In 2009, I was teaching in a sixth-form college in south-west London. One of my students came to me one day and said “Miss, I’m a feminist”. I was a little taken aback, but pleased at this statement. I also caught myself wondering: Does she know what it means?
Sometimes, I am not sure myself what it means to be a feminist. I know what it means to me: that women have equal rights to men, but according to their individual needs. This last adjunct seems to me to be often overlooked by society. I experienced an example of this on the Overground a few months back. I had met some acquaintances and was deep in conversation with them, until it came to the attention of the carriage that a man was arguing with a pregnant woman, to whom it seemed he had just given his seat. What became clear was that although he had given up his seat, he had done so extremely reluctantly. He was invoking equal rights, and haranguing the pregnant lady, who looked far too ill to really defend herself. So, after listening to him for a while (it was impossible not to) and waiting for someone else to step in, I said “Excuse me”. He turned towards me. I pointed to the sign above the seat and said “Do you see that sign? That is a priority seat, which is reserved for people with children, the elderly, disabled people and women who are pregnant. You are none of those, so if someone fits into those categories, no matter what, you are obliged to vacate your seat.” He then said sneeringly “But what if I were disabled?” I looked at him askance, and he said no more. (Just to set your mind at ease dear reader, he clearly was not. And a few minutes later I gave up my non-priority seat to another pregnant woman. I don’t only talk the talk).
There have been a number of articles this week about masculinity in crisis. To me, this is a non-issue. A very clever one, politically for Diane Abbott and the Labour party to have raised – but a non-issue nonetheless. The real issue here is that men are finally starting to be held accountable for their bad behaviour (as a gender) to the present day – and they don’t like it. It is akin to children throwing their toys out of the pram, because they are asked to share them. What infuriates me, as a feminist, in the absence equality between the sexes as of yet, that this is being raised as an issue at all.
Certainly, men as a gender have to re-assess their position in light of historical patriarchal power. That goes without saying. But in my view – they’ve had the opportunity to do this since the Suffragettes. It should hardly come as a surprise to men living in 2013 that treating women equally in society according to women’s individual needs is the right thing to do. No one would argue (I would hope) in this day and age that treating people of colour equally is the right thing to do. Or the LGBT community. Or disabled people. Or (and this is UK specific) Irish people. So why is there this blind spot when it comes to the treatment of women, who make up at least 50% of the population?
If there is a crisis of masculinity happening in the UK, that crisis would be better spent addressing the patriarchal wrongs the male gender have and continue to inflict on women. As a woman, I could give that crisis more credence if women didn’t still earn 13p less for every £1 a man earns. I could give that crisis more credence if rape and sexual abuse (of which women are the main victims) was not so often failed by the criminal justice system – something like a paltry 1% of rapists are convicted, which adds to the sense of male entitlement. I could give that that crisis credence if we didn’t only have barely 23% women MPs in the UK Parliament and 4% female CEOs in the FTSE 100. In the UK, women are still forced to choose between returning to work and the costs of childcare – in a women-friendly world, employers would be forced to provide childcare. In my profession, I have known performers who have brought their children to rehearsal to make a point – but they were well-recognised enough that they could get away with that. Not every woman has that privilege.
This is also not to say that women’s advancement in society (or lack thereof) is because of men. Women also collude in that lack of advancement by not demanding what is right for their gender as a whole, or having some sense of misplaced guilt. For example, I know many women who are absolutely against quotas. While I respect their right to disagree with me, I believe quotas are temporarily the way forward, and have been proven to work in countries like Norway (incidentally the quota there was introduced by Ansgar Gabrielsen, a male Conservative trade and industry minister). We can also see from countries like the US, where affirmative action was introduced in the 1960s, that it is necessary: although a black president has been voted in twice (and how unthinkable would that have been 50 years ago), racial equality still has a long way to go there – how much longer would things have taken to change somewhat WITHOUT affirmative action is the real question?
I am also not saying that women with equal power and rights would behave any better than men. In fact, I suspect they would not. But that does not mean that they should not be given an equal chance to behave well or badly. Until then, it is hypothetical.
For feminism to make real progress, it needs men to realise that it benefits them as well. Perhaps that would lessen the “crisis” of masculinity somewhat; but it seems to me that men do not recognise the potential positive effects for their gender. With equal rights comes equal responsibility, and that can only be a good thing. And it can work. In my own life, my mother was the main breadwinner, and my father was a house husband, at a time when “latte papas” had not even been conceived as a concept (mainly because “latte” was still a word in Italian meaning “milk”). And it worked, because in spite of their gender, they were temperamentally suited to their roles – and would have been deeply unhappy had the roles been reversed. When we humans stop giving in to the brainwashing that society inflicts on us to keep us in line, and start living our individual lives from our own personal needs: intellectual, emotional, biological and spiritual is when the fight for female equality will be over. Until then, it is incumbent on every person, if they regard themselves as a person of integrity, to insist that the real issue du jour is that in 2013, women are still having to argue the point of feminism.