Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had quite a few opportunities to be a feminist in ‘real life’. A mixture of student journalism and seminar-style work has given me the opportunity to put a lot of what I throw around here into practice, and that’s been really awesome and helpful, both for me and (hopefully) the people I’ve been talking with. I’ve been sharing my personal experiences and also broader views, and as such I have been consistently labeled as a feminist. Sometimes a sex-positive feminist, sometimes an LGBT+ feminist, and sometimes just a girl who’s really into women’s issues (which I know isn’t exactly the same thing, but if the shoe fits, etc.). While I generally don’t believe labels are all that helpful, I’m proud of that one, all the more so now that it’s become a dirty word that is so often used to dismiss arguments (‘crazy angry man-hating feminists, of course they’re going to get their panties in a twist over the coverage of the Steubenville rape case’, and the like – yes, I think it’s horrific, no, I don’t have anything new or insightful to add to it).
The upshot is that one of the things I’ve been told a lot is that I sound like I’ve always been a feminist, that I have the kind of confidence and assurance in my views that makes my arguments compelling. And I couldn’t be more flattered to hear this. But it’s got me thinking about when and how that came about. More specifically, it’s reminded me of a moment I thought I’d forgotten, a moment I am certainly not proud of.
I was fifteen, recently out as bi at school, and still working out this whole sexuality thing. I was definitely into LGBT+ rights though, and talked passionately about things like gay marriage and homophobic bullying in schools. One of my friends from the scene was chatting to me online one day, talking about how she’d had a really awful day, being overwhelmed with news stories full of misogynistic bullshit, and how it was really getting her down. I don’t know how we got onto whether or not I was a feminist, but I clearly remember dismissing her. No, I’m not a feminist. I just don’t think we really need all that anymore, do we? Women have equal rights now. I just think there are more important things.
I cringe to remember that, my fifteen-year-old self parroting a line I now wince to hear, a classic trolling argument. There are so many things wrong with that statement it embarrasses me that I once believed it, especially given how progressive I thought I was. I don’t recall what happened, but I think my friend backed off pretty quickly, shocked to have someone she thought was an ally turn against her so obviously.
The thing is, when I was fifteen, I really didn’t have any reason to believe otherwise. I was raised by liberal, open-minded parents. My mother had a successful career and had never changed her name when she got married (one of the reasons I laugh when people tell me I ought to change mine when the time comes because ‘it’s nice to make everyone feel like a family‘ – right, because I clearly didn’t have a family). More importantly, they’d sent me to a fantastic school, one that had been set up on the principle that girls were just as intelligent as boys, and deserved exactly the same chances.
While I know that there can be many problems with a single-sex educational environment, for me, going to an all-girls school was amazing. I know how privileged this makes me, but before I was seventeen (when I first started meeting boys), I genuinely believed that misogyny and sexism were over. Men who believed that women were less competent or ambitious or successful were something we studied in history lessons. There was never even the slightest hint that science and maths were ‘boys’ subjects’ – the most popular subject for A-level was maths. I was taught from my very first day that I was going to be academically successful, as successful as any man, probably more so. I was taught confidence, self-assurance, how to present my views, argue my case, speak with passion and with conviction. I was taught to value myself, and I was surrounded by highly intelligent women, both teachers and students, who thought the same.
I was lucky, and I was privileged. I owe my parents and my circumstances a huge amount for my education, and for the way I am now. But the thing about privilege is that most of the time you don’t realise you have it. That’s one of the privileges. I’d never met anyone who treated women like second-class citizens, like sex objects, like baby-making machines, like children, like collections of hormones – in short, like anything other than full and equal human beings. I knew the history, but I thought it was just that, history. I thought sexism ended when women got the vote. And worst of all, I thought women who thought otherwise were whining and overreacting and acting like victims.
That’s why, when my friend asked if I was a feminist, I denied it so strongly. It took a lot to get me from that to where I am today, a lot of I’m not a feminist, I just believe women should be treated equally, a lot of I’m very much for equal pay and abortion rights, I’m just not one of those crazy feminists. Beginning to understand rape culture took three horrible direct encounters with it, and even then it was a year before I properly began reading and connected what had happened to me with all this ‘feminism’ business that was floating around. (How that came about is the subject of another post entirely, but is just as important.) In short, it took work.
I love my school, and my old teachers. I owe them a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I realise how lucky I was to have been brought up that way. But in a conscious effort to raise young women to value themselves and to never doubt that they were worth as much as any man, they missed out something crucial. They never taught me that this was an effort, and that, in the real world, life wasn’t like that. In all honesty, I was probably happier that way, not knowing. But when people act surprised that I have such conviction in what I believe now and the confidence to express it, it makes me think about how I learnt that confidence alongside being taught that the issues I am so passionate about didn’t exist.
I hope there’s a middle ground, somehow. I really, really want to find it.