Ask a feminist - The F Word problem page

How can I tell if I am a feminist? Can I be a married feminist with children? Check out The F Word's new 'ask a feminist' feature for more

Jess McCabe, 10 January 2008

askafeminist.jpgBehind the scenes here at The F Word, we often have readers writing in and asking us for advice on what to do, to explain a concept or to give our opinion. Being generally an opinionated bunch of people, we very often reply. But now we want to try something new - a regular F Word feature, fielding your questions in public, so everyone can see our answers.

Answers will be written by regular F Word contributors, and represent only their own potentially fallible opinions. In the spirit of pluralism, we will try and work in more than one response if we can. There is no definitive 'F Word line' or 'feminist line', and our answers are given in that spirit.

Of course, we will never publish anyone's name or identifying details. If you want to ask us something, please just use the comment link at the bottom of this page.

Dear F-Word,

How does one know if they are a feminist? I have a funny feeling I might be, but I'm not sure..

- Am I A Feminist

Hi AIAF,

Generally speaking, if you reckon something is wrong when you see

1) men as a group being framed, by default, as the ones who should be seen to be in charge of making things happen and

2) women as a group being framed as their natural rightful supporters in the background

...you're probably a feminist.

Those of us who identify as feminists are often as different as we are similar. The issues that any one feminist sees as the most pressing won't be the same for all feminists. Basically, it's not about what you think needs to be done to change society that would make you a feminist but your belief that

1) There are areas in life where women are generally held back or shown a lack of basic respect because of some form of prejudice and;

2) Your resistance to such stereotyping. (By the way, you can still be a feminist if you also happen to think there are areas where men suffer this too.)

Overall, I would say people who don't believe women are held back anymore generally aren't feminists and people who believe they never have been definitely aren't. Obviously, it would be fair to say that people who believe women are indeed held back by prejudice, but think this is entirely justified aren't feminists either. Then again, some people might say such prejudice can be justified in some areas but not others. I personally disagree but, to be fair, they might be feminists.

Ultimately, I would say you know you’re a feminist when you want a society where it is taken for granted that women's competence, control, presence and influence extends to all areas, not just those directly connected to bum wiping/multi-tasking/doing the things apparently important people reckon they don't have time to do. (A lot of feminists, including myself, would also like to see a society where men are as encouraged to care for others in a domestic setting as women are.)

Short answer: Does your enjoyment of a book tend to be somewhat hampered if its references to the general reader or subject constantly default to the pronoun ‘he’? If so, you're probably a feminist!

- Holly Combe

Dear F-word

Am I a proper feminist? I've heard that even though I am fervently for women's equality and breaking down patriarchal oppression of women etc, apparently the fact that I have been married and have children makes me an oppressed women subscribing to a male dominated society's values and not a feminist.

Confused of Oxford

Dear COF,

I’ve seen, heard and experienced the same thing as you - one feminist declaring another invalid because of a difference in viewpoint. In many ways it’s disheartening, as there is some kind of internal policing within feminism. But look further and it’s actually a sign of the vibrancy of feminist debates - it’s actually showing how feminism is a broad church of views and that those are points of disagreement as well as agreement.

It has a long history - many of the rifts that threw apart second wave activism in the 1980s were about diversity of views and how they are handled - the documentary Angry Wimmin flags this up really clearly. So how do we handle it? Because you’re right, it is individually problematic. Well for me much recent (third wave) feminist thinking has been less about dictating a single feminist position and more about accepting there are feminisms - and this ties into an acknowledgement that my experience of femininity (as, for example, a northern British, working class, white, etc woman) won’t be the same as someone else's experience of femininity. It brings us back to the issue that we can’t declare abortion on demand a universal feminist issue when in China women are fighting against enforced terminations. Instead we locate our feminism in our experiences and situations, and it is reliant on the context of our activism. There are elements we share - notions of women’s rights and choices and freedom - but the situations we face are different.

As for motherhood or marriage meaning you can’t be a feminist, well if that were the case the feminist movement from the 1970s onwards would have been decimated! But more seriously if, to be feminist, we must all reject everything connected with patriarchy then we’re in a difficult situation. We live in a patriarchal society and therefore are involved in patriarchal relationships (including of racism and classism) whether we like it or not. The question isn’t whether you’ve been married or had kids but whether you subscribe to patriarchal views of what that means.

Surely feminism isn’t about reinscribing that old patriarchal tradition of women leaving work when they marry/commit to a relationship because the husband must be serviced first? Do we trade our feminist credentials for patriarchal acceptance on marriage? I don’t think so, we just bring our feminism to those situations. And the same is true of child-rearing practices.

So, Confused of Oxford, here’s my advice - always ask “who is this person to determine the nature of my activism and thoughts without knowing me" and then go on doing the feminist stuff you believe in. I’d much rather we focussed on “doing” feminism that “being” feminist.

- Louise Livesey

Dear COF,

Being married or having children doesn't disqualify you from being a feminist. Despite the famous slogan "the personal is political", feminism isn't about ascribing to a certain way of life, or following set rules.

Many feminists do have a problem with the institution of marriage - for example, the idea of the father giving the bride to the groom suggests that women are male property. So you may find feminists who won't get married on principle, but you're very unlikely to find many feminists who would criticise or look down on another woman for going down that route. Nor does it mean that it is necessarily impossible to have a feminist marriage.

The truth is that we were all brought up in this patriarchal culture, and it would be basically impossible to remove every trace of it or live outside it without becoming a hermit. As Louise says, the important thing is to go ahead and act on what you believe in.

- Jess McCabe

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