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.