I want you to imagine that you are an English literature student in your first lecture. It’s all pretty conventional and unsurprising until the lecturer raises her voice and declares “Stand up if you’re a feminist!”. A weighty silence falls. What would you do?
Approximately three people in the packed lecture theatre leapt to their feet. A handful more followed them more tentatively in the subsequent pause. All were female. However, when the lecturer went on to question the room on feminist issues, such as the right to use birth control, the students were almost unanimous in taking a feminist stance.
So why then, did so few stand for the original question? For me, the answer is simple: ‘feminist’ has become a dirty word. So much so that the leading feminist online magazine in the UK has chosen to call itself ‘The F Word’, in response to the taboo still associated feminism. Despite the fact that the principles of liberal feminism are almost universally accepted, it continues to be associated with radicals, separatists and extremism. As F Word contributor and former York student Louise Livesy puts it: “There’s a meaning attached to the word that’s not attached to the values feminism holds”. So why is this? Perhaps it is the fault of the press. Louise asserted that the portrayal of feminism in the tabloids is “negative and misrepresentative and this has seeped into popular culture.” Headlines like ‘How my mother’s fanatical feminist views tore us apart’ (The Daily Mail) and ‘She crucified her enemies and burnt London to the ground. Meet Britain’s first feminist, Boadicea’ (also The Daily Mail), do little to popularise the term. With the majority of the population never being educated on the principles of feminism, the media’s portrayal of the ideology may be the only perspective seen.
Aside from the negative stereotypes associated with feminists, it is often viewed as an outdated ideology with no relevance to our enlightened age. As students in a First World country, we are immune to much of the discrimination and hardship faced by women here and across the world. The privileges of the vote, birth control and sex discrimination legislation can easily be taken for granted and often, it may seem that feminism has little left to fight for. But a deeper look at the current state of society reveals that this is not the case. Despite equal opportunities laws, the average full-time salary for men in the UK is 17% higher than that for women. In London the gap is a shocking 23.2%.
And all this, despite the fact that girls outperform boys at every stage of education, including degree level, where women attain more firsts. Discrimination still occurs in the labour market, politics and in the private sphere, where shockingly outdated views are still evident. This month for example, Sheffield University released the results of a survey of teenagers’ sexual attitudes. It showed that the double standard of male and female promiscuity is still going strong and, disturbingly, hinted at the acceptance of domestic violence. The boys interviewed ‘suggested that a girlfriend who slept around would probably pay a physical price’.
The media is one of the most obvious indicators of the work feminism has left to do. When was the last time you saw a male actor advertising washing powder? Or a scantily clad male model splashed across page three? The constant use of gender stereotypes is targeted by liberal feminists for reinforcing outdated views of masculinity and femininity.
Despite all of this, the apparent lack of feminists, especially in younger generations, is unsurprising when considering the near absence of media attention given to feminist events. The interest of broadcasters and publishers disappeared after the activism heyday of the sixties and seventies. Even large events go unnoticed, like the 5000 strong march through London to celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this year. Gone are the days of angry ‘wimmin’ and violent protest. Activism today is usually more sedate, and so slips quietly past the press and the public eye. The Internet is now the medium where feminists gather and take action, whether through organising events or raising awareness of feminist issues. Online magazines such as the UK’s ‘The F Word’ and ‘Feministing’ in the US provide useful pools for ideas, views and support. But the audience of non-feminists is not reached by blogs and articles alone. Publicity is needed to draw in a new generation of support.
But support is hampered by the view of feminism as exclusive. Many people may be discouraged from identifying with feminism by the misconception that feminism excludes men and campaigns solely for the benefit of women. Dr Helen Smith, who gave the lecture mentioned at the beginning of this article, believes: ‘some people, I think, don’t want to call themselves feminists because they believe in men’s rights as well as women’s. For me, though, a society in which women have equal rights is by definition a better place for men. Altering our definitions of women and their appropriate roles also opens up a space where we can consider men’s rights and social visions of masculinity’. Modern day feminism is works to the benefit of both sexes, as Jon from the London Pro-Feminist Men’s Group explains: “Everyone benefits from a more equal society. Feminism leads to the realisation that you don’t have to be the man we’ve seen on the TV, in films, that we were pressured into when we were growing up”. Male feminists, or ‘pro-feminists’ are becoming increasingly common, forming groups and societies across the UK and America. So why is there so little evidence of them? Why were the only self-confessed feminists in the lecture female?
At the end of the questioning, when Dr Smith asked why so few people stood initially, a male student replied “It’s more difficult if you’re a guy”. True, it does not fit with a ‘macho’ concept of masculinity, but neither do many aspects of modern society. When I questioned Jon on the difficulties of being a male feminist, his response surprised me. He said “It depends on context. I find it easier because I’m not around blokey blokes and that kind of environment. Lots of people are interested in it (feminism). Usually people are complimentary. I think it’s harder for women. With men it’s different and interesting, there’s no assumptions, except that you might be gay.” Perhaps the fear of these assumptions is what prevents people from identifying themselves as feminist.
It’s this irrationality that’s holding feminism back. In my view we should abandon it, and allow people to form their opinions based only on the truth. I don’t have a problem with the F word. I was one of the first to jump to my feet and claim the title of ‘feminist’, and I hope that one day more people will join me.