It was my first year of university before I realised that, if I had to pick any topic to write about, I’d always choose women. It hit me shortly after an exam season in which I’d gleefully scribbled essays on Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker, and it was a revelation came to define my academic interests. Essays on unconventional heroines in Victorian literature, female passivity in the Gothic, even whole courses on American women’s place in literature and history. Considering my ever growing affinity with the plight of historical women, it’s a surprise that it took so long to reconcile myself to my burgeoning feminism.
Feminism is still a dirty word. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. Even today, in a world where female celebrities are routinely asked about their feminism and a star as influential as Beyonce proudly emblazons her feminist beliefs across a stage. And I’m not even talking about the misogynists here: even members of my family, who would never dare to suggest that women are in any way inferior to men, roll their eyes whenever they feel like a feminist ‘rant’ is coming their way. Although every person’s upbringing is different, an adolescence largely lived in obliviousness to social media and current affairs meant that I identified a lot more with the Suffragettes than I ever did with any contemporary feminists. I simply did not know enough about the movement and issues at stake.
When my tutor asked in a first year Theatre Studies seminar whether any of us identified as feminists, the majority – myself included – expressed reluctance to define ourselves by a well-known militant agenda. And when my friend initially toyed with attending Feminist Society events, I felt that I wasn’t ‘extreme’ enough to become part of such a society. Misguided, of course, but representative of a world that still very much associates feminism with militancy and an aggressive radical past that, in reality, wasn’t that fanatical in the mainstream.
I can’t exactly say what precipitated the change: probably a combination of university teaching and involvement with feminist societies’ Facebook groups. Cliched, I know. But I became interested, then conscientious, then passionate. Courses at Glasgow emphatically instruct students in the doctrine that gender is a social construct, and I have always loved writing about how gender is represented in both literature and history. And after surreptitiously attending one or two Feminist Society events, I joined the Facebook group and tried my best to read the posted articles, to absorb feminist tenets and to learn about the movement. Because even when I found the phrase ‘feminism’ a bit too loud, I was still very much a feminist even if I didn’t know it.
But more than anything else, I think it was my own experience of misogyny that persuaded me to identify with the movement. When I first turned eighteen, I usually calmly accepted anonymous groping in clubs (which, looking back, makes me sick) and was always genuinely happy to chat to any guy who approached me. But it wasn’t until I got a boyfriend aged nineteen that I realised just how deep some misogynist attitudes can lie: after conversing with guys for several minutes with no hint of a romantic or sexual attraction, a quick, inconsequential mention of my boyfriend in the course of conversation and they would immediately make themselves scarce. Leering guys would attempt to persuade me that my boyfriend ‘would never find out’ or that ‘it was only one night’. No judgements if all they wanted was a one-night stand, but politeness and, you know, generally just being a decent human being was unimportant compared to my status as a sex object.
There’s a long-running Internet joke that ‘woman takes break from being a feminist to watch TV’. It’s sad, but true. Once you become aware of the patriarchal attitudes that characterise society to an alarmingly large extent, it’s hard to go back to your blissful oblivion. Childhood classics become tainted when you realise that, despite their ambitious castles in the air, they’re all doomed to become wives and mothers in the end (I’m looking at you, Little Women), the Bechdel test basically ruins any beliefs you had in women’s autonomy in the film industry, and seemingly trivial traditions such as a wife taking her husband’s name becomes a minefield of feminist issues. Plus, what is with the fact that only men normally give speeches at weddings?
Three years on, and you’ll still find me enraged at the comments section (which conventional wisdom rightly tells you to avoid) and becoming increasingly dismayed at the dismantling of my favourite books and films. But I’ve accepted that my continuing, fervent fascination with the representation of women is not embarrassingly predictable, and my propensity to write only with the female voice is not something I need to move past. Because I’m a feminist, and I even have the jumper to prove it.