How I became a feminist

My school, a few years before I got there

My school, a few years before I got there

“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. J.R. Goudeau 28th February, 2013 at 3:30 am #

    This post has stuck with me for two days. I had to come back and read it again. I love your experience and your wisdom in this. Thank you.

    • Tanya 28th February, 2013 at 9:26 am #

      Thank you so much. I am a huge fan of your writing so this is a big compliment!

  2. Mark Allman 27th February, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Tanya,
    In your response to James I noticed your comment about men commenting only on other men’s blog. I read both men’s and women’s blogs and have found the best blogs to be overwhelmingly women’s like yours.

    • Tanya 28th February, 2013 at 9:27 am #

      1) this just shows how supercool you are
      2) flattery’ll get you everywhere! 🙂

  3. HopefulLeigh 27th February, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    That’ll preach.

    • Tanya 28th February, 2013 at 9:27 am #

      Thanks, girl!

  4. Jillie 27th February, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    Hi Tanya…I may have a different perspective here. These are my musings:
    Just last night, interestingly enough, my husband and I were watching a 3-hour documentary on PBS, called ‘Makers’, about the women’s liberation movement of years ago. It featured all the big movers & shakers of the time, including the famous Ms. Steinem. Throughout the major part of the documentary, we heard about “woman’s battle to been seen and treated as an equal!” When they approached our recent times, they held up ‘Madonna’, of all people, as a shining example of what a liberated woman looks like. I was struck by the thought that all these many years women have fought to be seen as equals and not just as sex-objects in our male-dominated society. We have wanted to be taken seriously! Then all I saw were seductive images of ‘Ms. Madonna’, performing in her underwear, just as she always has! I’m sorry, but I can’t take that seriously at all. She, and the majority of female performers of our day, parade around barely clothed, while proclaiming that “We are women! Hear us roar!” It’s laughable to me. Rhianna. Beyonce. Brittany Spears. Need I go on? These performers aren’t ‘dressing’ this way for the WOMEN in their audiences. They’re dressing for the MEN! They’re using the oldest trick in the book, using their breasts, bellies, and butts to sell themselves and rake in the bucks! Good grief! Didn’t Ms. Steinem once don the famous Playboy Bunny ‘costume’ and then come to abhor all it stood for?! I’m not saying we have to dress like men to be taken seriously, but the near-naked performers of our times aren’t doing anything for ‘the cause’, as I see it. They seem to be simply perpetuating the sex-kitten symbol of what men see a woman’s main purpose for being.
    Now to the second extreme—I find more women IN CHURCHES now, who look down their nose at the woman who chooses to be at home, WORKING to raise her children into responsible, God-fearing adults. I’ve been asked, BY MY PASTOR’S WIFE of all people, “What is it you do all day? Don’t you get bored? Don’t you want to DO something with your life?” She made me feel very angry! Isn’t ‘liberation’ about having the right to CHOOSE what we want to do in life? EVEN IF it’s ‘JUST’ staying home and raising children? The position in life that I STILL believe is closest to the heart of God?! Not to mention the colossal rise in divorce that happened in those days of the movement and continues to this day. The rise of workplace ‘affairs’! The entire pro-abortion thing!
    And NOW, it seems to me that women don’t really want to be treated equally—they want to be treated BETTER than men. Because we think we ARE better.
    Just some thoughts.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

      Hey there. Thanks for your thoughts – it’s good to stir it up a bit!

      With regards clothing, I think there is a bit of a fine line, which makes things tricky. Do I think a woman has the right to look nice and be appreciated as looking nice without being reduced to a sex symbol? Yes. Do I think a woman has the right to be sexual and express her sexuality, without being seen as a whore? Yes. But it’s hard to explain how these two things are different and where the line is drawn. I know many feminists would say that Rihanna and Madonna are traitors to the feminist cause. On the other hand, i dont think it is necessary for women to dress as men and become defeminised in order to be respecte. Maybe it’s better thinking of the issue in men. I personally feel very uncomfortable seeing body builder men/ male models in the underwear. I don’t think it is appreciation of men, I think it spjust screams sex and objectification. I feel the same way about it seeing women gyrating on the stage with next-to-no clothes on. Maybe it’s just cos I’m a mother (actually, I’m pretty sure I always felt this way!) Don’t know how clear I’m being on this- hoe that makes sense!

      Your second point – I think feminism means, above all, to have choice. One of the posts on #femfest expressed how feminism and family went together for her – and that all the while campaigning for women to have the right to choose their career etc she has opted to stay at home and look after children. I think that’s a great thing, and it makes me twitchy when women say ‘a woman’s duty is to…’ whether that is followed by a ‘stay at home’ clause (often said in the church) or ‘go back out to work’ (often said in government). I think a woman and a man should be free to choose how they spend their time and how best to look after their family. And I know lots of stay-at-home dads too (who I suspect don’t get as much hassle as you would in church!) Having said that, they find it very much harder to make friends and go to play dates…

      Your final point, that women want to be treated as better than men – well, I can’t speak for everyone. But my comment about my school being better than the boys’ was very tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think women are better than men, I think we need one another. I don’t think men are better than women, I think we need one another. I dislike the ‘men are useless’ narrative that comes from the lips of women as deeply as I dislike the ‘women are useless’ narrative coming from the lips of men. I’m Bascially all about mutual respect, not scrapping over power.

      I really liked this piece by Suzannah Paul for femfest, and the more I read it, the more I like it. Do check it out! http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/2013/02/theology-feminism-power.html

  5. Preston 27th February, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    Beauty.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

      Why thank yow.

  6. Karen 27th February, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    Wow, Tanya, I really didn’t realise that. It used to bother me a lot too, but then I decided that there are some things you can’t change – and fighting them only leads to being wounded.
    However, I agree that we still need to push for greater equality – but ‘how?’ is the question. As a woman in ministry in a very chauvinistic society, I have decided not to enter into conversations about whether or not women should be in ministry; nor should I be selfishly ambitious, but I can show by my life that God can use a person like me – without being pushy. I just show that it is possible by just doing my job well, and ignoring the criticism – both said, and unsaid.
    I’m certain there are contexts for other means too, as with the suffragettes – this is just my context.
    Thank you for speaking up!! And thank you for being willing to fight for us!!

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      Ha! I feel a bit of a fraud for saying I ‘fight’ – not sure I’m doing anything particularly worth while. I want to fight, but the ‘how’ is a very tricky thing to answer. I too have been substantially wounded from the sexism in ministry battles, and not in a hurry to go back there. I guess (thinking aloud) I see my role more as encouraging those women who just feel like they’re going insane because the world is telling them they can’t do something they think they can. Sometimes, just telling them, ‘you’re not insane. You can do this. You should do this. Let’s try and work out a way you can do this, given the broken and messed up world we’re in’ is in itself a gift.

      Thanks for this!

  7. Mandy 26th February, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

    Great post Tanya! Isn’t it amazing how our God can bring us to a similar point from very different places? I considered myself a feminist from my teens. When I became a christian I struggled with the whole submission to a male God and a mainly male church leadership despite all being equal before christ. I don’t blog, but recent tweets quoting countingwomenin.org and the fawcett society show I share the same values.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

      I never had a problem with God, but nowadays I do find myself getting a little tired by the dominance of male voices in the church. Having said that, growing up, I always had plenty of female voices – there are always kindred spirits and sisters in Christ to be found along the way, though they are just a title more hidden. Hope you find yours!

  8. James Prescott 26th February, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    To add to my above comment – I do believe there is still deep prejudice in our culture, and deeply embedded in many professions. And it is absolutely vital that all of us, both men and women, continue to advocate for equality, for fair opportunity for both genders to pursue any career path, and in a church context, to lead churches, to teach and preach and take positions of responsibility.

    There are many entrenched traditional views in many professions, and in the church too. This is simply not acceptable and has to change. And us men need to be standing up too and supporting this cause, because sadly much of the damage and the problems in our culture – and in the church – are caused by us men.

    Jesus empowered women. Paul’s comments often used to limit women were actually, when taken in their proper context, about making women equal with men, about empowering women.

    We must do the same. And keep on doing so. Only by doing this, can we bring the dream of equality true.

    • Tanya 27th February, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

      Well, I’m all about the meritocracy! I basically completely agree with you. I think it insulting to have a ‘token’ woman, as though women can only ever be chosen for something because of a gender equality agenda.

      Where I hesitate though is the seeming assumption that men are always going to be better than women. Or at least, this is what the statistics are telling me.

      Even in my little corner of the world (cue rant) I notice that women tend to have a mixture of men and women on their ‘blog roll’ whereas there are a number of men who only read other men’s blogs. (Not you, you are the welcome exception!) Is this really because they have looked at many women’s blogs and have found those men to be better, or is it simply that they never bother to investigate?

      And this is where quotas can come in useful, much as I hate the concept. It forces people to consider, ‘hey, perhaps a woman could do this job equally well’. It’s about somehow shifting the balance so that people’s prejudices are confronted.

      But so tricky to know how to!

      • Dave Bish (@davebish) 27th February, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

        I think the blogs I read most are all by women (Yours, Cat Caird, Emma Scrivener and Betsy de Thierry), not sure what that says about me as a Complementarian man but hey ho…

        • Tanya 28th February, 2013 at 9:26 am #

          It says you are supercool!
          🙂

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