And – what is a feminist anyway?

It seems to me that if you ask: “what is feminism” to twenty different people you will get twenty different answers.

Some will describe it in terms that have universal and obvious appeal, for example by saying it is the simple belief that women should have equal status with men. Few could disagree with that as a premise, although there may be fierce disagreement about what “equal status” should entail. Somebody somewhere once said (although I can’t remember where I saw it, maybe it was even on another blog somewhere) that every woman is a feminist. I suppose she meant that every woman almost necessarily believes certain things – such as that women are human beings rather than objects – and that these are the only things you need to believe in order to call yourself a feminist. Doesn’t that rather reduce feminism to the point where it no longer means much at all? You might say that is reaches the nub of the question “what is feminism”, and answers it neatly and clearly. But, even if that is so, it is hardly helpful, because it does not take us very far into understanding anything much at all.

Others will describe feminism in terms which make it appear almost universally offensive, for example by characterising it as man-hating, as unfeminine or unwomanly, as dangerous or stupid or both. Few people could disagree that man-hating is self-defeating (at least as a universal principle) and few women are indifferent to the charge of being “unwomanly”. But man-hating is not inherent in feminism, and unwomanliness depends – of course – on your definition of “womanly”. That is precisely the thing that many feminist challenge, this cultural definition of womanliness, and this cultural rejection of a woman who not only fails to comply with the requirements but actively rejects them and entirely denies their validity. This is the battle-ground where misogyny and misandry collide, and feminism seems to get ugly.

But my feeling is that most people, at least most people who identify themselves as feminists, will have more interesting claims to make for feminism.

The central ground that seems to unite all feminists is the idea that women’s position in society is not what it should be, that it should be different and better, and that it should entail more and better choices being available for women in general.

But feminists seem to be always falling out. They seem to disagree fundamentally about how we got into this mess, about what we should be striving for, about how we could get there. There are more than two or three camps, there are innumerable camps. Almost anyone can find a camp that suits them, pitch a tent, and run up a flag that says “We are Feminists!”

Is that fantastic? I think so. I think it means that there is a richness and diversity to the thing that we broadly call “feminist thought”, which means it is something very far removed from the ideological. It leaves space for people to come together, work or talk or think or argue together, learning and developing all the while, and then, if they wish, move on to something else, some other idea, some other place to learn. As long as nobody gets ideological – or, at least, as long as there are plenty of people who are not ideological – then things will change and grow all the time and never get stuck in unthinking ruts.

Am I a feminist? Yes.

A while ago I suspect I would have shrunk from the term, thinking of man-haters and idealogues. But I need and believe in and want so many of the things that feminism has achieved for me, how can I turn around now and reject it? Without the feminists of the past, I would have no vote, no property, no job, very little education, no status. I would be tied to a husband, with no right to control anything about either my life or that of my daughter. I wouldn’t even be able to write about these things on my blog.

I’m not sure exactly which “brand” of feminism (if any) will suit me best. Not yet. I suspect that, like each of the twenty people we asked right at the start of this post, I will develop my own ideas about it as I go along. I’ll probably start in one camp, then find that the fires are too hot or the water is too far away, and perhaps try another. Eventually I will realise that other people’s camps will always be set up in a way that suits other people and I will think about setting up my own camp. Or maybe I will do things the other way around – start out by trying to reinvent the wheel and then realise that I would do better to make grateful use of what others have done before me.

(I shall stop this camping metaphor now before it becomes hopelessly mixed with wheelwrighting and the whole thing descends into silliness.)

So: I am a feminist. I have confessed it.

Now I need to go away and find out what it means!