Does Feminism need sisterhood?

I feel a little terrified of writing about Feminism. I haven’t read tonnes of feminist literature. I don’t understand all the different views, and I can’t explain the feminist theory behind all those different views.

Feminism is something that evokes passion. It should – when you consider it isn’t that long ago that there were even fewer women in positions of power than there are today, women weren’t entitled to an education, and there were certainly less options for women. For many of my generation living in the developed world, it’s almost so ridiculous that women were ‘secondary’ in even the most fundamental ways that maybe we’re a bit disbelieving.  And yet we know, there are women all over the world denied even the most basic rights, let alone an education. The kidnapping of over 250 schoolgirls in Nigeria is a distressing case. So surely feminism is a cause that all women (and men) should have a view on and certainly in a global sense someone still needs to be fighting for.

But maybe like me, you feel a bit intimidated by the academics, and conflict of articles heralding someone as a feminist one minute and then tearing her down the next because she’s grinding about on stage and apparently allowing herself to be objectified. Obviously I’m talking about Beyonce – it’s always about Beyonce. It all leaves me a bit uneasy about the F word.

Since starting this blog I’ve started doing some reading – I guess I’ve felt that I can’t bang on about sisterhood and not have a clearer idea of what I think feminism is. I have met Doug’s side-long glances at the books on the bedside table with assurance that I won’t be growing my mo’. It’s not because he’s an arse. He probably wouldn’t call himself a feminist, but fundamentally he believes men and women are equal, so in that regard he is. Prior to now, I don’t think I would have called myself a feminist. Nothing has changed – I’m embarrassed to admit I just hadn’t paid enough attention to what it was, and what I learned about it studying English Literature and History at college and University felt so far removed from someone growing up and forming opinions in the 90s that I pushed it in to a pool of things I had to learn to pass exams, not that interested me.

So what is feminism? To confuse matters, there are lots of different versions and definitions, and the most outspoken feminists insist that their feminism is the right one. What started as a movement became a subject, and with it a string of theories to be criticised and torn down by fellow academics. That vision of feminists as ugly-clothes-wearing and hairy seems like such a negative and pitifully easy stereotype that people still associate it with.  Some feminists do believe that hair removal goes against the cause, or that in applying make-up and certain clothes we’re succumbing to the objectification of women by men. Women ‘using’ their sexuality goes against some views of feminism. There are daily debates about the latest Beyonce/Rihanna video. Marriage and changing your name isn’t the done thing in some literature. So does that mean I can’t be a feminist, because I have hair I’d term ‘unwanted’, became Mrs Douglas and love trashy pop music, all-the-better if it makes me want to grind?

Starting at the very beginning – in the words of Julie Andrews – feels like a very good place to start:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines feminism as ‘Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this’.

In How to be a Woman Caitlin Moran says to decipher whether you’re a feminist, put your hands down your pants and ask yourself a) Do you have a vagina? and b) do you want to be in charge of it? If so, you’re a feminist.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, says she embraces a feminism that is ‘a belief that the world should be equal, that men and women should have equal opportunity’.

And lastly, just because I think it’s a great quote, last year Dame Helen Mirren was interviewed for Time Out London, and apparently became angry when asked if she’d signed up to feminism. ‘I didn’t “sign up”! For me feminism is just fucking obvious. It is not an ideological or political thing. We’re half the population. I don’t even see this as a cause: it’s just fucking obvious!’

I find it hard to believe that anyone I know – man or woman – would disagree with any of these statements and associations with feminism. And yet I imagine if I asked them all if they consider themselves to be feminist it would reflect the polls of the last few years that only around 20-25% of people would describe themselves that way. I wonder if this is for two reasons – 1) the negative associations with feminist argument and fear of getting it ‘wrong’ and 2) a lack of alignment between the theory and the reality that we live in.

I grew up with a complete belief and expectation that men and women are equal, and then the biology of having a baby comes along and with it the sacrifices that only a woman can make.

Sure, some women can continue to climb the ladder and take up or continue in positions at the top of their chosen career, but that too comes with sacrifices – be that even longer hours, more help at home, less time with family, or guilt about all of the above. Some men might take the predominant role as carer, but they’re in the minority and if I’m honest, that isn’t what I want. I want to be the primary carer and I also want to work. So I’ll continue to juggle work and kids and feel anxious that I’m not giving either my all. The pressure we feel to be the best mum, homemaker, colleague, manager, wife, sex kitten with a smoking body… I think sisterhood is about acknowledging how all of this makes us feel. A more relevant feminism needs to deal with the issues that have come out of equality. And most of all, we need to be able to both accept and respect choices that this gives us, and the decisions that other women make, even if they’re different to ours.

On The Wright Stuff last week they were talking about ‘modern women mirroring men’s worst traits’ – do women that succeed in business have to be more ruthless, aggressive and put themselves ahead of everyone and everything else. Lots of conflicting opinions came forward, the usual discussion around Miley Cyrus swinging naked on a giant ball was covered, angry phone-in people said their piece. Janet Ellis (a woman that I think would be awesome on a night out, as well as being an ex-Blue Peter presenter and mother to singer Sophie Ellis-Bexter) said something that made a lot of sense to me. That in keeping with the idea of sisterhood, we shouldn’t condemn feminists who say the wrong feminist thing. ‘Your feminism is your choice. We’re learning very hard to live in a world where women are treated equally. But it is a learning process’. women holding hands Stating that men and women should be equal isn’t akin to saying that we are the same. I think we are different to men, and have a unique nature and set of experiences that can create a bond of solidarity, or sisterhood. The way we feel about our teenage years, our mothers, having children, not having children, work, relationships, our changing bodies and the implications that has – the list is endless. If we don’t make the most of this camaraderie and are unable to support each other in the challenges we face in the real world, if we have this wide gap between well-read, high-brow women that list the ‘rules’ of feminism and regular women who are scared to say they’re a feminist because it might be the wrong kind, then how can feminism move on?

I don’t think the idea of sisterhood is that all women should always be kind to each other, or agree with each other and all want for the same things. How about we start with some respect for each other and our choices? The number of articles I’ve read about stay-at-home mums vs working mums, or bottle vs breast, or questioning a woman’s choice not to have kids, suggesting that she’s ‘missing out’. Slagging off women for going over the top with their make-up, criticising others because they’ve chosen to go bare-faced and wear supposedly ‘unflattering’ clothes, and arguing about what type of woman makes a ‘real’ feminist.

I’m as fascinated by Kim Kardashian’s arse as the next person – seriously, it is a wonder – but I’m not going to attack her choice to bare it on Twitter if it grabs her fancy because it is her arse. Surely a cornerstone of feminism should be that we each have enough power to make choices that are right for us? Or not even always right, but they are ours. The problem is that a lot of writing about women and feminism seems to want to criticise others. If suddenly to be a feminist we have to do and believe as the more outspoken few do, and they have rules on what that allows, doesn’t that mean that we’re being oppressed by each other?

If we don’t move forward with a feminism that accounts for life as a woman in 2014 and all that it brings, and how the world has changed since the first waves of feminism, no one will want to join in. Which is a desperate situation because there IS still sexism and abuse and inequality and if we – normal every day women – think that we can’t be feminist because we might get the words wrong or don’t agree with the more strident views, then you’re left with a minority group that are only listening to – or disagreeing with – each other, whilst the rest of the female population thinks they’re probably ‘not really feminist’. Which if you go back to the most basic definition – that men and women should all be equal – I would bloody hope we all are.

I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.


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13 thoughts on “Does Feminism need sisterhood?

  1. olivia says:

    Great article, thank you! I think that the point that we women need to start off by not oppressing each other is a truly important one that if often left out of feminism debates. Maybe because it is very uncomfortable to think that we are oppressing each other by playing to polarisations like working mums v. stay-at-home mums and others.

  2. Lisa says:

    I enjoyed this post!

    For me, it was interesting to think about why feminism was such a confronting term when the definitions all in and of themselves make so much sense. Apart from the tendency for ‘advocacy’ based terms to have negative connotations (i.e. labelling something ‘radical’ shifts it away from the norm and enables people to dismiss the message).

    I don’t have any personal experience with being judged and found wanting by feminists. I wondered whether the concern about what others think of us to the extent we change our behaviour (avoid calling ourselves feminists even though we’d like to) speaks to something bigger than this specific issue in our own worldview?

    I think there will always be different views on the best methods for achieving equality (whether we’re talking about women, ethnicity, race, religion). For me again I think there can be a role for each. Like the strident views serve to push boundaries – they’re the views that got us the vote and unfortunately, there’s still a need for them today in many aspects of modern life. There’s also a place for the more moderate views too – they’re the ones that make feminism accessible for a wider audience.

    Interesting – love the discourse!

  3. suzanne3childrenandit says:

    I absolutely agree with you here. Why does the word ‘feminism’ even exist? If I’m honest, I hate that word so would never, ever call myself a ‘feminist’. But if you’re asking me if I believe that women should have a voice and be respected for it, then yes, I do. And don’t get me started on all this competitiveness amongst women, it’s just ridiculous! As you say, respect one another’s differences and move on!

  4. Honest Mum says:

    Such a powerful, concise and considered post and one I relate to, as a woman and with regards to being in the minority as a female filmmaker.

    I agree ‘feminism’ has become loaded in many ways yet personally I have always seen it so positively (a value passed on to me by my mother who was/is proud to be a feminist) and actually gave me a badge aged 2 which read, “Together, women are strong”- you’re right though, it’s the ‘together’ part that needs working on, to start supporting and celebrating one another and stop hating.

    We need to respect ourselves first, work against the often misogynistic frameworks (hello the Daily Mail) and believe we can be many things and have the right to choose, be it how we birth or what we wear and do.

    As Uju (babes about town) said, then we must instill these beliefs in our kids (who will be affected by watching us put this into action) promoting self worth and the sisterhood and respecting all people! Thanks so much for linking up to #brilliantblogposts

  5. Helena Watson says:

    I think your call for sisterhood is extremely pertinent. I work in women’s health and am often frustrated with the frontiers of women’s rights being pushed by the educated middle-class in areas of self-interest, from hypnobirth to maternal request caesarean section. Meanwhile their less privileged sisters are still struggling with issues like domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy and stigmatised gynaecological conditions. It is as if we are always looking for the next feminist issue without insisting on the basics. I am sure this is how Page 3 still exists – although hopefully not for too much longer thanks to NoMorePage3’s excellent but well overdue campaign.

    Well done for this contribution to reclaiming feminism from the academics back to ordinary women like us.

  6. older mum in a muddle says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, so well written and thoughtful. And I totally agree, for feminism to work all women need to respect one another’s opinions on the subject, we don’t have to like or agree with each other, but simply listen and have a basic level of respect -; I think this sums it up beautifully, ‘your feminism is your choice,’ – all women are different, no two human is the same, ergo everyone’s take on feminism is going to have subtle nuances, and these have to be respected. Loved what Helen Mirrem had to say.

  7. Uju @Babesabouttown says:

    Really enjoyed this post, like how thoughtful and honest you are on the subject. Feminism is really about respect for women, all women, as part of basic respect for humanity. I think so many people lose sight of that and go around labelling and tarnishing from every angle, while missing the point entirely.

    I watched a BBC programme about misogyny against women and it really shocks you into the realisation that even in 2014, there is still an insidious level of gender discrimination and in some cases outright hatred going on. We do ourselves a disservice if we act like it’s no longer an issue, and it’s something that I’m determined to instil in my sons. Real feminism means respect yourself, respect your neighbour, whatever their gender, race, creed, dress size etc. End of.

    • Steph says:

      Thanks Uju. I saw the same programme – Blurred Lines – and it was definitely thought-provoking. Massive thanks for your comments and thoughts. And use of ‘End Of’. Love it!

  8. maria sands says:

    Read Gender Trouble by Judith Butler…without Feminist thinkers we would only know the space exists, but we would not know how to occupy it …..???

  9. Jess Paterson says:

    Great post, Steph. Definitely with you on respecting other ladies’ life choices. Unless they are taking the last top in my size that I NEED for tonight 😉 Good luck with the #BIBs2014 – you definitely deserve to go through.x

  10. Lucy says:

    I generally don’t refer to myself as feminist, only because as you say, the negative connotations, “some dungaree wearing lesbian that hates men”. But yes I believe in equal rights, men and women should be treated the same, have the same pay grade for doing the same job. I always get exasperated by positive discrimination. Someone should get a job or whatever because they are the right person for it, not because they tick some boxes.

    But yeah, excellent written article, I thoroughly enjoyed it. You have a similar world view that I have I think =)