A certain definition of the word “feminist” has entered the pop culture consciousness on account of Beyoncé’s Flawless: “a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes”. Sampling quotes from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk “We Should All Be Feminists”, Bey highlighted an oft-hidden truth: we should all be feminists, but we aren’t. Feminism is messy. It’s not merely a definition or a word. It exists as a tapestry of coloured perceptions that have been woven together throughout history. Despite having now broken into the mainstream, the movement is still stained with many misconceptions. Frankly, navigating feminist waters today, in what is still wholly a “man’s world”, can be confusing as navigating a foreign city without Google maps. Alas, there’s no Lonely Planet for feminism.
When my editor / co-conspirator suggested I write a piece about the women against feminism, I scoffed, thinking I had left my anti-feminist ways behind me. In truth, I was uncomfortable with the thought of outing my former self. Then again, maybe I would be better equipped to understand the ideologies of the anti-feminists I spoke to and even possibly make some sort of nullifying dent on their opposition to the movement. It takes one to know one, so maybe it takes one to change one too?
I am a feminist. It took years to be able to say that. I wish I could say I devoured the feminist tomes of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan as a teenager, but I was a late bloomer. People were always so surprised to hear me reject the label, as someone who apparently seemed like the type. This assumption only led me to be even more apprehensive. In my life, I thought I had never experienced sexism. I didn’t hate men or bras (both wonderful support mechanisms and easily removable if the cup runneth over) nor had I ever felt deeply discriminated against or disempowered just because I was a girl. By acknowledging that I might be, would be to show weakness. The most empowering thing you could do was to just get on with life. By acting like nothing’s holding us back as a women, nothing would. Besides, feminism was over, they fixed that already right?
So it would seem, if one were to believe the anti-feminist testaments on Women Against Feminism, a website which calls for women to unite in their opposition against what they see as a “hate movement”. On the site, they hold up pages with statements slating the fight for women’s right as a “victim complex” and dismissing it as irrelevant in the western world. “I am not oppressed, and neither are you!”
One woman belies feminism in the name of being wooed, preferring “to be treated like a lady”. Another member calls it an insult to “men who worked so hard to secure the rights that women have now.” (What men is she talking about I wonder? Maybe she meant all of the men, for being so sound to let us vote and all?) One particular aggressor appoints the blame for OK-ing promiscuity “I don’t need something that tells me the actions of a slut are okay, and then that the possible evidence of these actions can be thrown away like they were nothing but a clump of tissue”.
At first this group seems like an occult order. Yet bar the odd roving slut shamer, the majority of these women aren’t hateful, just young, western, and ignorant. They are earnest in their beliefs that they have “the exact same rights as men” or that rape culture “doesn’t exist”. Their nascent views are a product of a sheer lack of awareness for what is happening to women in the world around them, coupled with a misunderstanding of what the feminist movement truly stands for. It makes me want to shake them – but I don’t hate them.
It’s much simpler to separate oneself from those with opposing views online, because on the screen, they’re not real. There’s an ease at which we can disenfranchise ourselves from what we might brush off as internet “crazies” – put them in a box away over there with the Trump supporters and there they shall stay. But as I said, they’re just normal women and the fact is, they don’t merely exist as pixels, they walk among us too. Some of them might even be our best friends. It’s human nature to surround ourselves with like-minded people. People that eat, drink, think and vote the same way we do. Our tribe. The reality is that this creates a blinker effect which leads to inevitable assumptions about those around us. These prejudices are what led me to discover my first anti-feminist friend.
Faye, 25, works as a paralegal at a tech company in Dublin by day, and is a writer/poet waiting in the (left) wings by night. Faye is the girl that grabs you to go see that weird movie in the IFI that’s showing for one night only. The mate that will casually offer you a duck egg when you’ve just popped in for tea. She’s the person I swap bad sex stories with, and book recommendations alike. A voracious reader, cultural aficionado, and a generous soul, Faye is the friend you can bring to a party and be at ease knowing that she will flourish in whoever’s company she happens to besiege. What I’m trying to say, is that she is anything but “basic”. I had a certain view of what an anti-feminist looks like, and Faye didn’t fit the bill.
Liberal though she may be, Faye was uncomfortable with the term feminist. “ I feel like most of my thoughts, if I sat down and categorised them, would make sense in a left wing world view and not in a feminist view. I’d essentially be a shit feminist.”
Her reluctance to identify as a feminist, even a shit one at that, came to my attention when I offered her a Repeal the 8th badge and she hesitated. Her reaction was unexpected, if even unprecedented within my immediate peer group. Based on subconscious judgements I had made around her social views and interests, which I would typically have associated as feminist behaviour, I expected her to not only accept the badge, but to wear it proudly.
When asked about marching in solidarity for Choice, she said “it would still be trespassing on the values that I can’t throw off, even though rationally I can throw them off.” A conservative upbringing is a root of her apprehension. “I think maybe I was raised in such a way, that I so associated sexuality with sinfulness or something, that I still can’t quite march in favour of abortion.” Despite being able to rationalise pro-choice within her own mind and affirming her belief in a woman’s right to choose, when it comes to marching, she says “I’m just not there yet”.
Faye has reservations that women and men will ever be completely equal for inherently biological reasons. “To an extent, no matter how equal you make it and in terms of sexual politics or dynamics, if I am going into a sexual situation with the risk that I might come out bearing a child, I don’t think I’m equal.” She thinks this inequality has pervasive effects on many aspects of a woman’s life. Her decision that “obviously I am going to be away for two years when I have my children” is not an uncommon one. Generationally, it’s always been that way. Any questioning of traditional stereotypes is a recent departure for many. Still, a cultural bias runs deep. An explicit example of discrimination took place in Faye’s workplace only recently, when a woman on maternity leave was replaced by a temp, who was pregnant unbeknownst to the employers. The general consensus in the office was that “people thought it was fair enough, but then also thought that it wasn’t on”. Faye quite justly concludes however “at the same time, girl’s gotta eat.”
Women that do rise to power within the company are ruthless characters according to Faye. As a university student, her father would tell her how awful women in the workplace were to each other. In the law firm at which he worked, women apparently felt so lucky to have a place in the boardroom, that they felt immediately in competition with other women at the table. The ‘bitchy boss’ stereotype that once so aggravated Faye when her father relayed it, has now crystallised in her own life “They’re real people that have stamped their way to the top and trampled up, and mainly over women.”
Cold-blooded ambition is a “funny byproduct” of empowerment of women in business, she says. As I see it, it is often a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, when ambition is viewed in the context of women, it obtains a negative connotation. It takes serious chutzpah and a superhuman focus to rise to the top of a global company, and doubly so when gender is factored against you. Women in these positions are no doubt ruthless to a degree, but no more or no less than their male peers. It isn’t bold to speculate that perhaps the decisions and moves made by women on these career trajectories are more highly scrutinised and quickly lumped into the category of a Miranda Priestly trope. No one could deny however, that women have to work harder against prevailing forces to succeed. They have to “lean in”.
Graphic designer, Lucy, 22, is more strident in her antipathy to the movement. Her main problem is the capitalisation of feminism – an issue du jour. Gone is the old “sex sells” adage. Now, Lucy says it’s all about “girl power”. She flags a number of fashion and beauty brands as perpetrators of this, including, rather pointedly, Chanel. At the Spring Summer ‘15 show, the fashion house held a “random nothing protest”, as Lucy puts it. Models, mostly white, marched down the catwalk feigning a protest led by ubiquitous It-girl Cara Delevigne, megaphone in hand. Lucy ridicules the slogans, one that reads “boys should get pregnant too” particularly rubs her up the wrong way, saying “I’m sorry, but you cannot defy the laws of biology”.
In a sense, I get where she’s coming from. The show itself, was a contrived, attenuated version of gender equality. Although, there’s only so much that can be articulated in a three minute catwalk and however watered down it may have been, fashion is a reflection of the times. It’s access is global. Chanel is a household name and it’s collections are generally dictated by the zeitgeist of the moment. If their faux protest proves anything, it’s that feminism is in fashion. While the two share a complex relationship, fashion capitalising on feminism’s new found fab is a vapid confirmation that it’s breached the mainstream.
It’s not just brands that are “using” the movement to make money, it seems. Lena Dunham is the main celebrity culprit in Lucy’s eyes. Dunham sends dual messages by being “a bit chubby” and refusing to place an emphasis on her looks, while then also befriending Taylor Swift and appearing in her music videos. To Lucy, Dunham’s willingness to be friends with someone who is skinny and successful says one thing: she’s fickle and fame-hungry, and motivated by “money and admiration and all of those things.” Has she considered that maybe Swift is the one hobnobbing off the back of this alliance? Is Dunham not the voice of her generation? Or at least a voice, of a generation.
Echoing sentiments on the Women Against Feminism blog, Lucy sees modern feminism as a movement of superiority rather than equality. It’s been “almost turned on itself”. She says it’s no longer necessary in the western world: “we’re not looking for equal rights, we already have them”.
What about the pay gap? “Don’t even start me on that – OH MY GOD.” she exclaims, in response to what is one of the greatest issues facing women in the western world today. It seems that’s partly her issue. Women in the developed world have it so good that we ought to be redirecting our efforts to women elsewhere and stop moaning about #FirstWorldProblems. “There’s just so much more that the passionate people involved in the feminist movement could be doing rather than trying to get an extra €2 on our pay.” Of course she agrees that it should be solved, eventually, but she wishes it wasn’t seen as a main issue when forced marriage isn’t.
Feminism isn’t meant to exist as an issue over here and another issue over there. There are going to be a myriad of obstacles, because there’s not one kind of woman. There are abled women and disabled women, black women and white women, straight women, gay women, trans women and more. We are a plethora inhabiting an ecosystem of issues which are all connected. When we solve one, it’s reform has a ripple effect elsewhere. Gloria Steinem would not have been enlightened on the racial reasons for controlling women’s bodies had she not attended Martin Luther King’s march for civil rights in 1963. Just as Repeal the 8th would not be so embedded in our consciousness today, had we not fought for marriage equality. When we fight for equality in our own lives, we are fighting for equality everywhere.
When former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said “there’s a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.”, she did feminism a disservice. Despite her best intentions, this is a rhetoric which further alienates the unsure or the wary. Yes, it’s imperative that we help one another out, but little is achieved by berating the women who don’t think as we do. I set about writing this piece, not to slam anti-feminist women or to try and shame my friends into conversion, but to explore and convince. Given my own meandering route to feminism, I understand taking an active stance on the feminist movement is a choice to be made individually. I also know the important role peers have to play in ever so subtly guiding you in the right direction. After gentle persuasion, I began to read and research for myself (shout out to Caitlin Moran), and found I could empathise with the people who partook in this movement.
When you finally “get it” and all the extraneous ideas unite together as one fully formed understanding, all you want to do is share what now know and pass the light bulb moment onto another.
Some are more readily convinced than others. Starting with the bad news: A few weeks after our discussions, I followed up with Lucy to see had her views changed at all since. My inquisition was met with a pretty grim «Nah man, haven’t changed at all tbh». Though she acknowledges that her post gender equality “what’s the point” take on feminism is based on her own experience of having never felt that she was treated differently because she was a girl. And I could relate.
The next morning my phone beeps: it’s Faye. She tells me about a mysterious kebab that she had found in her living room that morning, no doubt a casualty from the night before. She then goes on to say that she is on her way into the office with a Repeal the 8th badge pinned to the front of her dungarees (they, in themselves, another gender-non-conforming victory). Questions, funny looks and awkward silences abound, she wore the badge all day. One colleague missed the boat altogether and sent an image of a minion in overalls to her inbox. In the week’s later she sent me a snap of a prettily-packaged copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speech “We Should All Be Feminists” which she had just bought, like the “person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes” that she is.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney