The Vagenda

Have We Gone Too Far?

Feminism: it’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? One moment you’re throwing yourself under a carriage, and the next thing you’re dropping off your vote for the London Mayor en route to the accountancy job that supports you and your child-rearing house husband. It’s almost like, well, progress. And that’s why I’m so baffled about what happened to me a few days ago.I was out for a meal, in central London, and it happened to be with my mother. Because I’m a thoroughly modern woman, I was paying for dinner with my very own credit card which is, incidentally, funded by my very own day job. And just as I was about to tuck into an overpriced crab salad, my ears pricked up at the source of a particularly unfamiliar sound: it was a woman on a date, and she was discussing feminism.

Now, feminism as a topic for a first date is a brave move that even Germaine Greer might entertain a couple of moments’ doubt about. In between ‘is he solvent and/or normal?’ and ‘do I want to shag him?’, do you really want to throw ‘how genuinely does he believe in equality between the sexes?’ into the mix? Once you get started on a bottle of wine and the realities of the glass ceiling, there’s a chance he might start edging away. So at least wait to deliver your lecture on workplace quotas after the third date, post-coitally, because that’s when Cosmo says you’re allowed to have sex with him.

She’s taking one for the team, I thought with admiration, glancing over at her admiringly. She’s pioneering First Date Feminism. She is the 2012, post-vajazzle, fully liberated woman. And then I heard what she was actually saying.

‘I’m all for equality or whatever,’ said this thirtysomething woman, in her very best teenage language. ‘But I just don’t see where we’re going with all this ridiculous militant feminism. I mean, it really seems like we’ve gone too far.’

My first reaction: bitter, bitter disappointment, the kind that can usually only be felt by a Republican-voting, bible-reading mother in the deep south of America when her only son brings home his ‘girlfriend’ from university and it turns out to be an acid-haired transvestite called Gus. Like this mother, I felt that I had dedicated good time and money to pushing a cause throughout my life, and just look what hideously deformed version of my intentions had popped up next to me.*

‘Militant feminism’ is another 21st century scare, like the bird flu ‘pandemic’ and eyebrow cancer, both of which have been extensively covered by the Daily Fail. And let’s deconstruct for a second here: ‘feminism’ does, after all – and as everyone seems to voluntarily forget ALL THE TIME – mean ‘equality between women and men.’ Jeez, I hope those rampant advocates of equality don’t get out and ruin our carefully balanced society with their crazy egalitarian ideals. Imagine: EQUALITY EVERYWHERE! Next thing you know, it wouldn’t even matter what race you were or whether you were disabled or anything. What sort of sick dystopian vision is this?!

Even if you’re one of Those Ones who’s convinced of a secret sect of bra-burning men-haters, I’d really like you to point them out to me. Because their prominence in the media seems to negatively correlate with their actual existence – meaning that they’re basically as real as leprechauns at the minute. What’s so awful about the way it’s bandied around as a concept is that nowadays it’s increasingly done by the women themselves, and sometimes it’s in an effort to get ‘in there’ with a man. I’m not one of those, oh no. We’ve come too far, you see. Now get the cheque, will you, and call the horse and carriage. I hope there aren’t any of those pesky Suffragettes out tonight to ruin the ride home.

Is there a genuine consensus amongst women that we have ‘come too far’ with feminism? I asked around in the days following this heinous event at the overpriced London restaurant, and was surprised to hear how many people agreed. A fiftysomething relative of mine told me that ‘it’s gone too far because you’re not treated like a lady anymore. You’re just a woman.’ Clearly, ‘ladies’ and ‘women’ are miles apart – and there I was thinking that we all shared the same constituent parts, but what do I know?

Of course, I understand, if not condone, the meaning behind her words. ‘Ladies’ are bowed to and opened doors for and politely complimented – nice things – before the inconvenient truth of then being patted on the head and placed in the corner while the men discuss all those indelicate subjects like politics and, well, anything not kitten-related. And no matter how much you argue that you ‘want to be treated like a lady’, there ain’t nothing wrong with holding open the door for any human being that passes. You can – and should – compliment whoever you like, so long as that mode (or any mode) of communication is not purposely limited to one gender. And you can be the most dedicated, hard-working, cooking, cleaning, all-singing, all-dancing housewife that there is, and celebrate it every day of your life – good on you, girl! – but please, please don’t hearken for the days when we all had to be one, and not out of choice.

That’s all feminism boils down to, at the end of the day: choice. The choice to be the most traditional homemaking mother of the pack, or the most cutthroat human rights lawyer in the Supreme Court. The choice to go out on a million, er, ‘test-driving’ dates, or to lose your virginity on your wedding night to a guy your parents introduced you to at church camp. The choice to walk around in clothes you bought, going to the office you work in, making independent decisions (this is all getting a little bit Independent Woman but never mind) without the threat of suddenly being a slave in your own home, with no financial power, no vote, no right to education, and no recognition of hardship if your husband rapes you.

These are the dark realities from whence we came. So before you dismiss the cause and hop on the Daily Fail pedalo of bullshit to get an appreciative smile out of a guy you’re on a date with, just remember the one great truth that Sex and the City told us: on Halloween, you can still only find a costume for a witch or a sexy kitten. We may be fighting smaller battles nowadays, girls, and thank God, but they’re important ones, and we need you and your boyfriends all behind us prepped for battle rather than milling around the field and wondering blithely what direction the wind’s blowing in. It’s the final frontier, so get it together! We haven’t gone far enough!

*By the way, Gus is a right laugh to hang out with on a Friday night – which is more than I can say for his bible-bashing mother-in-law.

12 thoughts on “Have We Gone Too Far?

  1. Good post. It’s surprising how many people will come out with this line when you mention feminism, but when you ask them to elaborate, they never have much to offer on WHY it’s ‘all gone too far’. Usually it’s something along the lines of ‘Well, you can’t even open a door for a woman these days without them being offended!’ or ‘Adverts for cleaning products always make men look stupid!’ as if such facts (if they are indeed true) make the concept gender equality a complete joke. The other line trotted out will, of course, be that ‘Women hate stay at home mothers!’. Conclusion: people pay too much attention to the Daily Mail and a lot of the time, don’t even understand what gender equality means.

  2. Great post! I remember when I sat down in my Gender Studies class at Uni and the Professor asked us to raise our hand if we considered ourselves to be a feminist. Only two people did so (in a class of about 100) and one of those two was me (needless to say the other woman has since become my best friend in the whole wide world). This was shocking, and it is a view that is clearly still held that being a feminist is somehow dirty, unnecessary, and uncool.

  3. I have to thank you. I found this blog a few days ago and am now utterly addicted. You made me remember my 13 year old self, who chose to write about ‘why women should be treated as equals’ for an English assignment. Sure some of my comments may have been a little bit off the mark i think i may have written something along the lines of ‘if child birth was left to pathetic men i bet they would only have one child each.’ Whatever it was my English teacher wrote in the margin in red pen ‘in an essay it is not appropriate to voice your personal opinions’ but she also wrote at the bottom ‘I wouldn’t want to mess with you.’ That 13 year old is now 27 and has a 4 month old daughter but your blog has made me think really hard about where that 13 year old has gone and how i want to bring my daughter up. I can only hope that if grazzia still exists (and we all hope it doesn’t) by the time she’s old enough to understand it we can buy a copy and burn it up together! x

  4. “That’s all feminism boils down to, at the end of the day: choice.”

    This is somewhat disingenuous. Radfem ideology is and always has been heavily based on Marxist analysis and concepts such as “false consciousness” come up all the time; if such concepts are acknowledged as legitimate, then plenty of choices are valid targets for de-legitimization. S&M comes up frequently in such discussions (i.e is submission/masochism a valid choice for a woman to make, to which the typical radfem answer is no), as does sex reassignment surgery.

    I’m not trying to restart those fights here – only trying to point that stating that all feminism boils down to is choice is oversimplifying, because some feminists will want to check those choices against their ideology.

  5. Have to agree with CM that the notion of choice is really problematic. It’s not a bad start but you only have to look at the examples given here to see how it starts to break down.

    “The choice to go out on a million, er, ‘test-driving’ dates, or to lose your virginity on your wedding night to a guy your parents introduced you to at church camp.”

    So, to take the second example, if you’re brought up in a devout, church-going family, surrounded by people who think that sex should be saved for marriage, and that sex outside of marriage is a sin – are you really CHOOSING that option for yourself, or are you being, for the sake of a better phrase, environmentally coerced into it? Surely you’re heavily influenced by your surroundings, so you might choose, but it’s hardly a free choice.

    The same goes for all other ‘choices’, quite evidently.

    That’s not to say that we are all entirely passive subjects – that would be endlessly depressing and doesn’t allow for obvious points of rebellion against dominant ideologies – like feminist movements themselves! – but the truth lies somewhere in between.

  6. The point is that Military/Radical Feminism is not in the mainstream, and we hardly ever hear this view at all, let alone enough for people to begin to think women are taking it ‘too far.’ On the other hand extreme patriarchal views are shoved down our throats on a daily basis and women who disagree are told to ‘chill out’ and ‘have a sense of humour’ and then referred to as Militant Feminists! This is not equality.

  7. We criticise women’s magazines. We don’t claim to be Radfem Marxists! Ease newcomers (most of our readers) into feminism gently please. The S&M theorising is not going to speak to most of our readers.

  8. Hey girls – I wrote this article, and I really like that it’s started up discussion. The article addresses the media perception of mainstream feminism, rather than the actualities of different feminist sects. Feminism boils down to an ideology of choice either way you look at it – including how you define choice, which two of you so rightly pointed out. The discussions that you started around what choice looks like from the RadFem side belong in another article, but are certainly interesting offshoots.

  9. “Feminism boils down to an ideology of choice either way you look at it”:

    To what extent is this true if your choices are either being de-legitimized or simply made for you by others? I know this depends on your definition of choice, but I think you can viably define choice in such a way that a philosophy which attacks decisions on the grounds of “false consciousness” is actually undermining the concept of choice.

    (irrelevantly, I disagree with Claire; FWIW I think that choice is less problematic than often made it to be and in cases when this is not so the problems caused by not respecting the choices of others are usually worse than the problems caused by those choices in the first place. But that doesn’t really matter to the point I’m making, which is…)

    …that the concept of feminism as being defined by its emphasis on choice (as opposed to, say, equality) seems not unproblematic at best and just a construct of third-wave feminism at worst. I guess this struggle with definitions is why I really struggle to call myself a feminist, assuming there even is such a thing as a male feminist in the first place (something else that’s not uncontroversial).

  10. I hear you! I think it’s definitely the case that contemporary, mainstream feminism is *not* militant. However I think the idea of ‘militant feminism’, particularly when women talk about it, might be tapping into something else; anxieties about making that choice, for example, to be a stay-at-home mum, when, as a modern woman, you have the pressure of the inheritance of all the early feminists who fought for your right to a job, to a vote, to a life outside of the domestic one. Not to mention the conflict between recognising all that still needs to be done and yet still ‘submitting’ (even if by free choice) to a role previously dictated by patriarchy.

    I don’t know if this sounds daft, but I think that when the media talks about ‘militant feminism’ it’s obviously erecting a straw-man that it can blow down or worry its readers with. But I think that when individual women use the term, they might be expressing their difficulty in balancing potentially hazy ideas of ‘feminism’ and their role within it against their own personal image of what they, as a woman, want to be. Certainly, though I know I want to be a stay-at-home-mum at some point, there’s a part of me that imagines the ghosts of some of the historical women I’ve studied appearing and saying ‘why are you wasting the opportunities we never had’? Feminism *is* a good thing, but it is another, potentially problematising factor in the ‘free choice’ that it helps to enable.

  11. The definition of the word ‘feminism’ is certainly a huge issue, and one that’s holding our journey to equality back.

    First of all, the word has picked up a huge amount of negative baggage over the years. What’s conjured in the mind if you describe yourself as a feminist is a stroppy, man-hating and unfeminine woman. I’ll be honest my knowledge of the history of this is not good, so I feel I can’t state with accuracy where this image stems from (but I’d imagine the Daily Mail has a hand in it), BUT the creation of this image has been a brilliant tool in undermining progress. It seems that very few women want to publicly describe themselves as feminists, because it’s become a byword for unsexiness. What a massive step backwards.

    Secondly, I think that complex discussions over choice and so on (sorry!) might not help. I think we need to grab the word back and get back to its simplest definition – the belief that men and women are equal. A simple, unfettered definition that is much, much harder to undermine.

  12. Cheers for the response and always good to spark debate, as you say. I wouldn’t want to speak for CM. But I don’t think that we have to get involved in the actualities of different feminist sects to question the concept of choice as legtimate / existant when put to any kind of analysis and I certainly don’t think that only RadFem/Marxist feminism should or does question choice. (I’m not that familiar with the label Marxist RadFem so I might well be one, but I don’t know if I am.)

    I think of feminism as all about challenging the status quo, really – challenging anything that we’re told is ‘normal’ for women or that women should do ‘because it just IS’. And society’s understanding of choice is one of those very monolithic notions that makes up the status quo, so I think feminism must challenge that as much as it challenges anything.

    Just my two pence!