100 years ago, some women gained the vote after an incredible fight.
Now, many say that feminism no longer matters. I think those people are wrong. This is how I found feminism, but if women today think they have anything like equality, then they are suffering from false consciousness, whether in the UK or thinking globally.
As a teenager, I found the page three pin-ups in my father’s The Sun offensive. Now I just find The Sun offensive per se, but it sparked my interest in feminism, along with input from my mother who refused to be 100% downtrodden.
Dad and I had many a debate on the subject of Page 3. He just didn’t ‘get it’ and assumed mine was an OTT reaction. Nothing much has changed except Dad now has dementia and can no longer debate anything.
At university in Leeds, 1977, I first properly encountered feminism. The theories were fantastic, the proverbial music to my ears.
In practice, however, down in the students’ union debating room, the stereotype of feminists sporting short hair, Doc Martens and dungarees, discussing “a woman’s right to choose abortion” merely attracted comments from the engineers like “why would she ever need one?” Try as I might, I could not identify with these women, for I liked dresses, heels, had long blonde hair, wore make-up. I was no bimbo, I could discuss existentialism with the best of them, but feminism did not feel like a theory I wished to embrace. Not if I had to get a haircut, burn my underwired bra, and wear denim, at least.
Still, I attended ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches, after women were effectively curfewed on the streets of Leeds for fear of attack by the Yorkshire Ripper, whose murderous attacks on women were very close to my student home. If we were out alone at night, the subliminal message was that it was our own fault if we were groped, raped, or even murdered. I fended off many advances from blokes who felt they had a right to touch and generally became increasingly angry. I still am when marginalised by men, and when they invade my personal space without permission.
In the early 1980s, I started teaching, also attending a feminist group meeting on the outskirts of Bolton. This was more a dolly-mixture of characters, more individual. The radical 1970s approach had worn thin. The Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and The Equal Pay Act (1970) had come into force but with little effect. Inequality was still an issue, equal opportunities were still hotly debated. It felt real as I saw male colleagues promoted ahead of me (they teach shortage subjects, Miss – aaaagh – Robinson, whereas sociologists are ten a penny). That showed me for criticising!
Yet, as I sat in a room in a detached house in Horwich, I remember thinking that the issues that so concerned these very lovely, earnest women were meaningless to people like my mother. For, not only was gender an issue but so was social class. Working class women had very different issues to deal with. They were so strong because they had to be. Perhaps I was a Marxist feminist. We needed the ‘intelligentsia’ to articulate ideas and challenge outmoded laws, but…and it is a big one.
It struck me that if women’s issues could not be made relevant to a part-time shop assistant, housewife and mother from the slums of Birmingham, then the movement was not truly universal; it was paying lip service to the vast majority of women it purported to serve. That feeling never quite left me. It worried and troubled me.
Around that time, Clare Short finally picked up the mantle on Page 3. Clare, elected in 1983, was then MP in my parents’ poverty-stricken constituency of Birmingham Ladywood. Vilified by the press, she continued to fight everyday pornography, accessible by all, including children. In her campaign, Clare managed to nail it. Not only was I appalled by page three, but so was my mother, who had been subjected to the sight of it in newspapers for years because the ‘working man’ was fed only a diet of sport and sexism, presumably all his meagre brain could cope with.
My mother did not have a political bone in her body, yet in some ways, she was a feminist and taught by example.
We were all expected to play our part in the domestic division of labour to some extent, for example. This was partly because my mother detested housework, cooking and even childcare. My father regularly cleaned the oven, washed up, did the shopping and the ironing, plus some childcare. Speaking to most people, that was pretty unheard of among men who are now in their mid to late 80s. That said, there were contradictions. I also had some such chores to do while my brother did not, for he was a boy.
My mother was very forthcoming about not enjoying motherhood, marriage, and not having a “worthwhile job”. She was never satisfied with her lot. It was regularly called ‘nagging’ or ‘moaning’. It still is, whenever most women raise the subject of the domestic division of labour, something of a male put down. No wonder she suffered depression.
I suspect it was her aspiration, and the insights I received as a child into the lives of working-class women that made me seriously question the limited options on offer to most other working-class women.
Education, to me, was the escape route. I set out to pass my 11+, ride through my constraints and sally forth. I achieved my degrees, a professional job, independence, but even then fell for the old chestnuts: love, marriage, motherhood. While I believed the statements like it starts when you sink into his arms, it ends with your arms in the sink, I still wanted to be like everyone else. So, I was.
Too late, having believed the hype that I could ‘have it all’, I discovered that it only led to a reality of ‘doing it all’.
Now in my late fifties, I believe that marriage and motherhood come at an immense price, though as with most things I went over the top in my enthusiasm to prove otherwise.
I tried and failed, to juggle five children and a career. I don’t do regrets, I love my children more than anyone, and I have so far enjoyed a varied and rewarding life, more so than my mother did. That’s progress.
Which is why I am sitting here, early in the morning, writing this.