I am sure that I never thought about equality as a child. As the eldest of three children, with a younger brother and sister, if anything I felt infinitely superior. Not particularly a tomboy, I grew up for the first eight years of my life in a small, two-bedroom cottage on a farm. My parents both worked full-time my mum worked part-time for a few years throughout my entire childhood, they took us and picked us up from school in turns, and as a result I never really gave much thought to whether my mum was more of a care-giver than my dad. I certainly don’t remember giving a crap if that was the case or not.
Mostly uninterested in Barbies, princesses and My Little Ponies, though I was known to dabble with a Polly Pocket or two back when they actually fit in your pocket, I was free to play with Lego, Thomas the Tank Engine, Captain Planet, and a plethora of Early Learning Centre toy animals my life’s ambition for much of my childhood was, and to some extent still is, to become David Attenborough. I also played with some Disney dolls my favourite was The Beast from Beauty and the Beast whose beast mask you could take off to reveal a handsome prince. Here are some particularly eclectic favourites below:
Of course at primary school, where I spent much of the 1990s, there were those infantile discussions of which boys you fancied, wendy house weddings, and insincere discussions of who was prettiest. But there was never any sense that we were different, not until Primary Seven, when the boys and girls were put in separate classes for one day: the girls to be made confused and a bit apprehensive about periods, and the boys to be made confused and a bit apprehensive about erections.
I also remember being confused, but very proud, when my mum joined the campaign to allow girls at my school to wear trousers which, when this motion passed, she encouraged me to do. As a ten year old I didn’t understand this as a gender relations issue, or that girls having to wear skirts was sexist, I just thought it was incredibly cool that my mum was finally letting me get in on a craze. Also, I quite liked wearing trousers.
As for secondary school, looking back there were far too many social variants across the sexes that it was never clear if there was a dichotomy between men and women. Pretty girls were superior to ugly boys; handsome boys were superior to geeky girls. There was objectification of course, but I don’t remember ever feeling unequal at school; there were just people you would write off as obnoxious, and we all seemed to be as obnoxious as each other most of the time.
But it was at secondary school that I started learning what feminism was in historical terms. When I was around twelve or thirteen, when we were learning about the Suffragists and Suffragettes in History class, my family went on holiday to Florida during the Easter holidays. We spent most of the time in various Disney parks, and I remember having lunch one day while we were there, me babbling as usual, and for some reason I’ve forgotten the context I said ‘But you’re a feminist, mummy’, to which she looked vaguely annoyed and said ‘No, I’m not’. It’s one of those moments from childhood that’s stuck in my mind ever since; one of those things you can’t help but look back on as a defining point. And that, readers, is the example I would like to use to emphasise how bad the press was around the word “feminism” in the 1990s and early 2000s. That my mother, my role model, who taught me as a teenager never to put yourself down or play stupid for a boy, and would tear limb from limb anyone who degraded us, would distance herself from that word, confused me as a kid. For, at that time, we had been taught at school that feminism was basically the idea that women were equal to men. And if my mum didn’t want to be a feminist, then who would?
It’s funny so many of the yardsticks about how I feel about feminism stem from my mother, but I guess not that surprising. As something of a mentor for my life, an unpaid psychiatrist, and a stalwart friend, my mother is a feminist, and would now be proud to call herself such. In her work for the NHS she is responsible for men and women, all of whom I am certain for their own good treat her with respect, and has the most admirable ability to understand people’s emotions and body language that gives her so much compassion and great leadership skills. And that’s probably much to do with the way she was brought up, as a young girl with three brothers, an adoring father and a fiercely intelligent mother, who worked as a history teacher. My Grandma is still the cleverest person I’ve ever met, and it’s from her I get my love of books and history, and a habit of correcting people without seeing why it’s pretentious or irritating. Thanks Grandma for all three.
It was at university, bizarrely, that gender relations slipped for me. With such an unexpected lad culture, including near weekly costume parties at the students’ union that almost inevitably had a variation on ‘ho’, and boys who only wanted to “see” girls and if a girl suggested she wanted a relationship she was automatically branded “crazy”, were just part of the cultural norm. It was cool for girls not to be feminist during that time, to distance themselves from a word associated with being unfeminine and unattractive, in order to be more attractive to boys. Although I’ve always been a feminist on its most basic level, that men and women are equal, I would never have announced this at university, and when asked if I was one I always felt the need to emphasise “yeah but not the weird, ugly, man-hating lesbian kind”.
I know there are still plenty of people, men and women, who find it difficult or uncomfortable to associate themselves with feminism, for various reasons, and as someone who once felt awkward about my own feminism, and wished there was a better word for what I felt about equality, I can understand that. But there is no other word, and nor do I believe there should be right now. Rather than fighting about the ambiguous connotations of feminism, we should be rallying around it until there is no longer a need for us to identify as feminist. But until we are all genuinely equal, we really need that word. Caitlin Moran puts this much better than I can:
We need the only word we’ve ever had to describe ‘making the world equal for men and women’. Women’s reluctance to use it sends out a really bad signal. Imagine if, in the 1960s, it had become fashionable for black people to say they ‘weren’t into’ civil rights…’ No! I’m not into civil rights! That Martin Luther King is too shouty. He just needs to chill out, to be honest’.
The word feminism was still going through a bad time when I was at university, but even now it is a reclaimed and modern term, there is still a strange anti-feminism in universities. As a tutor of university students in their first two years of study, I find it disheartening how things like UniLad have cultivated this insidious environment of sexism that in many ways seems worse than when I was studying. Girls, often far more cogent in their essays, rarely speak in class unless there is a definite female majority, and if ever in a debate situation a boy argued against a girl, she would automatically back down. And most upsettingly, I found this to be the case especially when gender was being discussed.
I covered one class for a female lecturer in which I heard two male students speaking about the No More Page 3 campaign going on campus that day which was successful, and The Sun banned from the Union shop. One of them was clearly running the pro-Page 3 side of things but, rather than doing so on terms of censorship, he said proudly: “What we should be campaigning for is MORE tits”. I remember distinctly the four male students in the class laughing at this, looking to the one female student in the class, almost daring her to disagree, who was clearly so uncomfortable that she started laughing too. Not really knowing the appropriate reaction from a tutor to such a thing, especially in a class that was not my own, I didn’t intervene. I vastly regret that.
The balance between respecting students’ freedom of speech and wanting to shake them into youthful liberality is a difficult one for a university educator. I actually remember teaching one class on nineteenth-century feminism in Europe and asking something like ‘What reasons did men have for opposing feminism’, hoping that the old ideas of women’s brains overloading through education or hysteria setting in from not giving birth every five years would seem ridiculous to this student audience although contemporary debates of ‘legitimate’ rape don’t seem far away from this. Completely without irony, one student response was, “So their women didn’t get butch”. This student was female.
I find it uncomfortable to recall a time I was ever reluctant, or even defensive, to call myself a feminist, as if I was letting myself, and therefore all women, down by doing so. The current revival of women’s liberation is doing such good work and in such a short space of time that I am proud to be a part of it, disheartening as it can be to still see so much to do. In my own relationships, few as they are, I’ve always found men to be a bit put-off by my being opinionated, and certainly by identifying myself as feminist. That was until I met my current boyfriend Chris, who I am proud to call my partner. He is completely comfortable with feminism, and when he told me that he was once the only PERSON, NOT MAN, PERSON, in a lecture theatre to put up his hand when asked “are you a feminist” I knew I was on to a winner.
Of course I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a partner who adores me and doesn’t treat me as a girl but as a person, but why on earth would I settle for less? Since I was about nineteen I always claimed I would never have children, on the basis that I didn’t want to choose between a career and kids, and I don’t want to lose my own sense of identity by being an almost sole care-giver. But now I’m with someone who I know genuinely wants to share those things, I’m beginning to consider it as a possibility, which is quite a nice thing. Because feminism affects men like Chris too: just now he isn’t entitled to co-parenting in the true sense of the word, which upsets him. And that is our right as equals.
Our kids will never hear the phrases “daddy’s little princess” or “mummy’s boy”, and they will be free to play with whatever toys they please, from Barbies to Lego to bulldozers and everything in between, whatever their sex. I want my kids to grow up in a society where my partner and I are entitled to raise our children equally with split maternity pay and equal job security. I want my kids to grow up in a society where, boy or girl, they don’t need to identify as feminists, so ingrained will equality be in society.
Feminism means equality, plain and simple. Now, I can’t go back in time and steal the mindset of my ten-year-old self, chuffed to bits that my mum wanted me to wear trousers at school but in blissful ignorance of the gender significance attached to that. But in order for me to have those things for my own potential ten-year-olds one day, I wouldn’t want to. Feminism means equality, and that is not yet here, and so feminism, for now, means fighting.
This is the first in a series of ‘What Feminism Means To Me’ stories from a variety of men and women of different ages and backgrounds. If you’d like to contribute to this, please contact me by email (details in the Contact section of this website).