have a voice and a forum! You’re all bloody feminists! Every last one of you!”
Except they weren’t. Many, many women in that room were quick to say they weren’t feminists, out loud or later in blogs and on twitter. Several I spoke to later at the drinks said the same thing. And the next day, when I spoke to a friend who is a doctor, and qualified in the 1970s when women doctors were extremely rare, she said it too.
And yet… if you were to ask any of these women if they felt that women should be paid the same as men for the same work, that there should be more equable childcare laws, that women all over the world should be granted education and freedom from violence, rape and mutilation, I guarantee they’d all say yes, and many of them are living those aims or campaigning for them for themselves and others. It sounds like feminism to me, but these women reject the word, because for them it has become toxic and laden with things they abhor, wrongly or rightly. For them it has come to suggest humourlessness, a dismissal of familiar feminine activities and pursuits, man-hating, elitism, middle-class smugness, or as my friend the doctor put it, stridency. One could say it has come to mean a bunch of cross, loud, posh women telling other women what they can and can’t do.
It breaks my heart, because feminism is a word I love with all my heart, but it’s not doing us any favours.
So let’s ditch it. Let’s ditch this word if it’s standing between us. Does it matter what we call ourselves? We are women with voices, women who want a better life for ourselves, our daughters and sons and, by extension for the men who can only benefit from our enriched participation in society (even though they sometimes don’t see it quite yet). As much as I love the word, I love the principles more, and I love the astonishing women I know who currently feel excluded by it.