Feminism Today: An important cause with a massive PR problem

This week it is 100 years since Emily Davison committed the most famous act of Women’s History in the UK, fatally jumping in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby for the whole nation to see.

This historical morsel has been used to create a surge of TV programs on the suffragettes, and incited much debate about feminism today. My favourite so far has been Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragettedefinitely worth a watch.

However, despite our amazement at Davison’s story and agreement that women should be entitled to the vote (which was finally granted after the war in 1918), very few young women refer to themselves as feminists today.

The movement is on the rise again, in various guises –Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman was not only a hilarious memoir, but a bestseller with a strident, modern feminist message. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In encourages women to step forward and shine in the workplace, has been a US bestseller, and has appeared in Cosmopolitan UK. Not to mention the Everyday Sexism Project recently winning a campaign against Facebook to combat gender-based hated on their site.

Spare Rib, the famous feminist magazine of the 1970s, is about to be relaunched by Charlotte Raven. Spare Rib wants to bring back some substance to the female magazine market – ‘life, not lifestyle’ is the tagline – and hopefully will dilute the sea of glossies on very little but shoes-sex-and-shopping that is currently available.

Yet, despite all of these ‘green shoots’, any time that I try and have a reasonable debate, with intelligent people, ‘feminism’ is still seen as a dirty word. Almost to a (wo)man, those that I talk to want women to vote and have jobs, but don’t want to be associated with this word – to them it is tribalist, almost primitive. Man-hating ‘bra burners’ are the lasting image, not the marching suffragettes or the successful career women who exist today.

It goes a bit like this… Empowered, independent and intelligent we are, but god forbid if there was the slightest implication that we would set fire to our underwear. To be honest, I’m a card-carrying feminist (had you guessed?) but I’m also quite a fan of my bra, my boyfriend and doing a bit of cooking.

However, I also believe that most of modern society and today’s large corporations have been shaped by men, and continue to be run by them. I don’t think that creating this situation was a malicious act to hold women down, but I do think that it is harder for women to succeed today than it is for men because of the structures and role-models that are currently in place. Look at the UK cabinet with only 4 out of 22 positions filled by women. Look at the boards of the FTSE 100 – only 6.6% of executive directorships were held by women in January 2012.

You’ve heard these statistics before – yawn. They get trotted out all the time. What needs to happen is for someone who speaks the language of young women today and has actually worked in politics/a large corporation to fuze their talents and speak to the public in plain English. If not seen as bra-burning radicals, feminists often come across as out-of-touch intellectuals.

On 10 o’Clock Live (29th May), Laurie Penney had a great opportunity to sell feminism as a modern concept to a young, politically-engaged audience, but as soon as she said the words ‘Capitalist Patriarchy’ she lost her audience (litmus test: my boyfriend groaned deeply from the other end of the sofa). It’s a valid concept, but one that needs to be laid out in layman’s terms in this context, and a great example of why feminists need a message-makeover. Louise Mensch speaks in a way most women can understand, but dislikes the Liberal intellectuals so much that she can lose her message under the noise of her determination to attack them, as she did on her blogpost last week.

I’m not saying that feminists need to change the way that we look or what we believe, but we need to start remembering that to really create a difference, we need to engage as many women (and men) as possible. The key message needs to be about equality of opportunity for all – not trying to get ‘one up’ on men or, crucially, each other.

Feminism needs to begin to take some account of the female individual. judgement needs to be taken out of the quest for equality on both sides. Just as women who are engaged in feminism don’t all lack underwear and deodorant, those that are more interested in shoes and shopping aren’t the enemy, they are just women with different priorities. Feminism should be about allowing women to have the same number of options as men – whether it’s being COO of Facebook or a beauty therapist in Essex. It should be about allowing women to do what makes them tick, what makes them happy.

Peggy Olson would probably advocate ‘changing the name’, but I don’t think that we should have to. Feminism is a concept and a word with a massive history, both in the UK and worldwide. Let’s reclaim it for the women of Generation Y – we have so much to gain.

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