As two current threads on equality are unravelling to marvellous effect for one and all – by golly, we’ve learnt a lot - I thought it must be time to have a canter through the darker, cobwebbier corners of the People’s Republic and explain my own prejudices. Because I am aware in all discussions like those I have linked to, that I am coming from a slightly different angle, and if I sound a little ratty in what follows, I think it’s the cumulative effect of being subtly and continuously, over several years, told so.
It’s a commonplace that some women are outraged when other women (particularly intelligent and beautiful ones, for some reason, as if that makes the tiniest bean of difference) claim not to be feminists. Jo A repeats this. On balance I would say that I am a feminist, for the simple reason that feminism grew out of the pressing need for equal pay, equal opportunities, and a healthier perception of the importance of women’s role as family-makers. We haven’t achieved those things, they are the sine qua non of a civilised society as all sane people agree, ergo, I am a feminist.
But I have never had any patience with the notion that I should therefore conform to angry and impassioned typecasting, react to all criticism as an insult to Woman, or that I should like some people more than others just because we have ovaries in common.* I understand – over the last day I have understood much better – why some women are absolutely compelled by their own histories to approach feminism in this way. Which is fine, but it doesn’t work for me, and no amount of hectoring will change that. That highly self-conscious feminism - wimminism, if you will - seems to me to put limitations on the individual, and also undermines the dignity of womanhood in general. It is a simple psychological truth that as a set of people women are no less varied in temperament, in character, in beliefs, in thought patterns than men – why are we still inclined to straitjacket ourselves into one pattern of progressive womanhood? And I know I am not alone in this. For every nexus of wimminism, there is a hesitant woman on the sidelines saying in a very small voice, But that’s not me, that’s not how I think. Does that make me a bad person? Of course not.
Wimminism is something I have only really become aware of since leaving university. I was in single-sex education from age 13, then went on to a college with a very proud women’s tradition (mutters, and Margaret Thatcher as an alumna, gyaaargh), and Oxbridge women are (let’s face it) an exceptionally mixed bag, so I had no trouble finding others like me who were more interested, always, in going ahead and doing the thing rather than talking about it. The flipside of this privileged upbringing, of course, is that while I am by no means from a wealthy background, and went to a state school, I nevertheless spent my formative years in a “nice” environment, where it was never intimated to me for a moment that I couldn’t be as good as or better than men. It’s a testament to my education, my parents and the happy socio-economic stars of my birth that I am extremely, extremely unscrewed-up about this.
But it has totally screwed me in another way. I can’t fit in with self-consciously feminist women now. Ever since leaving university, I have encountered a sense of being excluded from groups of women for somehow not being quite right, being a little bit frighteningly different. I wasn’t particularly a tomboy, I had and have perfectly good and sane relationships with both my parents, and I’m straight (well, straightish) – it’s not any of that. I just don’t fit into any of the pigeonholes that many women, it seems to me, actively seek to climb into in a sort of communal comfort exercise. As a result, I find I am far more natural and happy, far more myself, sitting around with a bunch of men than with a bunch of women, unless I go far enough back with the women to know that they accept me as I am. That automatic confidence that people will like you just isn’t there when I sit down with a group of women, because I know quite well that some of them are going to find me a bit odd, too rational, not angry enough, with altogether the wrong sense of humour, in short, just a little too damn much like a man. And the sense of personal slight I have occasionally encountered as a result does tend, to be honest, to put me off devoting my own resources to tackling inequality problems.
So for future reference, this is my pitch for equality. I think vocal feminism would do well to remember that human dignity – for everyone - lies in our being individuals. For that reason, and because feminism has not so far made those final steps towards equal pay and equal opportunity, I believe liberalism, and not feminism, is the creed that ultimately will change women’s lives, and it’s on that basis that I think we should proceed.
* I mean, that we both have ovaries. Two each, hopefully. Not that we share them. That would just be weird.