30 Sep 2009

Do you remember the first time?

There's an interesting post today on Feministing.com, asking community members when they became feminists, or at least, interested in the notion of feminism. I wasn't surprised to see more than a few people respond 'at the age of 4', or 'since birth'. I'd say I'm definitely in the earlier rather than later camp, and in some ways I do think a commitment to women's rights has always been in my nature. It's not something I really 'learned' so much as I just felt it, from a very early age. I always find it a bit surprising when women say they have merrily trundled along for 20 or so years before taking a Women's Studies class or similar, and suddenly being enlightened. Much as I know that we all arrive at things in our own way and at our own pace, I always wonder, what were you doing before, that it took you so long? How much of society and culture were you simply ignoring? And how many of your own experiences of sexism and misogyny just passed you by before you thought 'hey, there might be something in this?'.

As a child, I wasn't exactly loyal to my gender. At the age of 6 and 7 I found most other girls trivial and irritating, and could never understand why they were always getting told off by the teacher for chatting - I was too busy working. I was never a cute little girl who got her own way by fluttering her eyelashes and playing the little princess - I was proud to be intelligent, and loved nothing more than to be complimented on my schoolwork. Whilst other girls played with each other's hair, I was scribbling furiously away in my spelling book. As is not uncommon, I went through a tomboy phase. Deciding my own gender were simply an embarrassment, I thought I wanted to be a boy. I had the short haircut, the androgynous clothes - although I wasn't interested in climbing trees or getting dirty. I just didn't want to be associated with the air-headed behaviour of other girls. However, I discovered fairly swiftly that there was plenty of moronic behaviour on the other side of the gender divide - boys were often just as idiotic, if not more, with their random, pointless fighting, constant clamouring for attention, and deep immaturity. Wishing there was a third gender I could try (but there wasn't, and this is not a confession leading to transsexuality!), I went back to the XX camp and there I stayed, trying to figure it all out.

In some ways my mum gave me a good image of a strong woman, but as I've grown older I've found her lifestyle increasingly difficult to reconcile with my beliefs. Yes, she taught me to be strong, opionated, assertive, to use my talents to get where I want, and not to get married or have children unless it was what I truly wanted. However, she also encouraged me to be manipulative and mercenary-minded, made me see marriage in an entirely financial/materialistic light, and set the example of giving up one's career to have children, thus depending entirely on a man for money. In a roundabout way, she has made me never want to be in that last position, so I suppose I have her to thank for my determination to always support myself and not be beholden to others.

My mum was also the biggest adversary of my dad's father, an man who could be deeply unpleasant, chauvinistic, cruel and boorish. My mum refused to have anything to do with him for the last 8 years of his life, following a bust-up which I believe was her snapping point after a decade of holding her tongue and putting up with her father-in-law's obnoxious, bullying behaviour. It was always therefore difficult for me to view him with any objectivity, but I could also see as a child that my mum had a point - he could be a really nasty character. It was fitting therefore, that my first act of feminist assertion was directed at him. I remember being in the car at the age of 7 with both my grandparents, my dad and brother, and hearing my terminally downtrodden grandmother bemoan that she had forgotten to tape Women's Hour on the radio. My grandfather responded along the lines of "What do you want to listen to that for? Load of bloody stupid women, going on and on...". Outraged by this unprovoked declaration of sexism, I addressed my grandad and told it how it was: "You're just afraid they'll realise you're rubbish, and gang up on you." After a brief shocked silence, the adults in the car laughed in a oh-how-cute, out-of-the-mouths-of-babes manner, but I believe to this day I'd hit the nail on the head. The men who are so vocal in their denouncing of feminism are usually the ones most afraid that this ker-razy notion of treating women like human beings will take away some of their so jealously clutched power. I felt an obligation, both to my mum but also to my gut feeling that people who talked this kind of shit shouldn't be allowed to get away with it, to challenge my grandfather. That feeling has never gone away.

I also remember being disgusted and angry to discover what rape was and just how prevalent it was. It appalled me that this was an 'everyday' crime which you could see on the news with your family sitting by, and no one got up in arms about it. I found it hypocritical how everyone paid lip service to the notion of female equality whilst treating women like children or invalids who had to be protected from sex attackers - I still do. Why was my wellbeing of so much more concern than that of my brother? Why, if I was five minutes late home, did my dad feel the need to shout "You could have been raped!" (this actually happened when I was 10 years old. Yes. 10 years old.), as if the idea of having a daughter who had been sexually violated would be more troubling to him than to me, the actual victim. Why was my vagina and its inviolability suddenly everyone's business? I hated this unjust imbalance, found it disgusting, and raged against this invasive concern about vile acts which were surely nothing to do with me and everything to do with the evil men who perpetrated them. Only later did I discover I wasn't the only girl to have had these thoughts, and felt greatly comforted. However, it's deeply depressing how much victim blaming continues. If I could see, as a child, that the blame for sexual violence lay only at the feet of the men who committed it, why can't so many adults see that now?

Caring about women's issues has always been a tough job, and yes, someone's got to do it. I couldn't not do it - no matter how many times I want to throw my hands up in despair, and conclude that most women don't even give a shit about their own equality, and don't want my help, I never give in. I just can't - it's been in my nature all my life and likely always will be. Only last week I was inwardly shaking my head in despair as a group of 18-20 year olds completely failed to see why taking your husband's name in marriage reflects nothing but an oppressive tradition. That's the hard part - you're never off duty, and often enough the people you end up fighting or arguing with are other women, who clearly view you as unreasonable and slightly embarrassing for daring to even question the status quo. But their right to be uninformed, ignorant, and to internalise their own oppression, is, in a freakish way, a right I fight for. Just as well I fight for the right to try and educate them as well.

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