Feminism is one of those words that makes me feel awkward. It makes me think of butch women not shaving their legs in a stance against the sexual objectification of women (“We will not have smooth legs just because men prefer them!”) and venomous, man-hating women talking about how, thanks to artificial insemination, Ikea and kickboxing classes, we no longer need men for anything. At all.
Put simply, even though I think women are pretty great – at least as great as men – feminism is not a word I’d like to put my name to. Louisa the Explorer? Fine. Louisa the Feisty? Excellent. But Louisa the Feminist? No thanks.
And I know I’m not the only one who winces at the word. Ask a woman if she’s a feminist and you’re likely to get a hesitant, self-excusing, non-committal, unconvincing, almost-apologetic response, which goes something like this: “Well, I guess I am in a way. But I’m not one of those strident types – I’m not going to burn my bra or anything. I don’t know if we even need feminism any more... I mean, things are pretty equal aren’t they?” Hmmm…
In her book How To Be a Woman, British journalist Caitlin Moran says that the problem with the word ‘feminism’ is that most of us are embarrassed by it. She says, “We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’... We need the only word we have ever had to describe ‘making the world equal for men and women’. Women’s reluctance to use it sends out a really bad signal. Imagine if, in the 1960s, it had become fashionable for black people to say they ‘weren’t into’ civil rights.” She’s right, of course. If women are ashamed of feminism, why would anyone take it seriously?
She continues, “It is really important you say these words out loud. ‘I AM A FEMINIST.’ It’s probably one of the most important things a woman will ever say: the equal of ‘I love you’, or ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’, or ‘No! I’ve changed my mind! Do NOT cut me a fringe!’” Later she says if you’re ever wondering if something is sexist or not, to ask yourself these questions: Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this making men feel insecure?
By the end of her book, I am feeling pretty comfortable using the word ‘feminism’. I go through my days asking myself, “Are men squeezing their feet into uncomfortable shoes to make their legs look longer? Are men worrying about whether their contraception of choice will give them cancer?” I’m sniffing out sexism at 50 paces, thinking to myself, “Je suis une féministe!” in my made-up French, which I often use when trying to sound clever. I’ve realised that feminism isn’t about burning bras, but about women being able to voice their opinions and get what they want. I have been blessed with a brain capable of making its own decisions – and I rather like being able to work where I want/choose my own friends/pick my own clothes – so I don’t see why I shouldn’t be in charge of me.
While chatting to a friend about feminism, she says she was put off it by two unfriendly women who breastfed each other’s children, ranted about “the evil that is men” and said they couldn’t be friends with a non-feminist female. I explained that it doesn’t need to mean man-hating and that, according to my new hero Caitlin Moran, men can be feminists too.
In the office, I walk around talking about how feminism isn’t about bras. “I mean, how could the whole topic be summed up by something as inconsequential as underwear?” I ask rhetorically. “It’s about having faith in our capabilities. It’s not about hating men, but about being proud of women.”
Another friend said, “Well, I guess I am in a way... I’m not one of those strident types...” I interjected, “I know – you’re into it, but you don’t want to burn your bra in the street.” “On the contrary,” she said. “I’d love to burn my bra in the street. I hate wearing a bra. It must have been a man who decided breasts must be kept in a tight, uncomfortable undergarment.”
I think about it. Why do we wear bras anyway? Is it to protect our backs? Or do we wear bras because men prefer us to? Put simply, are the men doing it? No, they most certainly are not. Granted, they don’t have breasts, but do they wear uncomfortable underwear? No they don’t. In fact, while we are scurrying around wearing less-than-comfy cheese wire/dental floss thongs (lest we show any dreaded VPL), and rib-constricting bras (lest our breasts jiggle), men are relaxing in pants that are more like tents.
It reminds me of when a friend came to stay last month and, as part of our Friday morning treat to ourselves, we wore the biggest, comfiest pants we owned. You may laugh, but it is true – admit it, there is nothing better than wearing your favourite big pants. Sans bows. Sans string. Sans itchy lace sections. Suddenly, those strident bra-burning feminists don’t seem quite so ridiculous. In fact, they seem pretty heroic. I just think they were slightly off target with their marketing strategy... Burn your bra? Meh, not that bothered. But if there were women in the street burning thongs? Now there’s a cause I’d get behind.