Why the feminist movement has to be inclusive

In her experience, TV presenter Charlie Webster has found that discussions about modern feminism can become confused and fragmented among all the divisive discourse about who belongs or doesn’t to the feminist movement.

I didn’t grow up to be a feminist. From a young age, I have been on my own little life mission, battling through, reaching out, developing my voice, trying to find courage and speak from the heart in spite of feeling vulnerable at times, and always, seeking that sense of worth.

As my career progressed, the question “Are you a feminist?” has come up with increasing regularity. Sometimes it feels less like a question and more like a challenge. I thought about the answer long and hard, more often than not getting confused about what feminism stood for, and slowly beginning to realise that being a feminist is less my own identity and more an opinion someone else has about me. I have my own strong beliefs and pride, but others challenged me as to whether I was a feminist or not based on the way I looked. It was a trick question. 

Feminism is and should be about empowering women, but the meaning of the word “empowerment” regularly gets lost. To me, empowerment is about giving a woman a sense of self worth. The word literally means ‘to enable or permit’. I believe enabling a woman to be herself to explore her potential as an individual, worthy of love and belonging, should be at the heart of feminism, and a woman’s identity should be her choice, whether it is focused on career, education or family.

The history of feminism and female empowerment is an incredible one, from the tales of Greek Sappho in 6th century BC who wrote poetry and ran a girls' school, to the strike by a group of women during the industrial revolution in an East London match factory that helped create the British trade union movement. A helpful and humbling reminder when we talk about feminism in the modern day, which in my own experience has become confused and fragmented among all the divisive discourse about who belongs or doesn’t to the feminist movement.

Feminism has resulted in major gains for women in education, security, opportunity and much more. However I am a completely self made educated independent woman who campaigns on social issues including domestic abuse and social change for young people, yet I have been challenged and judged by some feminists for the same reason I have been judged by some men – by the way I am perceived to look in my job as a TV presenter.

And I have seen feminists exclude men from activity, which has been directed at trying to change attitudes, which confuses me no end. Isn't it just as detrimental to exclude men from the discussion as it is to exclude women on other topics? We live in a society of both men and women, women have boys as well as girls, men are in most cases involved in the family unit whether they are fathers, brothers, sons, uncles or grandads. Isn't it just as important to teach a young boy about self worth and respect as it is a young girl? If attitudes in society are to change doesn't it have to be inclusive of both sexes? At the risk of stating the obvious, our society is made up of men and women. And going back to my point about empowerment, I believe men should be enabled to explore their potential as an individual worthy of love and belonging too.

Recently domestic abuse was categorised in some media as a women's issue...how ridiculous is that? How can it be a women's issue when it has such a detrimental effect on our society and the children who are theoretically supposed to thrive in it? How can this issue exclude men when they both play an active part and are affected by it? I'm not a massive fan of figures but on this occasion it says it all. Women’s Aid estimate the total cost of domestic violence to society in monetary terms is £23 billion per annum.

The reason some men use size and strength towards women and other men is that they struggle with their own self worth. Exerting their power and domination over others - men or women - is the only way they can make themselves feel like what they perceive as “real men”. If, as a society we change our focus to mutual respect and appreciation for the amazing things each gender can offer, public opinion would surely change and with it a movement away from the shaming, blaming and stigmatisation of victims of moral wrong doing. Ultimately men and women need one another, they always have done and I would have thought - dependent on technological advances in robots - always will. We all need intimacy, to feel safe and cared for, to have a companion through our journey. The difference between men and women shouldn’t be an oppression and it shouldn’t be a battleground. It should be embraced and cherished, and it is up to us women, as well as men to be inclusive and open to all members of our society, not just those in our own camp.

 

Campaigners, some dressed as suffragettes, attend a rally organised by UK Feminista at the Houses of Parliament in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Charlie Webster is a TV presenter and founding ambassador for Britain’s Personal Best, a Big Lottery funded campaign to inspire the best in all of us: www.whatsyours.org.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.