Jess McCabe // 3 August 2008
Oh how the Press love it when any reasonably high-profile woman rips into feminism and other women in general. The latest culprit is Dame Eileen Atkins, an actor who, incidentally, is performing in The Female of the Species (yes, the one which may-or-may-not be based on Germaine Greer’s life).
In an interview with the Radio Times, which I can’t find online, she reportedly came out with things like this:
“Now girls are expected to have sex before they’re 12, which is terrible. It really upsets me when silly girls get as drunk and aggressive as boys. My skin crawls when I see laddish women presenting television shows who almost slap their thighs as if they’re in panto. I think, ‘Stop. This isn’t what we meant by feminism.’ It’s gone completely wrong. Women think they can have a fantastic career and four children, and knock themselves out trying to do it all.”
But this was a curious choice of words. “Women think they can have … it all,” she said, sounding more like a Daily Mail leader-writer than someone in the tradition of the Suffragettes. “This isn’t what we meant by feminism,” she informed us. But what did we mean by feminism? Who are “we”? And who owns feminism, anyway?
Dame Eileen’s rhetoric hits precisely the point where the half of the population that will cheer “Well said!” sheers off from the half that will boil inside at her words. It is not the idea that girls are expected to have sex before they are 12, which most people will think is a point too far – nobody expects girls to have sex before they are 12, and a lot of effort goes into making sure they don’t. The problem is in the injustice of her comparisons. Does it upset her when boys get drunk and aggressive? How many children can a woman have and still expect to enjoy a career? How many for a fantastic career? And how many children can men have?
Dame Eileen says that feminism has gone wrong. Too right it has, if the word itself is now used as a way of embracing these tired old double standards. What is upsetting is not that laddish women present television shows; it is the insidious creep of these values into everyday discourse, to the point that a “feminist” will claim them as her own.
*Take note any subeditors reading this – bra burning is a myth!