As a woman who has – shock! – dared to be vocal about misogyny on the internet, I’m painfully familiar with the cliches that my ‘aggression’ is detrimental to the cause, or that it’s feminism’s failure that women don’t want to associate with the ‘hairy lesbian’ stereotype. While my instinctive reaction might be to sigh, or downvote the comment, or slam my head against my keyboard on a particularly bad day, I also recognise that feminism is a journey and I’m forced to think back to when a younger me might have peddled the same rhetoric, unequipped with the learning I’ve done since. Learning that’s allowed me to think critically about these ideas through a lens that recognises my privilege as a straight, white, middle-class woman, and sees these accusations as symptoms of a patriarchal society rather than blueprints for a feminist success story.
The way I see it, feminism is a movement trying to make change, and so should by its very nature be vocal, angry, and threatening to those it attempts to challenge. It isn’t just about equality for the sexes (not only because not everybody fits neatly into the gender binary this implies) but also a recognition that this isn’t even possible until women are brought anywhere close to the level of men, and that we’re not going to manage that by smiling quietly in a corner and asking our bosses politely to please pay us the £5000 extra per year that men make in the same job, please.
It’s no coincidence that the proponents of a gentle, polite feminism are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, able-bodied women born as women; in short, the very class who have benefitted from feminism without ever having to shout or resort to aggression to do so. As someone who ticks all the above boxes, I get that never bearing the full brunt of inequality means that reactions of hatred and ‘misandry’ might seem alien, but I also get that if your existence is defined by your oppression, it’s a perfectly fair and valid response – and one that will never have the effects that misogyny does so long as we live in a patriarchal society. I can shout and shout about how much I hate men but aside from bruising a few male egos, I’ll never provoke the fear or distress that a woman-hating man can by virtue of an uneven power balance tipped in his favour. If reclaiming men’s cries of ‘misandry’ seems aggressive to you, well I’m sorry, but in the face of very real daily aggression against women – 2 of whom will die this week at the hands of a man* – I find it a little hard to care.
When privileged women talk about a feminism that doesn’t represent them, they fail to realise that for too long its dominant face has represented nobody else. While white, middle-class women have gained in the workplace, domestic sphere and public life, women of colour, queer and disabled women and those outside of the gender binary have taken the fall for it – and smashing the glass ceiling isn’t much use at all if you can’t even make it through the front door. Privilege allows us to bargain politely and quietly, to challenge sexism without the fear of repercussions, to celebrate our successes whilst never asking whose voices we aren’t hearing; we exclude women who aren’t like us and then we’re shocked when they shout to be heard.
Appealing to the masses, then, is shorthand for appealing to the dominant voices in society, because they are the ones who set norms and values – the ones whose dominance feminism is meant to challenge. When I’m told that I won’t achieve anything by being too vocal and assertive about these inequalities, I don’t quieten down and write a polite letter instead; I see more clearly the need for a society that accepts assertive, vocal women as standard. When the “I’m a feminist but” brigade lament the ‘hairy lesbian’ trope, I don’t sympathise with them and evangelise about why it’s just a stereotype; I question why a message championed by a hairy lesbian should be any less valid in the first place.
At the end of it all, we’re all benefitting from the “aggressive, militant” women’s movements of the past. Women wouldn’t have the platform to lament the aggression and militancy of feminist spaces if it weren’t for the aggression and militancy of women who fought for their right to be heard in the first place. The feminism I want to see isn’t one where everyone feels cosy and at home, cooing compliments at each other in an echo chamber. The feminism I want to see is one where those who have traditionally been excluded have a voice, one where we challenge patriarchal notions of how women should conduct themselves rather than pandering to them. A feminist movement can’t be comfortable and palatable because the reality for many, many women is neither.
As a woman and as a feminist, I have no desire to be liberated by changing my message to placate my oppressors – because after all, that’s no liberation at all.
*in the UK – from Refuge official statistics