Feminism. One word capable of eliciting shudders of revulsion from the least squeamish of women, and reducing grown men to tears. I can see you conjuring up images of hairy legs, burning bras and men-hating. Bear with me, I promise the editors will have removed as much self-righteousness as possible.
Feminism in Oxford is a disappointingly dispersed phenomenon. While dealing with one issue at a time is a very sensible route in terms of achieving concrete goals, these divisions are, I believe, part of the problem: we are failing to see the bigger picture. As with the feminist movement in general, we see activism here in a range of separate areas, boxed off and compartmentalised. There is something missing in this issue-by-issue treatment: I want a narrative, a causal route from this property of ‘femaleness’ to the disadvantages that come with being landed with it – what is it about being a woman that makes you disproportionately vulnerable to a range of specific pressures, problems and inequalities?
Crucially, we can’t get to this narrative while feminism is a niche market; we need to consider the experiences, expectations and pressures of gender stereotypes on everyone – men and women, feminist and non-feminist alike. I don’t think reclaiming the word ‘feminism’ is as important as getting people to think about the issues we are talking about – I agree with Louise Livesey, who is playing a key role in co-ordinating the Oxford Feminist Network, that it is ‘not what people call themselves, but what they do’. I would even add to this, that it is not only what people do that matters, but what they have to say. Feminists need to be vastly more inclusive: our duty is not only to raise awareness of where problems lie, but to connect these problems through paying attention to the views and opinions of those we feel instinctively inclined to disagree with.
The first step will be dropping the stereotypes we have imposed on ourselves since the battles of the 70s. In trying to avoid the difficult stereotypes of old, many Oxford women have fallen into new, and equally debilitating, moulds. We have ‘empowered’ women, who don’t need feminism – women can freely embrace their sex appeal now, we’re told. Lipstick and heels are all part of the sexual liberation. On the other side of the coin we keep feminists hidden away, and conveniently wheeled out to complain about particular issues. Even feminists are encouraged to play a particular role; we should be softly spoken and consensus-seeking, because women who forcefully argue about ‘women’s issues’ are labelled as aggressive or anti-men.
My problem is not, take note, with lipstick or quiet voices: I don’t think feminists have to look or behave in a particular way, and on a health and safety note I certainly wouldn’t advocate setting fire to your underwear. What I do take issue with is the quiet acceptance that these are the only roles women should publicly play: out of fear of being landed with the terrifying ‘angry feminist’ label, we seek protection behind more acceptable guises.
At the moment gender equality is a niche concern, and feminism is an amusing eccentricity. Until we return to the premise that scrutinising basic gender roles is the solution to combating various other social problems, we will fail to draw in the crowds, and until we embrace the idea that being passionate about addressing these concerns does not have to mean being tarred with the ‘angry feminist’ brush, we are going to fail to harness the argumentative power of the political men and women within our midst.
Let’s not be afraid of getting angry. Being an angry feminist does not mean you are aggressive or irrational, it means you are bothered by the way things are, and are not afraid to show it. What if we forgot for a few minutes that women are meant to be compromisers and men are inescapably more aggressive and let loose a good healthy argument? I think the results would be enlightening.