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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.

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

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