I came to feminism through words. Feminism was in the water at my inner-city, all girls high school. We wore purple on International Women’s Day, and had inspirational local women talk to us at assembly about how, some day, we would rule the world. But it all felt hollow to me until I started reading.
The book that first got me calling myself a feminist was The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer’s thirty-years-later follow up to The Female Eunuch. Greer put my teenage experience into political context: why my friends would boast about how much food they ate while eating relatively little, why even at 15 I (and so many other women I knew then and have spoken to since) felt sad and powerless about being single, how we collectively disrespect and dismiss our mothers. I remember reading about the pencil test and laughing about it with a friend over the phone. “I even fail the deodorant can test,” she joked.
Next came The Bust Guide To The New Girl Order: stumbled upon in a book shop, bought for a best friend, and lovingly (and often hilariously) detailing the travails of modern womanhood. After that, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, well-thumbed and read over and over as a 20-year-old searching for solace in the grips of her eating disorder.
None of these books were perfect, and ten years later I am far more critical of them than I was on first reading. But for the “baby feminist” I was then, they were perfect. They reminded me that I wasn’t alone. And more than that, that my experiences and insecurities weren’t just a question of personal defect. They were shared and political.
So it’s probably not surprising then that most feminism has manifested itself similarly, through words. Just I have read, I write. I write about gender and feminism in explicitly feminist spaces like this one, or my own blog Musings of an Inappropriate Woman. I write about it in spaces some people would argue are not very feminist at all, such as Cosmopolitan, Cleo and Girlfriend (which is a whole other story in itself). I’m writing a book which I hope will do for others what Greer and Wolf and the ladies at Bust did for me.
Sometimes I feel guilty for not doing something more useful – like, say, lobbying or service provision or organising protests, online or off. I have friends who devote their lives to these things, and they are amazing. They are confronted by serious crap every day, and without them, a lot of people’s lives would be a lot worse.
But they tell me that words matter too, and most of the time I agree. Words, after all, define the limits of how we see the words: it’s difficult to think something, let alone express it, if you don’t have the language to think that in. And it’s difficult not to think something personally or politically destructive if those are the only words you hear.
Words have the power to unlock and challenge systems of power and privilege that would otherwise be left invisible, and that’s what my feminism is all about.
Rachel Hills was born in Sydney but now lives in London. She writes about gender and the politics of everyday life for various magazines and newspapers and is currently working on a book on sex and identity for Simon & Schuster. Her blog, Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, has over 8000 subscribers around the globe and was named Australia’s “Best Feminist Blog” in 2009.