Laurie Penny on the F-word in modern Britain: feminism

It’s not enough for us to sit back and wait for the system of power to become a little more equal.

What is it about the word “feminism” that frightens people so much? In recent months, as I’ve travelled around the world giving talks about anti-capitalism and women’s rights, I’ve had the same conversation countless times: men telling me, “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” Or young women, explaining that despite believing in the right to equal pay for equal work, despite opposing sexual violence, despite believing in a woman’s right to every freedom men have enjoyed for centuries, they are not feminists. They are something else, something that’s very much like a feminist but doesn’t involve having to say the actual word.

“Feminism” is the one F-word that really will make eyes widen in polite company. Saying it implies you might have demands that can’t be met by waiting politely for some man in charge to make the world a little bit fairer. It’s a word that suggests dissatisfaction, even anger – and if there’s one thing that a nice girl isn’t supposed to be, it’s angry.

Often, fear of the word “feminism” comes from women ourselves. In many years of activism, I’ve frequently heard it suggested that feminism simply needs to “rebrand”; to find a better, more soothing way of asking that women and girls should be treated like human beings rather than drudges or brainless sex toys. It’s a typical solution for the age of PR and the politics of the focus group: just put a fluffy spin on feminism and you’ll be able to sell it to the sceptics. It turns out, however, that while a watered-down vision of women’s empowerment can be used to flog shoes, chocolate and dull jobs in the service sector, real-life feminist politics – which involves giving women and girls control over our lives and bodies – is much tougher to sell.

Whatever you choose to call it, practical equal rights for women will always be a terrifying prospect for those worried about the loss of male privilege. It’s no wonder that “feminism” is still stereotyped as an aggressive movement, full of madwomen dedicated to the destruction of the male sex and who will not rest until they can breakfast on roasted testicles. It should be obvious that, as the feminist writer bell hooks puts it, “Most people learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” As a result, most people remain confused about what the fight for gender liberation ultimately means.

Outlets such as tabloid newspapers, men’s magazines and sitcoms pound out a stream of stereotypes about feminism. It fascinates us, men and women alike, precisely because its ultimate demands for redistribution of power and labour are so enormous. The stereotypes invariably focus on the pettiest of details: an article about whether or not it is “feminist” for a woman to shave her armpits is guaranteed to drive a lot of traffic to the website of any ailing newspaper – but less so one about the lack of pension provision for female part-time workers.

Stereotypes of this sort are effective for a reason: they target some of our most intimate fears about what gender equality might mean. For example, attacks on “feminists” as ugly, masculine, even that worst possible slur, “hairy-legged”, contain the threat that being outspoken will damage our gender identity. Male feminists, when they’re brave enough to identify themselves as such, face being called wet or effeminate, or accused of playing pretend politics just to get laid. Those attacks are doubly effective because they have some basis in truth – feminism does threaten old gender roles, but only by setting us free to define the roles of “man” and “woman” however we like.

Often when women worry about being seen as “man-hating”, we are worried that if we ask for too much change, the men and boys in our lives will cease to love us. When men call feminists “man-hating”, the slur comes from a similar place: fear that women will be angry with them, or that they are to blame for injustice.

Yet one reason I continue to write, speak and campaign on feminist issues is precisely that I respect men. I respect men, and therefore I believe them to be far more than the two-dimensional creatures to which “traditional” notions of masculinity reduce them. It is because I respect men that I believe that most of them don’t want to live and die in a world that keeps women down.

Why am I a feminist, not an equalist? First, because any woman who seeks only equality with men is lacking in imagination. I have no interest in equality with men within a system of class and power that slowly squeezes the spirit out of most people unfortunate enough not to be born into wealth. I have no interest in settling for a few more places for women on the boards of big banks. I believe the world would be better served if we had no women in those boardrooms – and no men, either; not if they intend to continue to foist the debts run up by their recklessness on to the backs of poor women across the world. If that seems unrealistic, it is no less so than the idea that we will achieve gender equality within the present system in our lifetime.

Second, I’m a feminist because, in Britain, gender equality is receding faster than a bigot backing out of a single mothers’ meeting. Last month, the Sex and Power report by Counting Women In (pdf) showed that women’s representation at the top levels of politics, the media, business and the arts has dropped significantly over the past few years. The report concludes that a child born this year will be drawing her pension by the time she first sees equal representation for women in government, if she sees it at all. That’s too long to wait. If we really care about fairness between men and women, it’s not enough for us to sit back and wait for the system of power to become a little more equal. Gradual trends can always go backwards as well as forwards. Now, more than ever, it’s not enough for us to be “equalists”.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Campaigners, some dressed as suffragettes, attend a rally organised by UK Feminista in October 2012 to call for equal rights for men and women. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496