It is with a sheepish look (*dons sheepish look*) that I confess the word ‘feminist’ (*braces self*) has always been a bit of a yawnsome one for me (*waits for tins of beans to hit head*). It has. I have always tutted a bit internally when I heard it, like I thought women should stop making a fuss. “Hey girls, we’re sorted now, so stop banging on about it, yeah?”
But my boredom with it is actually hard evidence of how I have benefitted from it, from the hard slog of women (and a few good men) before me. Teens with iPhones can’t be expected to salute Alexander Graham Bell every time they send a text, just as women can’t be expected to wear an Emmeline Pankhurst t-shirt every time they vote. (If they bloody vote.) Our complacency is proof of their success; familiarity breeds contempt.
Like most women I have shaped my version of feminism from my own experiences. After years of thinking the battle had long been won, I suppose I have grown up a bit and learned firsthand (the best kind of learning) that it isn’t all that equal out there, at all. Now I can’t stop noticing it.
As an actor, I have mostly had to wear costumes that were either overtly sexual or ‘pretty’. I have had lines that are less funny, clever and plot-driving than those of my male cast mates. I have had scarcely-hidden surprised looks when people find out I am also a writer, that I don’t just sit at home practising my cleavage. I used to find it either mildly funny (the farce of it all) or flattering (lucky to be doing it at all); now I’m just bored of it, bored of people’s lack of imagination (write better things).
I’ve had no better wake-up call to the dangers of female obliviousness than the one I had recently. Some girls I teach told me they had never heard of the Suffragettes. I almost vomited. I stood in clammy silence waiting for them to shout “JOKES, MISS,” in my horrified face. They did not. Through a tight mouth I gave them a potted history. I smacked a desk to make my points. I hurt my hand. I used a voice more fraught with intent than when I told them to respect their bodies and not have kids too young. I told them they were only walking around in scanty wisps because they were at the end of a long line of women who had slowly modified their own restrictive, health-ruining clothing – throwing off an inch at a time for over a century like the inches were fingers in the iron grip of men, that the reason they could punch and swear at their male classmates was because a lot of work had gone into redressing the tone with which women can approach men in even the most trivial encounters, that they can drink cider with the boys on park benches because women chanced disreputability to be allowed into male-only bars, that their casual abortions are only casual because a lot of women suffered at the hand of backstreet knives and bodge-jobs before the stigma began (and continues) to be slowly removed along with the unwanted cells. I told them we had pushed to be equal, in all our glories as well as our social ugliness.
They rather sweetly reassured me that if a man ever told them they couldn’t do something they would ‘end him’. I told them the only reason they could express the injustice was because a lot of women had had a pretty miserable time to ensure they could.
Looking at my own life, I also realised that I have been unfair on women clamouring for equality, unfair on the word ‘feminism’; have let myself become clouded by the wrong connotations. Because I have been blessed with strong women in my life. I went to a girls grammar school, run by mainly women, I was educated about strong women by strong women. I was told I was a strong young woman and to never believe less. I didn’t have to fight for it, because I was given it. The central male in my life, my father, for all his many faults, validated and fortified all this by always telling me he wanted me to be strong and independent. He was, for all his own personal demonic control issues, a feminist.
I was not held back at the start, I was thrust forward.
Perhaps I thought feminism was an overblown word for the efforts we don’t need to make any more. An embarrassing anachronism. When I look at my upbringing it seems a little clearer why I might think that. My mum was very strong, but she did it quietly. History is full of women just getting on with it, and not making a fuss. Because it is in a good mother’s instinct to make things good, to not make a fuss. Not many of us at heart are strident campaigners with the requisite articulacy or confidence to make a difference. Plus, we’re just bloody busy with the overwhelming business of General Life. So I grew up thinking strength was quiet. I grew up thinking women didn’t need to ask for anything, let alone shriek for it. My mum did such a bloody good job that I did not see how hard it was to be a woman sometimes. I think I was thus, in my blasé attitude, perhaps even guilty of undervaluing women.
The Spice Girls’ gauche brand of Girl Power had little impact on me as a sixteen year old when they burst onto the pop-cultural scene because I didn’t feel like I needed it. I was devouring plays by Caryl Churchill in the library of a girl’s grammar school and going home to a single mum who never let me know how hard it was to keep putting chicken kievs and mixed veg on the table with a smile. I only saw strength, and it wasn’t pouting in a Union Jack dress. I think now that I had one of the healthiest starts you can have; cultural privilege and financial modesty.
Years later, in all my ‘not being a feminist’, I did not even notice that the one-woman show I wrote was a celebration of strong women. I did comedy treatments of Charlotte Bronte, Iris Murdoch, Sylvia Plath, Katharine Hepburn, Myra Hindley, among others (Emmeline Pankhurst included). Strong, notable women in their own very different ways. My characters in this show could not have been more different from all the characters I have played that were written by men. I have never classed myself as a ‘feminist’. Yet I wrote a fairly ‘feminist’ show quite by accident. I don’t think I played a single nice, pretty, typically charming woman in it. I played old, mad, suicidal, sexually predatory, liberal, rude, cruel in places. It was quite ‘masculine’ in its dedication to plain hard characters. It was defiance at something, probably – but how did I write this without meaning to?
I used the strength of other women to make myself appear stronger and I didn’t even notice. We all do this every day. We borrow the achievements of every woman who has worked hard for us. And we must. We must do it more. But we must recognise we’re doing it, and why there is still the need.
It has dawned on me slowly that scandalous differences are still rife between men and women. It is for the women not as lucky as me (and presumably you, reading this) that some sort of fight has to be continued. The fight for equal pay and opportunities, for equal respect in all industries and homes, for worldwide consensus that rape is never excusable, no matter what we wear. The fight to ensure that at some stage we will stop needing to fight. And the fight needs a word if it is to be spoken about, and it may as well be the one that we have dragged like a flag with us through all our victories, large and small.
Fight seems like such a big extravagant word. But it is a fight. It may not seem like it, but it is. It’s just not done all publicly and ‘protesty’ like it was before. We do protest in our thoughts, and occasionally actions. Most often though (and the reason why we need to get better at fighting), we just do stuff like tutting. We tut if we find out Dismal Darren gets £5k more than we do for the same job with a darn sight more back-slapping and beers thrown in. We tut, or we bitch at home. Only a few of us have got the ‘balls’ to go down the route of formal complaints and tribunals because that’s hard, daunting, uncertain work and we’re probably afraid of losing what we’ve already got; of having it taken away from us, of being nudged back down the ladder.
Before Christmas I was invited to a boozy lunch of fabulous women ‘in Comedy’. I couldn’t make it in the end because I was working, but I reflected on what it meant that the invitation was issued to ‘just girls’. We’ve all got mutual male friends who are lovely, funny, interesting, sensitive. Why weren’t they invited? Why do ‘girls nights’ still exist? Because somewhere, under all the giggling and nice supportive hugs, the rude jokes and anecdotes, beneath the charming ‘girls just wanna have fun and eat extra chips and cake and know no one is judging’, we still need to assert our weaknesses and fears, to confess that we are struggling a bit. That sometimes a bit of extra effort has to be made in ‘being a woman’, a liberated one at least. That comedy can be a fucking irritating place for funny women. We need to draw strength from each other, like we have always done. We need to discuss, lampoon (and sometimes coyly infer, or avoid altogether; the omission glaring in its silence) how hard it still is to not quite be ‘equal’.
Not all the time of course. But sometimes.
How boring we must sound, still banging on about it.
Guess what? We find it boring that we still have to bang on about it, too.
So ‘ordinary women’ don’t make a fuss. We have lunch instead. Make witty jokes about inequality rather than do anything more demonstrative with our discontent. Perhaps this is why people have been misled into thinking it’s all fine; it’s all equal. Why all the fuss? The main encouragers of this are ourselves. It’s hard to keep up a struggle when you don’t have the ballast of the props, the fanfare, the inconvenient corpse under the king’s horse. We don’t meet in gangs on street corners in sashes, we don’t march, we don’t have placards. We have just got on with life. And in between the noise we made and the noise we make no longer has passed a lot of time.
We’ve been through so much since the Suffrage movement of the 1900s. After securing the vote for all women over 21 in 1928, there’s been a heck of a lot of distractions. We nailed the necessary ‘make do and mend’ of the war years, we darned the bomb-blasts of the country using all the ‘trivial’ skills we got from years of sitting in drawing rooms being good girls. We obeyed the cheery male-written wartime propaganda telling us to keep it all going quietly at home, then we hung up our dungarees when the men came home from war and wanted their ‘male’ jobs back. We dealt deftly with the ration years and not only dealt with them but made them palatable, successful. We ran households on scraps for almost a decade after the war ended as decreed by the blighted economics of a male government. From powdered egg we made Angel Delight, in the same spirit that from gravy we made stockings, that from charcoal we lined our eyes, that from berries we reddened our lips. The men may have done the fighting in the war sprung from male systems and politics, but the women swept up the dust and made gardens again. We rose from the rubble and hung bunting. We moved on while the men made the same mistakes in their more serious spheres.
The 50s were meagre but glamorous because we made them so. We moved on again. We had sex with men for fun in the 60s and suddenly it was less slutty. We went bra-less in halternecks in the 70s and that was a bit less slutty too. We had a go at imitating male stature in the shoulder pads of the 80s and quickly (thankfully) realised we didn’t need to look like men to be brilliant. Then in the 90s we had five girls bop around on our behalf doing V-signs and snogging Prince Charles. We got stronger, and what’s more we kept it all pretty. Mostly.
I love that we’ve done all this, in this way. Though I wonder if we weren’t such eternal nest-featherers, if we were not the cave-sweepers and the boilers of berries, if we liked things less nice, if we were programmed by nature to care less about our homes, about our physical qualities even when being functional, would we be further along? Would we have demanded more of the ‘male’ stuff, like the power and the laws and the rights and the respect, earlier? It doesn’t matter. We will wait if we have to. We shouldn’t have to give up the stuff we love, give up who we are along the way, and we won’t.
I do realise I am saying nothing new. It has been said better, by better women. By better ‘feminists’, armed with better thoughts and words, who’ve read better articles and books. But it’s in those lofty clever words, it’s in the militant indignance that ‘ordinary’ women get lost. They either aren’t exposed to it, don’t care, or they don’t get it. Some simply don’t want their insecurities being wielded by women who went to Oxford and like to boast that they can complete a cryptic crossword before the kettle’s even boiled in the morning. That’s not ordinary. Sometimes feminism can be exclusive, elitist, off-putting and scary. Sometimes it can be downright unsexy and dull. Maybe that’s why the F-word sounds like a curse sometimes; it’s why some of us are afraid of calling ourselves feminists even though we are.
Hopefully the useful kind of feminism will get to be quiet one day. Hopefully ordinary women, ordinary feminists, (maybe even the loud bossy clever ones that make the rest of us feel a bit dim and limp) won’t need to keep speaking out. It will be ‘sorted’. Hopefully the fruits of the fight will be seen in unquestioned self-evident equality and not heard in protesting tones. Hopefully the remembered noise of women before us will merely move silently around us like a mountain breeze. Perhaps it will become all quiet on the woman front.
Though likely not. We’ll always find something else to chat about…