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

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10 times Nicola Sturgeon nailed what it's like to be a Remain voter post-Brexit

Scotland's First Minister didn't mince her words.

While Westminster flounders, up in Holyrood, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has busied herself trying to find a way for Scotland to stay in the European Union

And in a speech on Monday, she laid out the options.

The Scottish Nationalist acknowledged the option of independence would not be straightforward, but she added: “It may well be that the option that offers us the greatest certainty, stability and the maximum control over our own destiny, is that of independence.”

She also hinted at a more measured stance, where Scotland could “retain ties and keep open channels” with the EU while other countries within the UK “pursue different outcomes”. 

And she praised the new PM Theresa May’s commitment to wait for a UK-wide agreement before triggering Article 50.

But Sturgeon’s wide-ranging speech also revisited her memories of Brexit, and the days of chaos that followed. Here are some of the best bits.

1. On the referendum

I am the last person you will hear criticising the principle of referenda. But proposing a referendum when you believe in the constitutional change it offers is one thing. Proposing - as David Cameron did - a referendum even though he opposed the change on offer is quite another. 

2. On the result

I told the Scottish Parliament a few days later that I was “disappointed and concerned” by the result. I have to admit that was parliamentary language for a much stronger feeling.

3. On the Leave campaign

I felt, and still feel, contempt for a Leave campaign that had lied and given succour to the racism and intolerance of the far right.

4. On leadership

It seemed abundantly clear to me that people - even many of those who had voted to Leave - were going to wake up feeling very anxious and uncertain. It was therefore the job of politicians, not to pretend that we instantly had all the answers, but to give a sense of direction. To try to create some order out of the chaos. That’s what I was determined to try to do for Scotland. I assumed that UK politicians would do likewise. I was wrong. 

5. On EU nationals

I felt then – and still feel very strongly today - that we must give them as much reassurance as possible. It is wrong that the UK government has not yet given a guarantee of continued residence to those who have built lives, careers and families here in the UK.

6. On karma

You tend to reap what you have sown over many years. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to politicians who have spent years denigrating the EU and pandering to the myths about free movement, that some voters simply did not believe them when they suddenly started extolling the virtues of both.

7. On teenage voters

I think it was wrong in principle to deny EU nationals and 16 & 17 year olds the right to vote. But, as well as being wrong in principle, it was also tactically foolish. 

8. On slogans

While “Brexit means Brexit” is intended to sound like a strong statement of intent it is, in truth, just a soundbite that masks a lack of any clear sense of direction.

9. On Scotland

Some will say that we also voted to stay in the UK, so we must accept the UK wide verdict. But in 2014, we voted to stay part of a UK that was a member of the EU - indeed, we were told then that protecting our EU membership was one of the main reasons to vote against independence.

10. On taking back control

To end up in a position, which is highly possible, where we have to abide by all the rules of the single market and pay to be part of it, but have no say whatsoever in what the rules are, would not be taking back control, to coin a phrase we’ve heard more than once recently- it would be giving up control.