I wrote this to submit to our college newsletter; it will probably need to be edited and shortened but I wanted to keep my first stab at it here.
I have a friend from home who went to another university, and managed in her three years to fall into a particularly defined role. She was an activist for many causes like Amnesty International, took action against cuts for student funding and the NHS, occupied her university, has been on more marches than I can count, but perhaps most vocally of all, she’s a feminist. A very loud feminist. She hosts events, writes for her feminist society’s blog, and has made herself such an enemy in a man who has particularly different views to her on feminist issues that she was sponsored hundreds of pounds to go on a date with him. That’s quite a reputation to get.
So when she asked me about the feminist scene in Oxford, I didn’t really know what to say. I shared a vague view that women and men should be treated equally in society, have equal opportunities, equal pay for equal work, and so on. I also agreed that it probably isn’t the case yet. But, I thought, there’s not a lot I can do about that, I don’t see any immediate problems I can fix, and I’ll probably be more useful to the world if I just concentrate on getting my degree. That meant, in my mind, I definitely wasn’t a feminist, thank goodness – because really, who would want to be associated with an outdated stereotype of bra-burning, armpit hair and body odour?
Over the last couple of terms, a couple of things have woken me up to the need for our generation of students and young adults to stake our claim on feminism – not the stereotyped version, but the heart of it, to say that the society we are part of and will increasingly shape should be one in which everyone is valued equally. The first thing that woke me up to this was a Facebook group, started last year, called “Misogyny Overheard at Oxford”. On it, I found numerous examples of stories of women being patronised, mocked, groped, and harassed, sometimes in the name of banter from their peers, and often as a result of institutionalised sexism which is rife in an institution as old as ours. From this, and similar communities on Facebook I came across the website “Everyday Sexism”, which recounts thousands of examples of women’s experiences in families, in workplaces and on the streets. The problems of sexism are literally everywhere when you start looking for them. I began reading more, from Caitlin Moran’s “How to be a Woman” to articles, news stories and blogs. I’ve learned about the huge problems of victim blaming, where as a society we excuse rapists because women were “asking for it” by the way they dress or act. Depressing as some of the statistics and stories are, what I’ve read is encouraging – there ARE people, normal people, working to do something about this kind of inequality. No, they can’t fix everything single handedly, but they’re taking the time to do something, and to gather people onside.
Let me add a couple of qualifiers here – firstly, this is nothing to do with “women against men.” Like with any umbrella term, the name of feminism has been used by those with an anti-men agenda to push. That’s not okay. But it doesn’t mean that everyone who wants equality is anti-men, and it certainly doesn’t mean that men don’t have a very important part to play in bringing it about. Secondly, this is not meant to downplay the hurtful experiences of other groups who are subject to discrimination and prejudice. It’s not to say that men are not subject to gender discrimination either. It’s not to say that homophobia, transphobia and racism are not serious and important issues. Trying to solve one problem doesn’t mean we should ignore the rest, and most people would recognise that any attempts to bring about a more equal society are going to beneficial for all marginalised groups.
So qualifiers aside, what about us at Worcester? I’ve tried floating the word “feminism” about with friends and the odd drunk person at parties, to see the reactions I get. A couple of people have just walked off, in jest or otherwise. While my friends might have been making a joke about feminism being boring, the attitude is a real one: we don’t need that. It’s irrelevant, boring, and most importantly might challenge some parts of “lad-culture”. We couldn’t have that. Some have seemed a little fearful of the word, as if not confident enough to claim it themselves: “ I’m definitely not a feminist but…” followed by some brilliant statement about the need to bridge the pay gap, for instance. Others have looked tentatively excited and surprised to find someone else using this word, sharing these concerns, trying to get people to listen. Could it be that there are in fact a whole load of us, hidden feminists at Worcester, both men and women who agree that actually, we’d like to be part of a society in which people are treated equally, and that that includes women? If that’s the case, let’s come out of the woodwork and start talking. Start sharing those instances of every day sexism wherever we find them, so they can’t be ignored as a one off. Start calling people out on rape-jokes and find something funnier to say instead. Let’s share ideas, stories and ambitions, let’s start doing those little things that add up to bigger change. If you’re interested at all, if you might want to get involved, or just to listen in on a few ideas, drop me an email.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” There’s nothing to be scared of in that.