On Friday an article appeared in the Guardian, ‘Why is ‘feminism’ such a tough badge to wear?’. Written by a young woman, Rosie Kelly, she describes how in a recent university seminar, when her lecturer asked for feminists to raise their hands, she felt unable to do so (only 1 female student out of 20 did raise their hand). Kelly then declares herself unembarrassed by what she stands for but reluctant to label herself a feminist. Many things troubled me about this article (and I would be keen to know what happened in the seminar after the question was asked), particularly the conclusion that if Caitlin Moran says it’s ok to be a feminist then it must be ok, along with the somewhat twee definition of feminists as ‘just informed women who don’t think we’re quite there yet on the equality front’.
But it was the image of WSPU founders, Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst that really bothered me.
As project manager for Fight for the Right, I’ve been thinking a lot about the suffragette fight and about how young women today relate to history and issues around gender and equality. The article itself did not refer to the campaign for women’s right to vote and the following comments mentioned the word ‘suffragettes’ twice, albeit in passing. There was no historical context to this article and no awareness of the progression of women’s rights since gaining the vote in 1928. In terms of campaigning today, UK Feminista, for example, has a really high profile at the moment but this is not mentioned and it really worried me that Kelly could only think of feminism within the context of Moran’s recent book, How to be a Woman. This is why I think our project, and other similar ones, have real value for young women growing up today. Being involved in this project will not only encourage students to understand the importance of exercising their right to vote, but will help make them aware of what was happening in their own city, to understand the reasons behind militant suffragette activity alongside the peaceful methods of the suffragists, to appreciate how long it can take for things to change, and to recognise that generally speaking women today still do not enjoy the same equalities as men, socially, financially and politically, not just in Britain but across the globe.
Kelly’s reasoning for not wanting to identify herself with the word ‘feminism’, because it equates to ‘man-hating, frumpy lesbians’, seems to me to be really clichéd and I think Kelly, and women who hold that same opinion, are in trouble if they can’t engage with the wider issues and the historical context of women’s rights and equality. The accusation that women who stood up for themselves were sexually-frustrated man-haters was around 100 years ago and there really is no place for it anymore. By using that as an excuse for not wanting to label themselves as feminists, the young women in this article are continuing to perpetuate that version of women. Being a feminist is not about some tabloidy, lads-mag image but so much more than that. It’s about people standing up for what they believe in and for equal rights and opportunities for people, men and women, of all backgrounds. I think if Kelly really wants to understand what it means to be a feminist, and to not be scared of the word, she needs to look much farther back than just ‘Before Caitlin’ – and find out about Pankhurst, Fawcett and the rest. And for the record, I am definitely a feminist – and proud to admit it!