How I became a feminist

“Let me read to you from today’s paper,” she said, and though her voice was loud her hands shook slightly as she held out the newspaper.

We were crammed in for assembly, cross-legged, feeling uncomfortably younger than our sixth-form status.

“…yet another attack on Mo Mowlam’s appearance.”

I vaguely knew who Mo Mowlam was.

“…cancer. And the simple truth is that if she were a man they would not be running this story.” The room grew ever more quiet, and there was some kind of shift in the atmosphere.

Mrs H’s missile voice could explode even the eldest and coolest girl in school and reduce them to a sobbing, “I’ll hand it in tomorrow”. You did not mess with Mrs H.

But now her voice was booming and breaking slightly and we didn’t quite know why. It was a peculiar experience, feeling her anger and yet knowing it was not directed at us; a guilty pleasure, like watching someone else get told off.

Girls – you can do anything you want to.” She was reaching a climax, we could sense it.

Her hair was leonine, black and wild; she had become quite still and she looked round the room with an hunter’s intensity: “I mean it. Girls – you can change the world.”

I didn’t quite understand it, but I didn’t forget it.


The thing was, we all believed her. We believed her before she’d started her little speech.

We were in a selective girls school, so our test results at the age of 11 had led us to a golden land of free, high-quality education. The school walls were full of the names of those who had gone on before us with nothing more than their intelligence. (That was all that was required in life, surely?) We could study whatever we want, we could choose to take a career break and have kids, we could be an astronaut or doctor or engineer (or even a teacher, if we got desperate and couldn’t think of anything else.)

The boys’ school were constantly reminded of the girls’ school’s superiority – we got the better results, year on year. We were better – and because both schools knew it, we had no need to crow. We were gracious in our superiority.

I used to sign my name ‘Ms’ when I was 12 but somewhere along the years I softened my approach. I walked in environments where I expected to be treated with respect and as an equal. And (with a few exceptions) that was the experience: in my church, my university, my romantic relationships, my work. You don’t need to fight when you have won the battle.

When I left school I was confident I was walking into a changed world, that the sexism of my parents’ generation was on the decline. We lived in a meritocracy, and I would be judged on my abilities, not my gender. I did not call myself feminist – I had no need to. There might not be equality yet, but it was just a matter of time.

Girls – you can do anything you want to. We believed them.


It took me a long time to realise they were wrong.

Fewer women are taking long career breaks to have children, so if we were in a meritocracy, logic would dictate that there should be equal numbers of men and women in senior ranks.

And yet, these are the latest statistics of the proportion of women in the following sectors:

  • MPs: 22%
  • The Cabinet: 17%
  • Editors of national papers: 5%
  • Directors of FTSE 100 companies: 17%

Politicians are meant to represent us: 22% is not representative. Even for sectors like education which are significantly dominated by women, it is still the men who are in the leadership positions:

  • Head teachers in secondary schools: 38%
  • Directors of major art galleries: 28%
  • University Vice Chancellors: 14%

In addition to discrimination in the workplace, some of the greatest evils in today’s society are those particularly affecting women.

  • Sex trafficking – c. 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the US each year. [source: US government] This issue goes to the heart of our so-called civilised West.
  • Rape – almost 1 in 5 women in the US are a victim of rape, according to a government survey. Almost 1 in 5 women in the UK are a victim of rape or sexual assault in their lifetime. [Source: ONS]
  • Domestic violence – 25% of women in the UK and US will experience domestic violence at some point in their lifetime. [source: Home Office via Restored and US source ]

It was when I was watching an entertainment show on TV a few months ago that I finally snapped. There was one woman and three men on the judging panel, and I thought to myself, ‘it’s good that they’ve got women represented in the same way as minority races’ and I realised what I was saying. While it’s important to have minorities represented, women are not the minority.

Women do not make up 25% or 10% or 5% of society. We make up just over 50%. We are not intrinsically any less capable of banking, headteaching, leading, writing, preaching, or judging people’s singing performances. I am tired of being treated as though I were a minority, as though my voice was significant but only in a small way. We are the majority.

But though our teachers’ statements were wrong, they knew what they were doing. It took me until last year to realise that their impassioned affirmations were not descriptive but prophetic. They were not telling us the way things were. They were speaking into our future. Girls, you can change the world. They were prophesying over us.

Though I have always believed in the equal worth of men and women I have only recently been calling myself a feminist. A feminist is someone who believes in the equal worth of women and men and also sees a world where women aren’t valued equally. I have always been the former; now I am becoming the latter. I see that there’s a problem.

Men and women are equal but our world does not reflect this. So you may call me feminist. I would hope that after carefully considering the statistics you might be, too.

I have not had to fight, at least not a great deal, to do what I have loved to do. But now I want to fight for others. It is not good enough and I will not be silenced by the ‘you should be grateful, it was worse in my day’ line. I grew up in the 80s. In so many ways it is worse now.

I believed my teachers when they prophesied to us. So I also prophesy to the many ‘me’s in high school now who are watching these same programs and reading these same statistics, who encounter ever-increasing messages that women are not to be treated as people but as objects for a man’s gratification.

This is my fierce whisper: “Girl – you can do anything you want to. You can change the world.”

I normally post on a Weds/Thurs but this week I’m joining in a synchro blog on feminism, linking with J R Goudeau, Danielle Vermeer and Preston Yancey. Do check them out and read others’ posts on feminism.

Over to you:

  • How do you understand the term ‘feminist’? Are you one?

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44 Responses to How I became a feminist

  1. James Prescott 26th February, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Great post. I agree – feminism is simply about ensuring men and women are treated equally and given equal opportunity in every and any profession or role, and in that sense I am completely and utterly feminist.

    There is no doubt men and women are 100% equal and should be given the freedom to take any role or any job without gender being an issue, and that sadly there is still prejudice in our culture. I’m an egalitarian in my view of church gender roles too and go to a church which reflects this, with female leaders and speakers.

    Bearing the above in mind, let me make one point. Although the stats and percentages are completely and undoubtedly out of order in terms of people who hold certain positions in culture, and there needs to be a change in these stats, we should be careful that we do not employ people merely to meet a quota.

    The best people to do any job are the best qualified, in terms of character and ability – and gender has nothing to do with this.

    Say the 80% best qualified people for one profession are female (or male) – does this mean we then don’t employ the other 30% merely to ensure there is a 50/50 match of men and women (or near enough). Of course not.

    True feminism is surely not simply when there is necessarily an equal split in genders in all professions to meet a quota – it is when gender ceases to be an issue when deciding upon whom we employ or who leads us. Because then women will be truly treated as the equals they are – given an equal chance to do any job or play any role in church regardless of gender.

    I hope this is taken in the spirit it is meant – from a man who is a committed egalitarian and someone who believes in complete equality – and in that sense is a feminist, and practices it in his own life.

    To paraphrase MLK, may we in future not be judged, or given jobs or any kind of role based on our gender, but on our qualifications, gifting, and the content of our character. When this happens, feminism will have achieved it’s aim.

  2. Joy Lenton 26th February, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    A great post, Tanya, that is both interesting and challenging – much like the concept of feminism in general. I grew up devouring Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ and found it by turns funny, outrageous for its time, intelligent and quirky. It enticed yet repelled somehow in equal measure. Couldn’t one be a feminist and not hate men or burn our bras? Then I discovered ‘Female Woman’ by Arianna Stassinopoulos (now Huffington) and it felt more balanced with its emphasis on combining femininity with intelligent individuality, celebrating all that makes women unique and special by virtue of their physiology and feminine attributes alongside questions of role and equality issues.

    Both works shaped me to some degree in my thinking. Then becoming a Christian in my late teens confused the issue for many years as I struggled with definitions of submission and gender defined roles. My perspectives have shifted gear again as I now feel comfortable declaring myself to be a feminist in the full embrace of all it means to be radically feminine, special to God, unique in role and function physiologically and open to any opportunity that comes my way. I celebrate womanhood and I’m at ease in my own skin as wife and mother and supporter of greater freedom for girls and women world-wide where oppression of any kind exists. Let us hope more of our sisters will become all they can be – especially In Christ – and experience the freedom He died to bring us.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

      So cool to hear something of your journey in this! (Though I’m not a real feminist – I haven’t read Germaine Greer!)

  3. Mark Allman 26th February, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    I strongly believe that a woman should be judged by their abilities and not by her gender. I hope my actions speak of my respect for women for I believe I know more worthy women that worthy men if that makes sense. I have two daughters I have always told that they could achieve great things if they wanted to. My oldest daughter was the only girl that played baseball in our area as a 12, 13, and 14 year old. She lead her teams to championships. She made the high school junior varsity baseball team as an 8th grader. Sadly I had to fight for her to be able to do these things all along the way. Fight both men and women.
    A person’s worth is not tied up in their gender, color, or personality. We must stop seeing people with only our eyes… we must rely more on our heart and our intellect.
    Tanya Marlow as well as lots of women I know …. more than worthy on the things that matter most.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

      Hurrah! I’m cheering for you! How blessed your girls are to have a Dad like you.

  4. Alice 26th February, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    When I was a teenager I was enraged by sexism.
    When I was young woman in church I learned that boys get the best jobs when it comes to serving Jesus. I accepted it and tried to work out what it meant for me – just a girl.
    Then I was a mum of two sons with a daughter growing inside me. I wondered if it was sad for her not to be a boy because she had fewer opportunities.

    Then I became a feminist.

    This is a brilliant post Tanya. xxx

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

      The boys get the best jobs…
      They do, don’t they?

      I love that you’re a secret feminist. (At least, that’s how it comes across to me).

      With church things I think it’s really tricky – how do we graciously accept and get along playing the hand we’ve been given, and yet stir things up so that it’s not just the A&E for the next generation down?

      I genuinely feel torn.

      • Alice 7th March, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

        Yes – Shhh, secret feminist – that’s it exactly!
        I love submission. I love quiet. I love the church and I don’t want to hurt, confuse or anger people. But there’s something in me saying “this isn’t quite right yet”. I can’t put my finger on it and I’m generally pretty content!


  5. Jenn LeBow 26th February, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Can you hear me cheering all the way from America?? Brilliant!

    My favorite line is: A feminist is someone who believes in the equal worth of women and men and also sees a world where women aren’t valued equally.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      I loved yours too!! What fab feminists we are! πŸ™‚

  6. Esther Emery 26th February, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    Tanya, it’s so interesting how we come to a joining point from different directions! I have forever called myself a feminist, and am only recently understanding that it doesn’t conflict with Christian religion. Also, I guess I’ve been an angry voice, and that wasn’t always helpful, but it was motivated by the same deep hurts and aspirations as that teacher. But as you suggest, all our hearts can respond to these statistics. Thank you for your gentle invitation to reason.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

      I think we need all voices on this – the angry and screaming ones too! I really enjoyed your post (and don’t actually find you too screamy…) πŸ™‚

  7. John Jordan 26th February, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    This is brilliant Tanya!
    I have been a socialist all my adult life, and a trade union activist for a greater part of it. I am also the father of a daughter.
    When my daughter was a little girl, I encouraged her in pretty much the same way as your teacher. Like you, she did not experience sexism at school, or university, but she now works in a male dominated profession,(Civil Engineering).
    Maybe I am looking at it through my egalitarian eyes, but she is the victim of subtle sexism. There have been examples of overt sexism, like when as a consultant she arrived at a meeting with a junior male colleage, and someone looked at her and said, “Put the kettle on love,” but it is more constructive (sic) (more like destructive) than that.
    I could go into details, but I would rather not in an open forum. I will go as far as to say that I fume with impotent anger at some of the things she tells me. If you would like to hear more, let me know and I`ll send you an e mail.
    I have worked in the civil service for most of my life, and have only ever worked in an environment where equality and advancement on merit have been accepted as normal. (I started in 1972, just after equality was made statute.) Throughout my career, more and more work has been done to advance equality, irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation or disability, and work is still going on, because things are not perfect. This is why I am outraged at the different agenda in much of the private sector.
    If it is possible for a man to be described as a feminist, then I suppose I am he. As you have realised, there is much work to be done.
    When I was a Street Pastor, I enrolled on an additional course relating to domestic abuse, along with a colleague who was a survivor of this corrosive abuse.
    I have come to the conclusion that it is the attitudes and perceptions of some men that need to change. This will be a huge battle, as we are in a situation caused by centuries of a culture where women have been treated as possessions or objects, or at the least, second class citizens. It is up to the mothers of young sons today to get the message across.
    When I got married in 1974, my wife and I agreed that we would dispense with the vow for her to obey me. I have always seen her as my equal, with her own mind and values. I guess I am lucky.
    Sorry to bang on like this, but sexism or any other kinds of inequality are issues that stir deep passions in me.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

      I’m cheering for you!

      Some of the stories I hear about how women are treated in the workplace make my blood run cold. URGH.

      I’m thankful that your daughter has you for a father though!

      And yes – I definitely think it is possible for men to be feminists.

      There’s a great quote from Alan Storkey, married to Elaine Storkey, who is a well-renowned preacher and teacher.
      “Alan, what’s it like to be married to a feminist?” Someone asked him.
      “You’ll have to ask my wife” he replied.


  8. Mia 26th February, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

    Dear Tanya
    This is a problem in my country as well. For a long time men, especially white men, were the elite. After 1994, things started to change for more women get appointed in high ranking posts. The only problem we face now, and it is a BIG problem, is that people are now appointed according to their race and gender and not according to their qualifications and knowledge. As a result South Africa is going downwards very quickly for we have too many people in top posts they are unable to do. Our education, transport and health systems are some of the most affected by this insufficiency. We also experience a terrible brain drain as thousands of our highly sufficient and educated professionals are emigrating to other countries. Corruption, especially in the governments is at an all time high level. Just last week we were informed that the Traffic Officials of a certain city are taking bets on how much money they can make per month with bribery. I can just hope our Lord’s return is not far off.
    Much love XX

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

      Oh yikes… Why is there always mess even in the attempts to clear up the mess?

      Maranatha indeed.

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