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How I became a feminist

Feminist [noun]:

  • A person who supports feminism. 

Feminism [noun]:

  • the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.
  • a belief in the social, political, economic equality of the sexes. 

I guess it started from a young age. I grew up in a feminist household. My mother was always very strong-willed, and my father was always this quiet, gentle yet strong presence. He went to work whilst my mom stayed at home and looked after my sister and I. We were born 15-months apart, so it was very full-on for her.

Because she was the one looking after us most of the time, my mother played the disciplinary role. (She reasoned that it wasn’t appropriate for my father to play that role, as he wasn’t spending his days with us, and, being a man, his level of physical strength would be inappropriately matched to our young little bodies should corporal punishment ever be necessary.)

Despite this, every evening he would come home, give us a bath, change our diapers and put us to bed. He wasn’t with us 9-5, but he was with us 6-8 and every weekend. And when he wasn’t directly looking after us, he was doing chores around the house. My father still works seven days a week, and I’m amazed at his quiet strength, his work-ethic, and the respect he has shown to my mother, sister and I.

My extended family, though conservative in their beliefs, and of a different generation, were quite progressive. My father was one of three boys, with a stay-at-home mom and a CEO father. Though my grandfather was the archetypical alpha-male – he was a 6ft 2, educated, affluent business man and former military officer – he was quiet, respectful and treated my grandmother as the superior in their relationship. He taught my father and uncles the power of “yes dear” and the essence of “happy wife, happy life.” Despite the fact that he held the purse strings and she was the doting housewife, there was never any doubt that their power was equal.

My mother’s family were a bit younger, and though my grandparents were staunch conservatives, everyone in that family was a hippie. My grandmother managed the finances, and would tell my grandfather off when he had “too many martinis”. My grandfather also did the cooking. They raised their daughters and son fairly, and I never heard my grandfather say anything that reinforced the idea that women should do x while men should do y. Their middle daughter, my aunt, went on to university in the 1970s to study chemistry and psychology. When she married, my aunt kept her last name and her career. Despite having two children, she’s managed to maintain her career and leadership role at the same company for 37 years.

No doubt these influences have dramatically shaped the person I’ve become today.

In addition to my family background and upbringing, I was always naturally more of a fighter.

I don’t remember this story, and neither does my mother, but my uncle remembers the day I was kicked off of the school bus for punching a boy. Apparently the boy had harassed my older sister. I wish I knew what happened to that boy…Did he get in trouble for initiating the conflict? I guess I’ll never know.

In high school I took a sociology/anthropology course and learned about conflict theories – the idea that society is in a constant state of struggle due to competition over limited resources. This idea purports that social order is maintained by domination and power rather than consensus. I learned that feminist theory fits quite naturally under this umbrella, and for some reason I could easily see the evidence behind this theory.

In my final year of high school I took another history course. It was my favourite subject and I was planning on going to university to do a history degree (which I did). My teacher, Mr. Simmons, was quite sexist. He favoured boys in the class and engaged in debate with them whilst ignoring female students. When my report card came and I was doing worse than another guy in class – who wasn’t particularly studious or cared at all about the subject – I was troubled.

So I did what no 18-year-old student would do…I brought my mother in to parent-teacher night to speak with him. She told him I wanted to go to Queen’s University to study History, and he said “good luck getting in.”

I studied my ass off for that exam, boosted my grade to an A, and went to Queen’s and studied History. Fuck you Mr. Simmons!

In my first year at Queen’s I took Psychology 101. The thing I remember most about that course (which isn’t much) was a particular study that looked at nature vs. nurture, and how children are treated differently from birth based on their gender. Day-old infant girls were regarded as “tiny”, “delicate”, and “sweet”, whereas day-old infant boys were noted for their “strong hands” and “big feet.” I wish I could remember the name of the study as it’s a perfect example of how gender roles are formed from the minute we’re born.

Throughout my studies, I vividly remember students starting their sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…” Shamefully, I was one.

I didn’t take a women’s studies course whilst at Queen’s. But I did take a 4th year history seminar on the female body with Dr. Jennifer Susan Marotta. That was when I truly started to identify as a feminist.

My research paper for that class looked at Seventeen magazine from the 1960s to the 1990s to see if the messages they were telling young girls changed much in 40 years. They hadn’t. The message was still: how to look pretty, here are your career options (which were stereotypical), and don’t have sex. It wasn’t until the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s that the magazine really started to talk about condoms and safe sex as an option for teenage girls.

That research inspired me to pursue a Masters degree in Communication, so I could keep looking at women’s fashion magazines all day and call it “work”.

My Master’s thesis was focused around feminism and fashion.

I was interested in the spectrum of feminist thought, especially around fashion and beauty – the institutions many feminists believed held women back.

Fashion is just like technology, in that it can be used for good and evil.

Madonna used it for good – subverting the concepts of what proper women should dress and act like.

Some would argue Miley Cyrus did the same.

When you’re writing a thesis, they tell you to explain why your work is relevant.

It was spring 2009, and after being beaten by Chris Brown, an image of Rihanna with a severely bruised face was circulating the celebrity blogs. She had just landed the Gucci campaign, and by all regards was considered a fashion icon to women young and old.

I wrote my introduction and explained that feminism was still relevant in 2009 as it was in the 1920s, 1970s and the 1980s as powerful women like Rihanna were still being beaten by their spouses, and that was a problem. You can read my thesis here.

Fast forward five years to 2012 and I’m working for a business school in London. The C-suite consists entirely of men, all of whom sit around a table at the end of our open-concept office. I realise a vast majority of C-suites comprise of men, but to actually see them sitting all around together like that, making important decisions about the business you’re investing all your time in really hits home. My colleague unabashedly referred to it as the “boys club”.

I personally never experienced discrimination in that office whilst I was there. But I was privy to how the leadership team treated female staff of child-bearing age. They were openly critical about female sales staff – once they had children, they were no longer considered “hungry, competitive or hardworking.”

I suppose my real anger toward that place came about when they hired my replacement – a man – and paid him 20% more than me, for the same role. Some said he had more experience than me, but in the end he was fired for being ineffective. Shortly after that I received a call requesting that I come back to assume the position, at the wage he was then earning.

Fast forward to now. It’s 2017, and we just collectively witnessed an openly misogynist candidate take control of the United States of America. Some people have argued that he’s no more misogynistic than the past presidents, leaders or other candidates. I say that’s a weak argument. Anyone who uses the word pussy and talks about women like that is, quite frankly, a piece of shit. And a piece of shit doesn’t deserve power, respect or authority.

I have been a feminist for my whole life. I started to identify as one towards the end of university, and I regret that it took me so long to be proud of it. I suppose feminists have a bad rap. Like my uncle, mother-in-law, and husband’s best friend says – feminist are synonymous with angry butch lesbians (what’s so bad about that?) who hate men and are offended when the door is held open for them.

I ask, can we please please please look intelligently past these stereotypes of what it means to be a feminist? I am one, and I can certainly tell you that I don’t hate men. Sure I have very strong views on things like pay equality, reproductive rights, violence against women, and rape – but I ask, who doesn’t feel passionately about those things? Do men not feel that way when their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters have to experience these things? Aren’t we all connected to women in one way or another?

Is feminism as relevant in 2017 as it was in 2009 when I was writing about Rihanna being assaulted by Chris Brown? I think so.

The fact that the President of the US is promising to appoint a Supreme Court Justice to overthrow the 1973 landmark case Roe vs. Wade (a case which recognised the constitutional right to privacy extended to a woman’s right to make her own personal medical decisions, including the decision to have an abortion) also makes me think so.

The fact that women in Northern Ireland who pursue illegal abortions are treated with the same punitive punishment as a sex offenders – 15 years imprisonment – again, makes me think feminism is just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1967. (1967 was the year the Abortion Act was passed in all United Kingdom countries with the exception of Northern Ireland.) 

I’ve asked my network of family and friends recently why feminism is not for them. Most believe – rightly or wrongly – that standing up and declaring yourself a feminist means you’re turning your back on other pursuits of equality. I don’t understand how this is possible, as I see the pursuit of equality for the sexes as good for LGBT and racial equality. But I am white, educated and middle-class, so I understand what people must see (i.e. someone who doesn’t understand true discrimination). Maybe that’s true. I don’t understand what it’s like to be judged based on the colour of my skin or my sexual orientation. But that doesn’t mean I believe being judged based on my gender is worse. I see all those judgements as equally abhorrent, and I support and stand by those who experience discrimination based on their ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Being a feminist doesn’t mean I prioritise gender equality above all other pursuits of equality. I don’t position it as a piece of pie with limited slices, and more slices for me means less for you. I see it as the more equality we each get, the more potential our pie has to be massive.

I also believe that having us divided is exactly what people in positions of power want as it serves to discredit our voice and our strength to fight back.

The women’s liberation movement, the civil rights movement, and the LGBT movement have shown that they are stronger together than apart. The only people who benefit from us not joining forces are the decision makers and lobbyists who maintain the status quo and devote resources and attention away from our causes.

“But what are you doing about it?”

Good question. Talk is never as good as action. Here are things I will be doing:

  • Writing about feminist issues on this blog, including abortion, the gender pay gap, and equality of sex and childcare.
  • Attending meet-ups and events supporting the feminist movement, including this one and this one.
  • Reading more feminist authors to understand the different issues behind first, second and third wave feminism, including:
  • Writing to my mayor to ensure the all-boys school planned for my borough is balanced against equal educational resource for girls in our area.

I think that’s a good start. If you have any ideas to share please let me know in the comments below.

Go feminism.

-Brooke

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