|Courtesy of YALC on Twitter|
So there I was on the stage at the very marvellous YALC* in London’s Olympia. I held the mike in my hand and - in front of an audience of three hundred or so people - I said these words: ‘I’m going to say something which I know may seem controversial. I’ve no more felt the need to tell people I’m a feminist than I’ve needed to tell them I’m a woman. To me, it’s a given. For me, the two are inextricably linked.’
The panel was called Being a Girl and all the questions the five female authors (including me) had been given to think about beforehand included the words feminism or feminist. And all of us were singing from the same hymn sheet. Of course we were. Because what woman doesn’t want the same life opportunities, freedoms and everyday respect that is granted to a man?
I made this personal revelation to open the discussion up a bit in order to show that being a girl/woman and believing in equality isn’t in the exclusive domain of those who make use of the word feminist when describing themselves. For the record, I never have done. I love books and music and travel and trainers and rabbits and riding a bike. I keep an eye on the news and on politics. If asked to describe myself this is what I’d be most likely to tell you. I might also say I’m short. But – and this may seem totally contradictory - if some random stranger or overly-familiar-unfamiliar called me shorty or titch, there’s a good chance I’d give them a Vulcan Death Glare and maybe even a verbal dressing-down. Because I don’t like labels being imposed upon me by others.
I recognise that labels can be empowering and can bring people together against adversity but I have a concern that they may exclude just as they include. And they suggest a deviation from a default norm. The point I was hoping to make was that I feel comfortable enough to describe myself as a woman and leave the feminist part unsaid. Because that is now surely intrinsic to what it means to be a girl/woman in today’s western culture; hence the name of the panel: Being a Girl. If we understand that this necessarily overlaps with feminist values, it makes sense of why every question concerned feminism. I also tried to say that if any woman does believe that men should have certain rights and freedoms over those extended to women then it is the views of these women which are now marginal enough to need a label. Not mine.
My comment created a difference of opinion on the panel and provoked some lively debate. This is good in a discussion, and weathering a bit of disagreement is a part of life. But (literally) one or two comments on social media since then have misquoted me or suggested misunderstanding. Normally I don’t engage with internet debate but this time I’m going to. Equality for women is such an important issue that because I maybe wasn’t clear enough last Saturday I’m going to be clearer now.
Firstly, I did not make any attack on feminists. I expressed a concern over labelling.
Neither did I say that I haven’t ever felt any inequality of opportunity or mistreatment because of my sex. Actually I have. Here’s one early example. When I was about 16, my school sent me to a mock interview at a local branch of a high street bank. The ageing male bank manager took one look at me and – as I remember it - said, ‘We employ ex-carnival queens and some real beauties in this bank so why should we employ you?’ After a moment of shocked silence, I said, ‘I wouldn’t want you to employ me because I wouldn’t want to work here.’ This Charming Man said, ‘Shall we save each other’s time and end this now?’ And I said yes and got up and left. This was the late 80s – barely a generation ago. Can you even imagine a bank manager saying this now? It’s unlikely, I think. Small steps but there’s some progress.
Lastly, I did not say that there’s nothing left to fight for and that we have achieved equality. Because clearly we haven’t. But progress has been made since that bank manager’s comment and since the 1960s before the Equal Pay Act existed and also since the days when women didn’t even have the right to vote. And now I feel we have also earned the right to interpret the default identity of a twenty-first century western woman as one who believes in her right to equality. Because I think we all agree on that, don’t we? And I’m using the word western not to diminish any other women but simply because I’m not in any position to comment on any other situation.
So that’s why I feel that being a girl and being a feminist have become inextricable and that, actually, the word feminist is just another layer of language on top of a rather wonderful truth. Who gave us the Equal Pay Act? Was it feminists working at the Ford Motor Factory? Or was it women working at the Ford Motor Factory? Take your pick. Also I think you’ll learn more about me if I tell you that the last piece of music I bought was a lavish repressing of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on heavy black vinyl or that the last book I got was Go Set a Watchman than if I tell you I’m a feminist.
I’m not setting myself up in opposition to anyone who does call themselves a feminist. And I’m not truly bothered if anyone calls me one either – because by any dictionary definition, it’s true anyway. And actually, all of us on the panel were advocating the importance of real and diversifying voices in fiction. Hey, my voice is real too! I’d prefer not to be slammed down or told I must shout my feminism on Twitter. I can assure you that because I don’t shout it out it doesn’t mean I’m passively enjoying unearned gains while others fight for me. I fight for myself.
I hope that now explains more clearly why I don’t use the word feminist when describing myself.
Three final thoughts:
1. Had I said I don’t choose to describe myself as straight or female or childless or British would I have caused any consternation?
2. On the panel, I quoted Ferris Bueller. I’m now going to quote Darth Vader. In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Mr Vader says, ‘If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.’ Personally, I think his aggression is divisive and unhealthy. There is room for a whole spectrum of opinions on the same ‘side’.
3. The panel was amazing and I feel honoured to have been a part of it. I’d mix it up on a panel again with any one of those girls/feminists/women. YALC is AMAZING. Thank you so much to all the very many audience members who tweeted lovely things and to those who took the trouble to come and chat to me in REAL. The discussion was really interesting and, for me anyway, so was writing this blog post.
* *Young Adult Literature Convention