The above quote, addressed to the President of the United States by Alice Paul in the 1910s, is written on a pencil I bought at the Statue of Liberty, because stationery is cool but also because I found the quote both empowering and depressingly relevant.
This week marks International Women’s Day, and whilst it is easy to say that things are much better than they were a century ago (They let us vote! So why haven’t we shut up about our pesky rights?!), it can be dispiriting to think of how far we have to go to reach true equality. Equality that comes for all women, not just for some. Equality that goes beyond legal rights but is embedded in our culture, in our upbringing, in our media. Equality of agency over our own bodies.
I recently read Bloody Brilliant Women by Cathy Newman, a book which tells the stories of amazing women throughout history, who broke down barriers and paved the way for those of us to come. Amongst them are Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, England’s first female qualified doctor, who taught herself French in order to complete her medical degree in France because she kept being refused entry to studies in the UK on the grounds of being a woman; Eleanor Rathbone, who campaigned against wage and insurance legislation that meant payments always went to men, and for the introduction of family allowances, which later became child benefits; and Claudia Jones, who founded Britain’s first major black newspaper and the Notting Hill Carnival.
It was at once both a glorious celebration of women’s achievements in the face of adversity, and a reminder of just how shit things have been for women.
And of course it was often much less shit for white women with money than it was for any other women. This, in a nutshell, is what intersectional feminism seeks to address. It might sound jargon-y, but it’s really a way to acknowledge that our experiences of the world and of discrimination are different. So when I talk about ‘being a woman’ I can only really talk about being a cis, white, straight, able-bodied middle class woman. And if feminism only benefits women like me, well then it’s doing a pretty terrible job.
(That isn’t a joke image. Someone actually made that in celebration of IWD. We have So. Far. To. Go)
There are some people who are enraged (and for enraged, read ‘terrified’) at the advance of feminism and the renewed focus on the patriarchy and its impact on society. Of course, if you have benefited from an unfair system, your reaction to it being in jeopardy may be extreme. It’s why white people can react so badly when told they’re being racist- the first reaction is defensiveness and it’s very hard to accept that you’ve experienced privilege at the expense of others ( if you feel this way I would implore you to read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s fantastic Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, and this blog post which will show you 50 ways in which you may be benefiting from white privilege).
But dismantling the patriarchy would benefit men too. ‘Meninists’ often quote statistics that most murder victims are men and most people who commit suicide are men, and use this to suggest that society can’t possibly be oppressing women. The question they ignore though, is: what sort of a society causes men to kill themselves and kill each other (since men also account for 96% of murder perpetrators worldwide)? Could it possibly be a society in which men are taught that they should look great, earn loads of money, provide for their partners and families, all the while never expressing any negative emotion except anger? A society in which they are told to ‘man up’ and that ‘boys don’t cry’? And in which they are shown from birth which games, books, careers, even colours are for them and which are ‘for girls’?
I still get choked up when I remember a little boy I was sat near on a train a few years ago, who was being chastised by his grandmother for wanting to try on his mother’s nail polish. He was being told that ‘real men don’t wear nail polish’ and that he needed to learn ‘what a man is’. He must have been about 5 years old.
I want the world to change for that little boy. And for the little girl who’s always being complimented on her pretty clothes, so she learns that her value lies foremost in what she looks like, learning that being clever or interesting or athletic will never be enough unless she is also beautiful.
And for the man who feels broken but doesn’t know who he can tell. And for the woman who is told in a job interview that they can’t hire her because she looks like she’s the age where she might want to take time off for babies soon, and who can’t complain because she’s worried it would prevent her from being hired anywhere in the area if she exercised her legal right to a discrimination-free recruitment.
For all of us, basically.