It was not easier being a feminist in the late fifties and the sixties than it is now but it was certainly more simple.
Of course one had to put up with various prejudices when training for or applying for jobs. Odd minor irritations occurred such as the women’s common room at the law school being a former spare men’s toilet. (It was comfortably furnished for us and the urinal had been turned off but it remained connected in case the presence of women studying law was just a passing fad). One met with a little derision at times over our insistence that women’s clothing choices should be at least as free and comfortable as those men had, despite not having to be identical, and there were occasional fireworks when one decided not to leave the dinner table whilst the men sipped their port.
But there was a sense of unity among those who regarded themselves as feminists, even when facing derision from both some men and some women. The unity was that we were all fighting for the same thing – equality between women and men of like age, capacity and experience. That was equality of opportunity and the same rights to choices in life.
In postmodernist times it is accepted that it is no longer enough to identify as a feminist and fight for equality on all issues for all women across the board. It seems to be that we each are allowed to pick and chose the areas of equality or not in which we wish to indulge. In fact we can tailor make our own feminism. But what then is the definition of “feminist”? Can one be a feminist and decide to be unequal? Can one be a feminist and wear stilettos? Can one be a feminist and wear a burqa? Should feminists participate or not participate in a “slut walk”
Most recently a question has arisen as to whether one can identify with both feminism and the so called “Pro-life” movement. I digress a moment to say that I will not again use that term. I identify as pro-life. I love life. I am against wars because they take life. I do not believe in the death penalty. Yet I believe we should have the right to voluntary euthenasia if that is our choice. I believe that suicide and attempted suicide should not ever be recategorised as crimes and I would “fight to the death” against recriminalisation of abortion pre a foetus’s capacity to survive unassisted outside the womb. I resent the anti-abortionists adopting the misleading above mentioned title but do I accept them as feminists?
There is one serious problem, however, with having a plethora of choices within a feminist framework. With any freedoms come responsibilities. If men and women have equal privileges it is to be expected they then take equal responsibilities. In terms of their responsibilities they must not be dilettantes only in areas of particular interest to them.
One of those responsibilities is in the area of education. We need to be sure that each person is sufficiently educated to be able to make informed judgments about their decisions. I do not think this is always the case currently and this applies particularly to judgements about feminist issues.
Most young western women would contend that the wearing of a burqa is only chosen because all of the women who do so are repressed or have been “brainwashed”. (A fact which is not true in every single case.) On the other hand they would contend that they themselves make a free choice to wear stiletto heels, not realising how much their own choices have been made under the influence of fashion gurus, sales organisations, media and advertising; that is deliberate “brainwashing” for profit.
If I ran the world I would be personally tempted to ban stiletto heels, unnatural underwear, probably the burqa, taking advantage of people through use of sexuality, proposing anti-abortion and anti-euthenasia legislation and some other of my feminist inspired pet hates.
But I would not.
Freedom of choice and expression for all are as important as any of the issues addressed specifically by feminists and must remain at the basis of any feminist ideal. Therefore I feel that it is necessary to accept as feminists all those who identify as such.
It is quite a difficult thought process for me to accept those women who have considered issues over the years and who will debate these issues but who have come down on a different side, if that is the opposite perspective from the one that the women’s movement has struggled to support over the years. It is, however, necessary to acknowledge other points of view with respect, even when arguing against them.
But this is a lot less difficult than accepting as feminist the views of those who use all the advantages they have been given by the feminist movement and then betray the movement in the quest to be seen as “cool”.
“Forgetting how priviledge is won precipitates its loss.” (alainedebotton). After less than 100 years since the days of the suffragettes this is already happening as regards feminism.
I would like to say to these young women (and some of the now not so young women) that there is nothing worthwhile, in itself, in aspiring to be cool. To reject all the advances in opportunities to be leaders not followers, to reject feminist behaviour codes and even dress choices that have been fiercely fought for, but yet to still hold on to the hard won principle that every one must respect you as an equal just because you are female, does not afford reciprocal respect to the other people in the world you inhabit.
There is nothing worthwhile in just being – anything. Just to be a woman, a lover or a mother is not in itself cool (but it can be if you do it with enthusiasm). What is cool is the doing of something, making your contribution. Women fought hard in the past to allow us all to have the opportunity to do things. Sitting on the edge of life trying to be “cool” is not cool at all. It just “sux”.
But you can still be a feminist if you want.