I was eighteen when I first began to take an active interest in feminism. I read The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination and it changed my life. It’s authors, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar adopt a feminist approach in a series of critical essays which discuss the representation of women in literature and the role of the female author. The book is probably best known for its radical re-thinking of Charlotte Bronté’s Jane Eyre (which its title is based on). I was amazed by the frankness of their opening question: ‘Is a pen a metaphorical penis?’. I’d never encountered anything like it; such bold, unrelenting and intelligent writing! Their discussions introduced feminism to me in a way that I found extremely empowering. I had never paid much attention to, or properly understood literary criticism until this point in my life (despite being a keen literature student). As I progressed through their essays, I felt I was beginning to understand how difficult it was/is for women to assert themselves in patriarchal society.
What the book made clear to me was that women’s image has always been controlled by men, and even brave thinkers like the Bronté sisters and Mary Shelley struggled to alter this perception. From the Biblical images of Eve and The Virgin Mary, to the Victorian images of ‘the angel in the house’ and ‘the fallen woman’, it seems that patriarchal society needs women to fulfil specific roles and operate in separate spheres in order to function ‘properly’. Through studying nineteenth-century novels for my literature degree, I have realised that this extreme stereotyping rarely succeeds. It only encourages anxiety, oppression and hate, all of which are destructive to the progression of an equal society.
As well as exciting and enthralling me, The Madwoman in The Attic made me intensely sad. I found it hard to process the fact that women have been continually repressed and ignored to the point that it was seen by many as a complete, unquestionable normality. Although in modern life women and feminism are much more embraced and accepted, I can think of recent examples where they have been made to feel inadequate, but more importantly, examples of women fighting back against this inadequacy.
I am a fan of popular musician Grimes. She is fascinating. I love her music and I love her image. I began to love her even more when I read her blog about the inequality she has experienced working in the music industry:
‘I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them. or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers .’
Not only does she directly confront the inequality of her industry, she perfectly outlines exactly what feminism actively strives towards, but is often misinterpreted as:
“I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected.”
Feminism is not about hating men. The sooner people understand that, the better. In my early teens, I was initially guilty of believing that some feminists either hated or were jealous of men. But through reading critical essays and online feminist blogs, I finally realised that being a feminist is, as Grimes wrote, a request (sometimes formal, sometimes militant) ‘to be included and respected’.
Grimes’ independent appeal for equality is impressive and encouraging, and this is why online feminist projects like The Everyday Sexism Project are gaining the recognition and support that they deserve. Created by Laura Bates, The Everyday Sexism Project is a twitter-based group that highlights the extreme and inherent levels of sexism in society. Twitter users are encouraged to tweet their experiences of sexism, these experiences range from horrific crimes like rape and sexual assault, to ‘everyday’ experiences like wolf-whistling and groping. Initially, reading the tweets is disheartening and upsetting. However, once your shock at the content and the sheer volume of tweets has cooled, you realise that this is actually a fantastic and empowering tool to challenge sexism with. Discovering this online movement actually gave me the confidence to respond to a degrading wolf-whistle from a ‘white van man’. I put my middle finger up at him after he whistled at me twice (presumably because I ignored his first attempt) and fortunately it silenced him. I know it was only a small gesture, but I hope the finger humiliated him as much his wolf-whistle humiliated me. Before discovering The Everyday Sexism Project, I would’ve tried to dismiss this incident with internal remarks like ‘maybe I was wearing something suggestive?’ or ‘it’s flattering, in a way?’, but this project re-enforced what I subconsciously already knew: ‘it is not your fault that these things happen to you, it is the behaviour of the people doing it that needs to be confronted, not your own.’ I can think of several other minor incidents like this that have made me feel ridiculously small. I urge every man not to do this to women. You may not realise it, but what you’re doing cannot be dismissed as harmless ‘banter’ anymore. It’s so degrading it’s unreal. Sexism is something I’ve always been aware of, but never felt brave enough to challenge or discuss, which, according to this amazing project, is how every other woman has felt too. It’s only through online feminism that this kind of behaviour is finally being addressed.
As Caitlin Moran says in her fantastic book How To Be a Woman, feminism isn’t just for girls, it’s for guys too. She encourages everyone to think in non-specific gender references, to see ourselves as ‘the guys’ and to treat each other fairly all the time. If you remove gender from the equation and encourage androgyny, things become much simpler. I need feminism for this reason, because there are still not enough people who are willing to embrace this outlook and stop treating women like they are inferior, second-class citizens.
As Virginia Woolf said, the Victorian image of ‘the angel in the house’ is the most ‘pernicious’ image ever bestowed upon women, and it is the job of the woman writer to ‘kill’ her. I couldn’t agree more. As much as it is admirable to be angelic, it is a physical impossibility to achieve this all of the time. Women, just like men, have the ability to be both heavenly and hellish. It’s time that everyone stopped treating feminism and its followers as a stunted and negative movement. I will continue to echo what I have learnt about feminism: that it is for EVERYONE, that EVERYONE can support the cause and EVERYONE can embrace the change it brings.