Lily McKechnie writes about the history of feminism off the back of last years cake sale
If you told me a few months ago that a bake sale would be enough to start a riot, I’d never have believed you. But as the Essex University’s Feminist Society proved back in March, it doesn’t take a lot to ruffle some feathers, especially when discussing the ever-controversial topic of feminism. To raise awareness of the gender pay gap in the UK, they held a bake sale where men had to pay £1, and women and nonbinary people had to pay 82p, to highlight how “the average woman earns 18% less than men”, according to government figures. However, there was a backlash, with the University’s Hate Incident Reporting Centre receiving an official complaint, branding the bake sale as “hypocritical”. Following the aftermath of this event, I couldn’t help but feel that people had missed the point completely – they didn’t get some of the misconceptions about feminism and the struggle of fighting for equality. With this in mind, I want to discuss what feminism is actually about, and debunk some of the myths surrounding it.
The ‘first-wave’ of feminism is commonly thought to have taken place around the turn of the century, when women were fighting for the right to vote. That might seem like an ancient prospect now, but bear in mind that was little more than a century ago. This period was known for the action of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) or “Suffragettes” as the Daily Mail called them. Women wanted economic and political power, and achieving the right to vote and own property was a crucial step in the right direction towards equality.
The ‘second-wave’ took place during the 60’s and 70’s, a time of great change in every aspect – music, clothing, and most importantly, attitudes. Having entered the labour market during WWII to take up jobs previously occupied by men, women were now keen to continue pursuing careers rather than just becoming housewives and having a family. The introduction of the contraceptive pill, and its availability to all women, meant that for the first time women had control of their fertility and had the opportunity to live child-free. This coincided with the Women’s Liberation movement, which focused on changing societal attitudes towards women as a result of a “sexist power structure”, and breaking the norm that women were simply meant to be wives and mothers. At this point, the word “feminism” was in use but as a derogatory term by the media, and as a result many women refrained from identifying as such.
“I couldn’t help but feel that people had missed the point completely”
Feminism as we know it today began in the 1990’s, and this ‘third-wave’ focused on trying to right some of the problems of previous years. For example, many felt that the movement was centered towards the issues of heterosexual, middle class white women, and as a result excluded women of different races, classes and sexualities. Feminists were concerned with gaining reproductive rights and sexual freedom. In 1991 rape within marriage became a legal offence, and “slut-shaming”, as well as representation of women in the media, were key issues.
When it comes to feminism in the 21st century, I feel that, while the majority of the time it’s met with a positive response, people still seem to be ignorant and stereotypical with their perception of feminism:
“I don’t identify as a feminist because the meaning of the movement has changed.” Feminism has evolved over time and now covers many issues of inequality and discrimination, and as a result is complex and multifaceted, but in its most basic meaning, feminism is the idea that men and women should be treated equally on a social, political, economic and cultural level. Sure, you might not be a radical feminist (most of us aren’t) but if you believe in gender equality, you’re a feminist. Simple as that.
“Feminism is about fighting for pointless issues.” Many people believe that because women have the right to vote, we no longer need feminism…. Hmm, not quite. There are still many inequalities faced by women due to their gender – the pay gap, sexist representation in the media, the price of sanitary products, sexual assault, and gender roles and expectations, to name a few – not only in the UK, but also in other countries as well. It should also be noted that “lesser” oppression is still unacceptable; although women’s issues may be different in other countries (it was only in September this year that women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to obtain a driver’s licence) all of them should be addressed.
“Feminism should be this, not that…” There are no rules of feminism; as long as you believe in gender equality, you’re a feminist. Modern women face many issues, but we need to tackle all of them, not just the ones we deem as “more important”.
“Feminists are angry man-haters.” This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions people have surrounding feminism. We don’t hate men, we hate that we are treated as less than them. And let’s be honest – if you were paid less than someone because of your gender, despite doing the same job, you’d be angry too.
“Feminism is only looking out for women’s interests.” Not necessarily; obviously our main concern is fighting the oppression faced by women, but we also care about how a patriarchal society affects men too – issues like toxic masculinity, societal expectations placed on men, domestic violence, and mental health. You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist.
“Feminism is about women bashing men for superiority.” Again, not true – we don’t hate men. We want to be equal to them, not better than them. In fact, some of the issues feminists want to raise awareness of affect both genders, such as toxic masculinity, domestic violence and reproductive health services (to name but a few).
Being a Feminist, after all, is simply believing that men and women should be treated equally. However, it seems that we place certain expectations on feminists, and when they fail to meet these, it becomes an opportunity for criticism. For example, people might assume that being a feminist means only taking part in protests, marches or demonstrations. Although events like these are a great way to show your support, they’re not essential; not taking part in them doesn’t mean you’re not a “real” feminist. Back in January, women around the world marched in support of women’s rights and they were joined by celebrities, which was widespread across social media. As much as this created awareness of the cause, it also led to criticism of other celebrities like Taylor Swift that hadn’t taken part in any events. Does this make them “bad” feminists? Absolutely not. You don’t have to go out and participate in protests, or tick off certain boxes to be a feminist – you just have to believe and promote gender equality!
“As much as this created awareness of the cause, it also led to criticism of other celebrities like Taylor Swift that hadn’t taken part in any events.”
Of course, like anything, modern day feminism does have its problems. At times it can fail to be intersectional, often excluding people of colour, the LGBT+ community and even men. It can also cause women to be pitted against each other, with any woman not openly identifying as feminist being seen as a “traitor”. Hopefully now that more and more people are becoming aware of the movement, these problems can be resolved. I’m glad that feminism is now seen as something that people encourage, but it’s clear that some people are still ignorant in their understanding of it. I hope that continuing to talk about it means more people will call themselves a feminist, and be proud of doing so – after all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting gender equality.