Why we still need feminism
Last Thursday morning, I was sat on the bus to work, thinking about my day and reading my book. I was reading a new release called “I Call Myself a Feminist”, which is a collection of essays written by feminists who are under 30. I picked it up at Bradford Literature Festival a couple of weeks ago and it’s great – it covers some really interesting topics and different perspectives. So there I was, minding my own business and enjoying my book when a guy got on the bus and sat down next to me. He was a similar age to me, maybe a year or two older and smiled and said good morning as he squeezed into the seat next to me. We rode along in silence for around 5 minutes, until he took his headphones out and struck up a conversation.
“Your book looks really interesting”, he said, “Are you enjoying it?”
I responded enthusiastically, telling him how great the essays were, how refreshing it was to read something that had been produced purely by and for young feminists. He had seemed genuinely interested, so I didn’t expect what came next.
Perhaps I was being naïve – I’m lucky that I’ve spent my life surrounded by feminists, men included. My dad stayed at home to look after my sister and I when we were little so that my Mum could go back to work, something that is slowly starting to become more popular now but was pretty much unheard of twenty years ago. And Sam absolutely identifies as a feminist and we have no gender stereotypes in our household – we split things like housework and cooking pretty equally, and he has always encouraged me to challenge any inequality I face at work.
What I’m trying to get across, I suppose, is that it didn’t seem odd to me that this guy sat next to me was genuinely interested in my book. I didn’t assume he had a hidden agenda, or that he was mocking me – I really did just think he was a nice bloke on the bus striking up pleasant conversation on our commute to work.
And I continued to believe that for about two minutes, while he nodded along with everything I said about the book. His next question however, really threw me.
“Do you think we still need feminism?” he asked. “Don’t you think we’re at a stage where feminism is a bit outdated now? I mean, surely the majority of women’s problems come from other women anyway?”
I was stunned. I wish I could have seen my own face at the time because I think I must have been jaw to the floor flabbergasted. But he didn’t stop there. He lectured me the whole rest of the twenty minute journey to my stop. He leant into my space as he talked, his body language adding emphasis to the words he was saying.
He went on and on about how man hating wasn’t attractive, how women are “self obsessed” when it comes to their appearance and how men don’t really care what women look like. Ironically he followed that up with this comment: “men don’t want to date skinny girls, mind you they don’t want to date fat ones either. We prefer our women to be athletic and healthy” – so much for men not caring about how women look.
He told me about how he didn’t agree with breast implants or lip fillers, how he felt that women who were satisfied with being stay at home mums were a drain on a man, only interested in his money. He was relentless, and I was stunned – I honestly couldn’t fathom a response.
Perhaps most shocking was when he tried to tell me that rape was only a problem in Britain because of how our cultural demographic is shifting – “British men don’t rape British women”, he said, “immigration is the problem”. This being Thursday morning, the morning before the EU referendum, he then used this ludicrous claim to try and convince me to vote leave.
How ironic, I thought, a man trying to tell me that we don’t need feminism, while simultaneously trying to tell me how to look, how to vote, how to think. A man who felt so entitled that he was inclined to try and impose his opinions on me. A man who spent the whole journey leaning into my space while I recoiled against the window, making myself smaller.
Of course, not every man thinks or behaves this way. Most men that I've come across absolutely don’t. This was definitely the most overt show of sexism I have ever encountered in my 26 years. But it got me thinking about all of the subtle sexism I have endured, and the more I thought about it, the more shocked I was at how frequently things happen that I shrug off.
Here are some examples. Lets start with the fact that not one single person has asked Sam if he is planning on slimming down for our wedding, and yet pretty much every wedding related conversation I’ve had has resulted in someone implying that I’ll probably want to go on a pre-wedding diet.
Then there's all the times that I’ve been told not to be “too emotional” at work – a piece of feedback that I am almost certain has never been given to my male colleagues, even when they've acted irrationally or illogically.
There was my college maths teacher who called all three girls in the class by the same name (but managed to learn the names of the 27 male students) and congratulated us on being really good at maths “considering that we were girls”.
There's every single time that someone has tried to hide the surprise on their face when I tell them that I studied economics or that I have ran 2 marathons. Because you know, aren't I a bit, well, girly for that?
I could go on. And on and on and on. And that is why, in response to the guy on the bus who asked me if I believed we still needed feminism, my answer is a resounding YES.