Saturday, 30 June 2012

How to be a Woman

(Hugely tenuous outfit link: I was told that this outfit - comprised of a second hand dress and vintage silk shirt & straw hat - made me look vaguely Virginia Woolf-esque. Despite the author's dislike of the word 'feminism', she keenly detailed the double standards and problems facing women during the 1920s. She was one of the first writers to spark my interest in feminism. The photos were taken nearly a year ago by my lovely and talented friend Rosa.)

When we talk about feminism today it's hard to know what is actually being discussed. Once one brushes aside clich├ęs as flimsy and old as cobwebs (bra-burning, men-hating, women’s libbers with no concept of appearance seems to sum up the stereotype), then there are still a huge number of definitions or interpretations of what feminism really is. I’m a liberal feminist, meaning that I believe in equality. For me, feminism is about re-addressing balances and inequalities between the genders – and not just the ones where men have power over women. It’s being brave enough to challenge rape jokes or casual sexism; to feel that I have control over my own body; to believe that everyone has an equal right to a voice. It’s nothing to do with thinking that women are somehow better or deserve special treatment.

Feminism now seems to be a rather subjective umbrella term covering numerous areas. For some it's a political word, for others a practical one. Perhaps it has to be what one makes it. Although it can only be positive that it has spawned so many offshoots and groups, I wonder if this has dissolved the power of the word itself. Or if not dissolved completely, then diffused – having been applied to everything from female politicians (Margaret Thatcher does not deserve to be called a feminist) to pole dancers. These are quite extreme examples (although perhaps representative of two areas that feminism is currently concerned with), but both demonstrate the confusion surrounding the word. I am one of very few teenagers I know willing to define myself as a vociferous feminist. Many my age have little interest in the concept, or somehow assume that it has outgrown its use. Although we (in the UK) admittedly live in a much fairer and more equal society than ever before, this does not mean that feminism is defunct. If anything, new pressures emerge and evolve all the time – from the media’s fixation with body image to the debates on abortion or the appalling statistics on sexual violence. And yet, the ‘get back in the kitchen’ jokes aren’t exclusive to the boys. Some girls join in with this insidious misogyny, apparently ignorant of all the advantages, possibilities and choices that various feminist movements have given them.

Caitlin Moran, in her excellent and hilarious book ‘How to be a Woman’ (part memoir, part feminist manifesto) asks her readers to stand on a chair and shout: “I am a feminist”. I love the idea of requesting blog readers to do the same – even if it’s only a whisper as you stare at the screen. Moran is brilliant not only because she is genuinely funny and willing to talk about so called ‘taboo’ subjects, but also because the feminism she promotes is so readily accessible. I hope that she has had a considerable impact on many who didn’t define themselves as feminists or those who thought they had little interest in equality. For her, a feminist is described as anyone who has a vagina and wants to "be in charge" of it. It’s a good definition, but fails to take into account the fact that men can be feminists too - although she does mention them later. Male feminists are absolutely brilliant, and I have huge respect for anyone who describes themselves thus (in fact male feminisim will be the topic of my next post).

My view on feminism is that it should never be a case of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (ie women vs men). This is as simplistic as the Hollywood representations of ‘Goodies’ and ‘Baddies’.  It’s unrealistic, formulaic and insulting. One gender doesn’t take precedence over another. Feminism was a response to  patriarchy, but some women are pretty good at victimising each other too, and can also victimise men.  The statistics suggest that women are more liable to experience violence, but that doesn't negate the evidence that 1 in 6 men also experience domestic abuse (the figure is 1 in 4 for women, according to this report in the Guardian from 2010). Men are somehow expected to brush off such things,  to treat them less seriously than female counterparts. Furthermore, startlingly effective campaigns such as this show that the stigma and shame surrounding rape is something faced by both genders. Thus, pitting one gender against the other is counter-productive and ignorant, whatever the circumstances.

One of the joys of learning about feminism, however, is the availability of so many books on the subject. Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman’ was described as "The Female Eunuch from a bar stool" – referring to Germaine Greer’s seminal feminist text. Greer has done much to popularize feminism, and for that I applaud her. When she was writing in 1970, her thoughts were revolutionary and refreshing. She was willing to say what others wouldn’t. And yet, it strikes me that she has also done much to provoke ire. Her writing is brilliant rhetoric – engaging, angry and extremely well-informed -  and yet sometimes also saturated with sweeping generalisations: ‘men’ are treated as a collective whole; shopping is a form of enslavement; the medical industry hates women. In my opinion, this tendency towards such broad judgments is reductive and undermines the more rational, thoughtful parts of her work. There are certain statements she makes that I completely disagree with, and others that I nod along to as I read. Nonetheless, sometimes it’s a good idea to read feminist literature that you might not necessarily agree with all the time – as it helps to strengthen and clarify your own stance. I would recommend Greer to anyone interested in feminism, alongside Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. I also have Mary Wollstonecraft, Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir on my reading list, and am currently enjoying a book called ‘Feminism: A very short introduction’. I read the brilliant Vagenda blog regularly, and also occasionally visit the The F-Word. Suggestions for other websites would be much appreciated. 

What does feminism mean to you? I'm very interested in any discussion on the topic and in hearing diverse opinions. This is the first of four posts I have planned on the subject – a ‘feminist fortnight’ of sorts. 


AVY said...

I don't know any group of people that is more obsessed with gender than feminists. It's very strange, if your gender doesn't matter then why constantly bitch about it?

/ Avy

Akosua said...

Well I Neha Ghandi made the point that feminism is about choice...the choice to do what you would like to do and not being restricted from doing it based on gender...meaning that really there's not a specific way to be a feminist...i believe every girl should be a feminist and people might understand feminism more if it doesn't have these bars across it that tell you "you have to be this kind of a girl as opposed to the kind of girl you are, to believe that women are intelligent and powerful" i don't think you yes in a way a pole dancer can be a feminist if she believes that being a woman doesnt make her less powerful..

Ellie Jane said...

amen for posts like this. I go to an all girls school and am the only one from my group of friends and acquaintances who would call myself a feminist. I remember being shocked aged 12 when none of my friends had heard of the suffragettes, my chosen topic for a history essay.
Many of my friends feel that there 'is no place for feminism in today's society', a statement which is quickly greeted by me informing them of the controversy surrounding abortion in many places.
Personally, one of the things I feel most strongly about is street harassment, the way many men find it social acceptable to shout obscene things and make sexual gestures as we pass them. I've been subjected to this many a time and each time I feel degraded and embarrassed but yet it's still an issue many don't recognise.
I am now planning on drawing inspiration from your reading list for my spare time over the summer!
I look forward to the coming posts.

Junaluska said...

Thank you for this! I was just discussing "straw feminism" the other day [there's a really good Youtube video on it], and it always shocks me how young women do not want to associate with feminism. I don't think they really understand it. And I absolutely love Virginia Woolf.

mary van note said...

Yay feminism! I'm a feminist. No fear of saying it either. I studied gender theory in college and was completely fascinated with it and feminist issues. I need to get my nose back into some books, maybe Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and The History of Sexuality by Foucault. I follow a number of feminist blogs too including:

Thrifted Shift said...

Today I saw an excellent performance of Les Miserables, which I enjoyed until I started to get incredibly irked by the female roles in it. The most powerful woman is a horrible person. When the women team up, it's to hurt another woman. The lead roles are either total victims without a man to protect them and an over-protected child. Ugh. I have also been thinking about A Room of One's Own- my husband and I live in a 3 bedroom home. We have a bedroom, and we each have a room of our own. If we ever decide to have a child, we will lose that luxury. Thanks for another interesting and engaging post, I'll be back later to read more comments from others!

Maria said...

Is there such a word as masculinism I wonder? I don't like when people call me a feminist based on nothing else but the obvious fact that I am a female.

Do I have to be a feminist? Can't I just be? I think it's not about equality, we are so different to begin with, aren't we? It's more about the battle that must go on. Were each and one of us androgynous, we still would find a cause to fight our battles. Peace would be dull.

TheShophopper said...

Maria: I think your objections stem from a difference in terminology. Why on earth would people call you a feminist just for being a woman? I know plenty of men who proudly declare themselves to be feminists. What Rosalind is writing is precisely that there is not much sense to be found in the juxtaposition between men and women. The question is very simple: if you're all for equal chances for man and women, if you cherish your right to vote and own things and choose who to marry (if you would choose to marry at all); if you think boys and girls should be educated both alike; if you don't wish to be held back just because you have a vagina: then I think it's safe to say you're a feminist. It needn't imply more than that. In Dutch we have two words whereas English only has the word 'equal': we have word (gelijkheid) to indicate that two things are equal, as in, precisely the same, and we have another word (gelijkwaardigheid) to indicate that two things have equal value. It is the latter word that is used consequently in matters of men and women. I don't care about equality, but I do care about everyone being worth the same. Instead of denouncing feminism, why not think about what it means or could mean to you?

Rosalind: excellent post, as ever. I read Moran a few months ago and am pushing my friends to read her. She's downright hilarious. As is the Vagenda! I love that you don't shy away from these kind of issues. Truly well done.

Fashionistable said...

This is a brilliant piece Rosalind. Extremely well written and thought out. I am continually amazed at the fear many women feel about sticking up for themselves as if it is shameful. I quickly looked up the meaning of feminist in the dictionary - advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men. What on earth could be so wrong with being treated equally? I do not believe it is us against them at all but I have always believed from a very early age that is is unfair that things should be better for the guys than the girls. I loved Moran's book too. I think it should be on the school
curriculum. As for feminist men hooray for them. We need more of them. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant piece Rosalind Thank You. Xxxx

Tara said...

An incredibly pertinent and well written piece.
The 'serious' issues regarding feminism will never go away, but need to be addressed - and that's why, I too, get quite frustrated about the minor debates about what it means to be a feminist. Anyone -male or female - can be a feminist, as I feel it is just a signal to others that you believe in equality no matter what your gender is.

Best Wishes,


akeensecretidenitywriter said...

You look like a female buster keaton!

Caitlin Rose said...

you look so 1940s in these photos! I love it!

Anonymous said...

Roz this is utterly brilliant and I'm sorely tempted to print off this post and collate it, along with many other wonderful pieces of feminist writing, into some form of publication about how modern feminism really works! It's also a wonderful coincidence that only yesterday I received through the post Caitlin's zine, BOOM, as because it was an issue dedicated solely to feminism I contributed an article to it. To read the whole booklet cover to cover gave me such hope that the new wave of feminists of our generation will be able to stamp out the stereotypes that yo mention in your first paragraph. I am frequently chided - even if it is meant jokingly - about my feminist views, though the most annoying thing is when people ask what feminism means to me and I say it's about equality and then they deem me ignorant as they are still stuck in the mindset that it's about women getting the upper hand as we've all been oppressed for so long. I intensely dislike this portrayal of modern feminists being caged animals that will savage the male species at the first opportunity. I've been searching for a way to describe my feminist beliefs so I will definitely be joining you as a "liberal feminist".

In terms of publications then you already know my love of Caitlin and her wonderful honest and witty writing. I can strongly recommend her weekly column in The Times Magazine to anyone who enjoys How To Be A Woman. The Vagenda is also excellent and often investigates feminist issues and debates that wouldn't normally make the front pages. The F Word is also good. A Room Of One's Own is a classic feminist memoir and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the purple Penguin book mug dedicated to it at Hay. I like the fact that even whilst working a steaming mug of hot chocolate can show my feelings about feminism. Apart from Woolf I haven't read any of the older feminist literature such as Greer though I can understand that it's important to be able to define your feminist beliefs by what you are not. Indeed, it is often the writings we read and don't agree with that make more ardent our own views.

Just a final word about male feminists; I am blessed that several of the males in my family are very supportive of the feminist cause and would happily call themselves feminists. Any man who will willingly and happily descrcibe himself as a feminist is utterly brilliant and I applaud them all. The problem with the word feminist is that it comes from the same stem as words such as female and feminine, suggesting that equality is something that only women should be achieving when, in actual fact, we need everybody on side.

Between yourself and Caitlin you've both inspired me to write a feminist post and express my own opinions. I was on the periphery of the subject in my post on International Women's Day when I chose the women of the world who most inspired me and wrote a short paragraph about each. many were feminists or at least held feminist beliefs or projected the sense that they were strong women. However, I think feminism deserves a post entirely to itself. I think I've been waiting for you to write this post for ages Roz and I'm so glad that you finally have. Hope all is well with you, Alexandra xx

The Cat Who Walked by Herself said...

Incidentally,this was a random topic of conversation today,with a couple of my friends,and 'twas sort of buzzing around at the back of my brain somewhere on the metro ride home.

The statistics about domestic abuse you mention may be true for developed countries.I can tell you for certain,in India,where female infanticide and 'honour' killings are not uncommon,even in this day and age,the statistics are quite different.
There are generations of men who have been brought to believe they are superior to women,ironically by their own mothers.I know of families who have not stopped having children till a male offspring is born.And the sad part is these people are well read,educated in prestigious universities,professionals,not the rural,illiterate bum from some godforsaken place ,you'd imagine.

My point being,the story is quite different over here,and to change the mindset of a society as a whole is a long and slow process.A large majority just wouldn't get a 'get back in the kitchen' joke.

Also,my friend pointed out today that many women,though confined within the 'acceptable' social boundaries,know quite well how to have their men wrapped around their little finger!

Your pictures are great as usual,and I am looking forward to reading 'How to be a Woman'.

P.s-I paint a rather bleak picture of the state of affairs in India,but I would like to point out that even though,sadly Delhi has been on numerous occasion been called the 'rape capital of india'(and not without reason),that I can recall at least three occasions of telling random men,I'll break their necks with my bare hands in response to lewd comments passed while walking on the road (to which they always react with utter surprise) in the past six months,that here it is routine to be leered at,that it is not safe for a woman to be walking alone on a well-lit road after 8 pm and that there are times when I genuinely feel that lechers,roadside romeos and all of the city's men in general should be should be shot at sight,there is change happening,I know some wonderful men,and I at the end of the day believe in equality.

The Cat Who Walked by Herself said...

P.p.s- I seem to have gone off on a tangent about my city.

There is one other thing,nowadays it seems hep to be 'slutty'.What do you think of that?is it being regressive,women looking upon themselves as objects or part of being sexually assertive?

Jules said...

I love your post. It infuriates me when people define feminism as the idea that women should be superior to men, or when they view feminist ideals as unnecessary in a world where everyone is supposedly equal.

When Irish women can enter family planning centres without being accosted and verbally abused by protesters...when women can go out to dance without being sexually harassed...when rape victims are no longer blamed for somehow 'provoking' their attackers...when we stop calling each other sluts and whores, or accepting these labels from others....THEN we will be equal:)

I am thankful every day for all the feminist activists who fought a long hard struggle for many of the rights that I enjoy today, and feel saddened when I hear many girls my age dismiss them as 'angry man-haters'.

Amazing post as always Rosalind, you are an inspiration!

Jules said...

Have just noticed the comment above and it makes a very interesting point- perhaps words like 'slutty' could be reclaimed to mean something powerful or assertive, similar to the way in which words like queer have been reclaimed? Just wanted to make clear that I only disagree with the use of words like "slut" when they are used in a dismissive or judgemental sense, which is not at all what I think the author above was doing :)

Katia Pellicciotta said...

You have so intelligently explained a variety of aspects of feminism that is admirably not excluding nor degrading of anyone's ideas. I think it's so exciting in our generation to be living within such a revolution - it feels like history.

Miu said...

A very interesting topic!
I have to admit I did not really think about feminism so far (although I read The Feminine Mystique), but for me it means I can choose on my own what I want to do, that I have the same opportunities as men and that I'm not treated bad because of my gender.

Akosua said...

IN response to Miu: This is exactly what I believe...that feminism is about choice and that gender shouldn't restrain your opportunities.

Lydia said...

Feminism is experiencing such a broad range of definition right now, and the lines between the various definitions blur so easily. Being aware of the issue and have some sort of idea of where you stand is always a good start-- sometimes it's enough to just be part of the conversation. I consider myself a feminist, and I think that's a complicated thing. My boyfriend is a stand-up comic, and I go to a lot of comedy shows, and I have to say I am not offended by rape jokes. I am offended by rape.

Also I don't hate men, but then sometimes I do. Sometimes I think men are vile, disgusting creatures. So that part is complicated too. I think it's okay to not always feel the same way about everything, and to not fit a textbook version of what feminism is.

Also you look beautiful in these photos.

Sasha said...

I am a feminist which to be honest is not something I say much, even though it is true. I hate the stereotypes which seem to to go hand in hand with feminism, which seem very ironic to me as, they are sort of the opposite of what feminism is encouraging. To be honest the resin why I don't freely admit to everybody is so guys like me. Shallow but true and also I have never been asked out right and if I was I would say "hell yeah". I do think that it is sad that I am not more open with it. But it would be strange if the first thing people new about me was that I was a feminist, so I am ok with that.

I love the outfit and the book you mentiond, it was such a eye opener and I strongly advise anybody who has not read it yet to cos it is one of the best books I have read ever.


Sofie Marie said...

I'm pleased you wrote this.Theres nothing here I would disagree with,and if there were I would just be pleased that the topic is being debated,as it's something that I'm constantly trying to learn more about. Reading this on a day that I've encountered the much hated sexist joke(and the much hated attempt to enlighten said joker) at school has been a good pick me up- and I look forward to reading Caitlan Morans account.
I'm actually researching for a dissertation on feminism in relation to fashion at the moment!If you've got any texts you think would be useful,I'd love to hear.

Flis said...

I'm afraid to say that I have only recently realised the true nature of feminism, but I, like you, now class myself as a liberal feminist. It pains me when fellow female friends tell kitchen jokes as if they're 'one of the boys' and that, despite the increased equality in our society, women are still seen as objects by many men. I'm hoping to see a change in the future - after all, women's position in society has rapidly developed over the past 100 years or so and it can only continue to do so.

OrigamiGirl said...

I am proud that there are people who can write and talk as proudly as you do on this issue.

I can talk about feminism and debate it forever. On my blog I often talk abotu sexism in toys (which my most recent post is on), anyone can see I care about these issues. But I do not feel the need to write more here than: I agree.

OrigamiGirl said...

I can write and talk about feminism for a long time. I constantly read and watch Vagenda, the F word, Feminist Frequency and Shameless. But I don't feel the need to write much more here or give a long analysis other than: I agree and I am glad that you are proud to use the word feminist.

Melanie said...

Great title but I haven't read the book. A thoughtful post - no wonder you are compelled to do a mini series on the topic.

Two years ago I read Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Done by Susan J. Douglas after mounting concern that 30-year-old women I know, with master's degrees, go to strip bars with their male buddies and dress very scantily because they "feel comfortable with their bodies." The book tries to put this "forward" attitude into historical context, which I enjoyed.

Are we running in place? If not, how many paces forward are we gaining each decade toward equitable and mutual respect? Some of my satirical art deals with these issues... These thoughts crowd my brain!

Willow said...

I loved Caitlin Moran's definition of feminism, and I was very interested in this post - I was constantly nodding to myself as I read this.I look forward to reading the coming posts.

- Willow

Fashion Tales said...

Wonderful post Roz! There's such excellent points made ... I also agree, it's a good idea to read feminist literature. I love reading how others define what feminist means to them.

AvaPilar said...

Brilliant post. I believe that the connotations with being a feminist are twisted and exploited through the media and have been separated between women who gain power through sex (so ironic) and crazy radicals who burn there bras. Neither of these stereotypes seems like a fair interpretation of what a strong independent women should be. I think something that people often times forget about feminism is that it doesn't advocate for women to be superior to men, but rather promotes equality between the sexes. Historically gender norms and misogynist attitudes affect and oppress men just as much as women. I recently read a collection of essays applying various critiques to novels, and there was a brilliant feminist read on Gatsby. I can't remember the womens name who wrote it though, but if you happen upon it I highly recommend it. Oh sorry, I got a little carried away!

I recently started a blog to catalogue my art and would love if you'd look at it. Theres not much yet, but should eventually include some of my sewing. Merci.

The Cat Who Walked by Herself said...

Unknown said...

Feminism means equal rights and respect, in a nutshell. Which is why I am proud to be one.

Penny Dreadful Vintage said...

Feminism to me means equal rights and respect, it is so simple. I'm proud to be a feminist, and pleased that we are starting to reclaim it as something worth getting vocal about.

Danielle Nelson said...

Feminism is also a RESPONSE to the system of inequality...a source of safety, empowerment, security, etc. Feminism has made me a stronger individual by understanding that because we are all equal, with equal opportunities to succeed as that of any man, I am more than a body-- I am a full, comprehensive, multi-faceted person and an empowered woman.

I wrote a lot about why I'm a feminist on my blog...

I love your blog. Your writing style is lovely and I can't wait to start reading some of those books you recommended. Next one on my list is The Second Sex!

Ioana Carmen said...

so cute!

Fashion Spot

The Foolish Aesthete said...

Brilliant post! And Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" is such a rewarding read, even if only for her extraordinary prose.

Feminism is often a topic I bring up on my blog too, normally in relation to the late 19th through the early 20th centuries. Yet, I despised the term as a youth, associating it with dour looking ladies (and, as an ignorant young girl, "lesbianism").

Interestingly, I WAS one from an early age. I did not like things aimed at "girls" -- whether they were books or toys, viewing them as condescending and inferior, preferring instead to do just whatever interested me, even if it was more attractive to the boys. That could have been borne of being competitive with my brothers and having very strong, accomplished males in the family. So I wanted to out-math, out-science, out-spy, out-read the boys. It turns out, in graduate school, I was the only female among the students. Same thing at work. I didn't want the "soft, female" jobs most of the ladies were relegated to. So I ended up being the only lady doing what we were doing at the time.

Perhaps age has mellowed me out and I don't find such a driving need to prove myself against the male establishment anymore. But from the standpoint of women being capable of anything they put their mind to, I am still a Feminist. -- J xxx

Anonymous said...

How To Be A Woman was such a fantastic book that as soon as I finished it I insisted that all my friends (male and female) read it, before thrusting it at my husband. I think Moran is brilliant, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to the next installment!

Vanessa, Take only Memories said...

Oh wow, I think I need to lern how to be more like a woman! Sounds really interesting.
And you look absoluely wonderful!

Tink's Tinkerings said...

Awesome Potography, I have posted your blog link to my fb "We Really Made It" Tink

Izzy/Bella said...

Almost caught up on your blog. Your output is prodigious, and what I like about is how you're never lazy in your thoughtful writing "just because it's a blog." I've been very guilty of that myself, but that's something I really like about you and Jenny's (the foolish aesthete's) blogs, so something I shall work on.

I agree: it's never about women vs. men. In some ways the true victims of patriarchy or those self-same callous men, incapable of experiencing an inner "I" because there's always been so many self and cultural-imposed taboos on what they can think or say or feel.

And last but not least I loved the passionate feeling you capture in the pics.

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