I have heard ‘I am not a feminist but…’ so many times in my life, I have stopped counting a long time ago. It almost sounds like a mantra from some women, as if they’re trying to convince themselves. I think it basically boils down to women misunderstanding what feminism means, because of all the stereotyping still commonly permeating our culture. Women grow up hearing jokes about hairy feminists all the time, and they resolve not to be pegged as something that they’ve only ever heard as the butt of somebody’s joke. In most cases they wouldn’t have even ‘wasted’ time to look up the actual definition of feminism before coming to that conclusion (more often than not subconsciously).
But last weekend I was doing some outreach on behalf of the Feminist Library and I heard something new: ‘I would like to call myself a feminist but…’ and it really struck me. I have never heard a woman say something like that before.
One might be forgiven for thinking that it’s basically one and the same. Yes, the bottom line is that in both of those cases the women have been put off feminism by bogus claims they heard made about it over and over again, by people who are not feminists themselves, and most often than not have no clue what it really means. But as much as in the former case, a conversation about what feminism ACTUALLY means often times ends in a fairly quick and painless realisation that the woman is a feminist after all (it was basically all a big misunderstanding); in the latter, there is no convincing anyone – not easily anyway. The woman who made the proclamation on Sat was well aware of what feminism is and has made a conscious decision not to call herself a feminist. Yes, she cited all the same stereotypes that women in the first group normally would, but she knew all too well that the charges were fake. She just knew she couldn’t take the stigma of it all.
‘Feminism has a branding problem’ is a mansplaining solution to the problem, which I have also heard more than my share of times… Sure, I say, try telling that to Beyoncé! If branding was the issue, she would have solved this problem by now. Since high profile stars like Beyoncé have decided to rebrand feminism, not much has changed, in fact… The main outcome of it all has been a mass of accusations against people like Beyoncé that they are coopting feminism for their own needs. Which, considering everything said above, must be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard – why would anyone coopt something that had such a bad name to boost their own (already successful) brand?! I believe the fact that Beyoncé’s attempts at rebranding the dirty ‘f’ word have backfired is further evidence of the deeper, underlying issues, and of the fact that we cannot think of feminism as a brand!
Feminism is not a brand! It is a movement, a belief in the full humanity of women, a way of living that defies stereotypes, expectations and excuses that society has used for centuries to make women’s lives harder. And what we need is not a new brand, or a new marketing campaign to make feminism more palatable to the average person. We need to roll out proper feminist education, in schools, universities, and beyond, from the earliest ages, which would include women in history and the present fully. It can’t be just a dedicated selective college module, or a single lesson on Suffragettes at A-levels. It has to be comprehensive, bringing women back into history, sciences and politics – at all levels.
As a feminist, I love women’s history. I find it incredibly inspiring and empowering to learn about women who’ve done it all before, in much tougher circumstances in most cases. Makes me feel like I can really do anything. But it often times also makes me sad, as I wonder how much stronger and more self-confident I would have been had I grown up knowing their stories from an earlier age. And I believe that the same applies to women and girls around the world.
And to the woman I met on Saturday I would like to say if she ever reads this: don’t be afraid, join your local feminist group and see how it feels. You might feel like you can’t possibly claim feminism for yourself when you’re surrounded by people who don’t know what it means and yet have the audacity to make incessant jokes about it, but trust me, you will not feel like that once you have found your sisterhood. Perhaps it’s time to change your friends. Or at least get some new, feminist ones, and educate your old ones 😉 Hope to see you around!