“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?
Liked this post? Do stay in touch – subscribe by email or like my Facebook page.