When did I start calling myself a feminist? I’m not too sure. As a teenager, I had some pretty strong feminist beliefs, which I would discuss whenever I was given a soapbox to stand on. When I was 17, I wrote an argumentative piece for English about how the debutant ball demeans girls and creates and reinforces the patriarchal view of what a woman should be. The piece was well received by my teacher and won an award in the school’s writing competition, but unfortunately my friends just thought I disliked the debutant ball because my boyfriend was shagging his dance partner behind my back so didn’t give my well thought out arguments much credit. I may not have been calling myself a feminist at the time, but this was the first time my opinions were discredited for being a ‘angry, man-hater.’
On a recent long car trip, I listened to the wonderful Tina Fey’s reading her new book Bossypants’ on audiobook. In it she discussed the research of some great feminist (I can’t remember who because I was busy looking for the right turn off!) who surveyed a range of women about the moment they ‘knew’ they were a woman, that ‘we are not in Kansas anymore’ moment when they realised they were no longer a girl. Sadly, the majority of women said that it was when they received sexual attention from men. How depressing and un-empowering is that! But unfortunately I can relate to that. In my late adolescence, all of a sudden I felt swamped by sexual attention from horny teenage boys and grown men who should have known better. To begin with I was flattered, and after a difficult break up with my horrible debutant-shagging boyfriend, my self-esteem needed a pick me up. I saw my new found sexuality as power and took it out for a ride. But after awhile it became tiresome. This ‘power’ I thought I possessed was conditional, not to mention superficial. I only had this power if I act a certain way. I had to be flirtatious but still ladylike, walk the fine line between a madonna and a whore. Having your self-esteem dependent on what guys think of you – check that, what anyone thinks of you, is dangerous. It makes you their puppet. Furthermore, I had some pretty idiotic puppet-masters. Why was I trying to impress these losers?
My sense of womanhood may have been shaped by being sexualised by horrible men, but the experiences also got me thinking more about feminism. We demonise women for being ‘sluts’ yet we build a culture which reinforces the sexualisation of women. As I moved into my twenties, I became more and more angry about the hypocritical double-standards between the genders. This coincided with me starting my social work degree at RMIT. It is impossible to graduate from the school of social work without becoming a feminist in some form or another. Finally all the things I had been mulling over were put into a context and I could see how they were connected. The feminist mantra ‘the personal is political’ resonated with me as it validated my experiences and showed me that they were part of a greater issue.
Despite the comfort that feminist thinking brought me, it also made me anxious. Am I feminist enough? If I’m going to call myself a feminist, do I have to start hating men? While I think a lot of guys are chauvinistic wankers, and I quite often tell them that to their face, at the start of my ‘feminist journey’ I was madly in love (and still am!) with the most pro-feminist man I’ve ever met. If I’m going to be a feminist, do I have to stop dressing femininely? I dislike getting unwanted sexual attention, but I also dislike having to dress asexually in order to stop the comments. If I’m going to be a feminist, do I have to be angry? I care a lot about women’s issues and will talk about them quite passionately. But I’m not very good at ‘maintaining the rage.’ I get tired! And it’s not my style. I’m too happy and cheerful to be an angry feminist.
The anxiety I felt about not being radical enough is not uncommon and these preconceived notions of what a feminist should be ostracises women, which to me is what feminism is fighting against. For me, feminism is about empowering women to feel comfortable in themselves and their choices and challenging the barriers in society which inhibit this. The feminist movement has a diverse range of women (and men!), there is no typical feminist. Getting caught up in being the perfect feminist turns our focus inwards rather than outward. Labeling what a feminist should be is just as restricting what a woman should be.
Feminism is not a dirty word, but it is a diverse one, so my feminism is a work in progress.
Helen is a social worker with a particular interest in supporting young women develop a strong sense of self and efficacy. She is a bit of a wanderer and regularly getting itchy feet and wants to run off on an adventure. She has recently returned from working with teenagers in Belize, and in her spare time dreams about when she can go back.