Why Angela Epstein Is Just Plain Wrong About Feminism

I decided to do this post after beginning to write a comment in response to Ruby Tandoh’s latest article in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free that just got too long to be sensible. Since it leads on nicely from my post this morning, I thought I would sum up my thoughts here, we can call today Feminist Friday if you like. If you’d like to see the abridged version on the Guardian, you can find my Comment profile here.

For those who saw Angela Epstein’s latest appearance on this week’s Newsnight, interviewed by Emily Maitliss, in a panel alongside wonder-historian Mary Beard and the actress Natascha McElhone, who wrote this fab piece also in The Guardian last week about the internalisation of sexism in our society, you’ll know the hype it created on Twitter with the hashtag #NNsexism. If you missed it, here’s the YouTube link (for your blood pressure’s sake, feminists, do steer clear of the comments below):

For as much as I agree with Caitlin Moran that we shouldn’t respond furiously to people who decry feminism and justify their dismissal of us as ‘angry feminists’, and instead argue our position politely, I find this difficult when Angela Epstein appears on my radar. I know she is effectively a Daily Mail character, and the pieces she writes are not representative of women at all, much like the ridiculous articles of Samantha Brick. Epstein is a writer personifying the ideal that women should be pretty for and unconditionally nice to their husbands, or that they somehow love their children more because they have the luxury of working at home, not like those nasty feminists, who look like crap and hate their husbands and children nyyeeeehhhhhh. She appears only in the context of feminist discussion as an obligatory polar opinion, from which she makes a living, and I can content myself with the distant hope that she is in fact a secret feminist writing with intense irony, a satirist who has lost her way in the worst way possible...

But then, writing an article in response to the Twitter storm that arose against her following the Newsnight interview, entitled “I was ambushed by the Twitterati feminists who in actual fact HATE women” she said THIS:

When Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis asked me during a debate on the programme this week whether I was a feminist, I hoped my blow-dried hair and figure-hugging dress would give her some clue as to the answer.

Feeling a little mischievous, I was tempted to ask her whether I looked like one of those grumpy women in bad clothes who spend their days in a state of agitation about whether it’s right to let girls play with dolls.

Gahhhhhh. I know that she is never going to convert, never going to listen or attempt to understand what modern feminism is or has done to improve and support the lives of countless women, never going to notice that there are thousands of stylish, attractive, happy, work-fulfilled, child-bearing and relationship-having feminists, because it would be counter-intuitive of her to show any open-mindedness towards the movement. She has, after all, made a career out of being an anti-feminist. What’s so infuriating about her is that she clearly knows the rhetoric; as a working mother she has benefitted from feminism, as a writer she is permitted to express her views, earns her own money, etc. But just because she has gained everything she needs to from feminism, that does not mean it has gone far enough for others, not by a long shot.

Indeed, what the sour Lefty Twitterati won’t admit is that all the great battles on which feminism was founded have been won – including political representation, and equality in education, the workplace and other areas of public life.

Sour Lefty Twitterati indeed, what rubbish. Feminists across the political spectrum won’t admit that the great battles on which feminism was founded have been won because THEY HAVEN’T YET BEEN WON. And, I’m sorry, did you say “equality in the workplace”, Angela?! At least have the decency to at least omit this insult rather than openly declare the workplace is equal for men and women. Can you honestly suggest the workplace is not rife with pregnancy discrimination, pay inequality in an upsetting number of sectors, poor maternity leave policies, and fewer high-paid or graduate opportunities for women than men (which makes the fact more women are at university than men null and void). And what about devastating rape statistics, many of which go unreported as they are not taken seriously, sexual abuse in the home and public, including on transport and indeed in the street? And I’ve not even touched on the patriarchal culture of other societies and cultures here.

There’s also the startling fact that she thinks that the glass ceiling is our own making:

Today’s so-called sisters also refuse to accept that women are wired differently to men – that many see becoming a mother as the crowning achievement of their lives. Who can argue with the female executive who, after delivering her newborn, decides to give up the office and stay at home? I think today’s glass ceiling is largely self-imposed, perhaps the result of many deciding to leave full-time employment to put family life first.

THAT’S WHAT THEY WANT US TO THINK, ANGELA. This is exactly why those in high employment, which is dominated by men, can justify not hiring or promoting a woman, because she’s just going to go off and have babies, which is all she really wants to do anyway. It drives me to despair, I tell you.

Dismissing modern feminism’s objectives as trying to right ‘petty grievances’ highlights for me just how deliberately ill-informed she is about women’s struggles today. She described Caroline Criado-Perez’s fight to keep a woman on a UK bank note, which was successful and saw Jane Austen placed on the ten-pound note, as ‘spectacularly pointless’, arguing this was proof that modern feminism is all about pandering to ‘a petty hunt for signs of oppression’. Epstein however failed to mention that this effort unleashed a bombardment of death and rape threats upon Criado-Perez, which led to arrests and the writer’s near-nervous breakdown, so afraid for her life as she was. And, on Newsnight (skip to 05:50 on embedded video above), Epstein complained that the ‘problem’ with initiatives like Everyday Sexism is that ‘everything is lumped together’ from arrest-able offences such as sexual abuse in nightclubs to being called ‘blossom’ in a workplace. I agree, of course, that these two incidents are on different scales entirely, but neither are petty. Words like ‘blossom’, ‘pet’ and ‘sweetheart’ are necessarily patronising and denounce a woman’s sense of self. That is not petty in the least.

Now, I think it’s important to point out here that Angela Epstein is not representative of people who shy away from identifying as feminists. Her articles in the Daily Mail, many of which are in the loathsome ‘Femail’ section of the paper it makes me that flinch my sex allows that paper such a slimy pun, consist of headlines such as “Why it’s every wife’s duty to make other men fancy her”, which argues, completely without irony, that being desirable to other men will make a husband appreciate his wife more. But I’m done with getting riled with her; she’s never going to go any further than this. That’s her and the Mail‘s voice, and it serves its purpose to perpetuate the right’s idea of feminists as dangerous child-and-husband-haters. But it is no longer the dominant voice.

Every column or television appearance of Epstein’s I have seen further solidifies that her anti-feminism does not come from a genuine misunderstanding of what it is, but a conscious refusal to do so. Her view of feminism is outdated, surely she must know this, as she need only to look around at feminists also in figure-hugging dresses and blow-dried hair to understand that feminism fits into different interests and lifestyles. At one point Epstein seemed to agree with McElhone, and it was difficult to tell who was more awkward about this, when McElhone argued that ideas around gender equality begin as children and that girls should be encouraged not only to play with dolls and want to be princesses but have more options for their formative years, and Epstein shared that her daughter also plays with her sons’ footballs and cars, which empowers her. Well, that’s great, Angela Epstein, that’s your daughter benefitting from feminism! Don’t you want that to continue throughout her life?

What seemed tantalisingly close to an agreement on a clear feminist principle from Epstein was snatched away in her article from yesterday in which a picture of Epstein and her daughter was captioned with: ‘The sisterhood today: Contemporary feminists would loathe the fact that Angela lets her daughter play with dolls.’ Ugh, so near and yet so far. Of course modern feminism does not begrudge girls (or indeed boys) playing with dolls, but promotes choice, so that those same girls can grow up without thinking that they need to make other men fancy them so their husbands do too. And that’s what feminism is, and always has been, all about: choice. Choice to play with dolls, choice to get married or not, choice to change your surname, choice to blow dry your hair or wear figure-hugging dresses or to wear and do whatever the hell you please without discrimination in work, home and walking down the street.

Angela Epstein argues that feminism has lost its meaning, and I think for a long time over the last 20-30 years it did so, but that position is not sustainable any longer. It is not the difficult and elusive concept that some people seem to think: it is equality, plain and simple, and I still cannot understand why we don’t have it yet. Neither is it difficult to find out what it is all about, and how it helps all sorts of women every single day. No one who has taken just a minute to look at the movements and magazines currently gathering support and influence, and the huge support network in initiatives like Everyday Sexism, can justifiably suggest that feminism is anti-women.

For that, I think any sensible woman will join me in feeling saddened by how irrelevant and niche modern feminism has become.

I think… ugh, no. Cannot even. This is already far too long, let’s leave it there.

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Categories: Comment, Feminism

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