Photo credit: AnonMoos (Creative Commons)
Feminism: the word itself is a strong, empowering word, evoking images of women rising up and arguing for their rights.
Feminism has garnered a lot of fresh attention in the media in recent years, with the rise of influential feminists such as Laura Bates, who runs website and Twitter account @EverydaySexism, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter, who run the website The Vagenda, journalist Caitlin Moran, who has written a number of books describing what a feminist should and shouldn’t be, as well as US-based writers such as Lena Dunham, who is flying the flag for feminism through her HBO show, Girls.
Of course, all these writers prove that feminism is still an issue in today’s society and seen as a dirty word to some people, which is why the fight for feminism is still important and still needs to discussed.
Feminism in its most basic form is about women having equal rights to men, which women have been campaigning for for centuries. The suffrage movements of the last century may seem strange to us today, but at the heart of such campaigns were women’s fight to get the same rights as their male counterparts, such as being able to vote.
But a stigma remains attached to the word “feminism”, meaning that some women don’t refer to themselves as feminists because of the negative connotations and beliefs. Thoughts such as “I can’t be a feminist because I want to be a mother and raise a family” and “feminism means I can’t be feminine” are misleading and, some say, wrong.
London Early Years Organisation (LEYF) is a company run by women, which supports and is also supported by women. Its CEO, June O’Sullivan, describes feminism as equality for women working in and for their organisation in a sector that is largely dominated by females. LEYF particularly advocates the power and equality of women in business and runs an apprenticeship programme to encourage young women to start a career. The organisation also has a unique business model that allows families and women to work and have more flexibility with childcare.
O’Sullivan says she too struggles with the complex and contrasting arguments about the role of modern women, especially when it comes to the issues facing women at work.
Speaking about the annual Margaret Horn lecture the organisation hosts, she says: “Women in the workplace is one area which needs to improve, especially as the majority of working women need to do so.”
As someone who was a keen feminist in the 70s and an avid Spare Rib supporter, I feel really anxious that some of what we demanded has backfired and women are in a worse situation now. - June O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan argues that the press and commentators are partly responsible for the negative portrayal of working mothers and that this needs to change. She says we need to stop blaming working mothers for society’s problem families, and this is what LEYF aims to do.
“Too many women feel guilty about working after they have children,” she continues, “It’s crazy that we make them feel bad because they want and feel a need to use the skills, knowledge and achievements they have worked so hard to get.”
Negative influences on feminism and women’s rights, such as those mentioned above, are still, unfortunately, there and the rise of anti-feminists are prevalent through websites such as womenagainstfeminism.tumblr.com and Twitter, where hashtags such as #feministsareugly, #feminismisawful and #meninisttwitter exist. These are at the extreme end of the scale but sadly do still represent a number of women and men who don’t believe in equality for women, or understand feminism at all.
It is the hope of feminist website Tomorrow’s Girls that this will one day change. Lucy Macdonald, who runs the website with occasional contributions from her friends, said she initially saw feminism as pointless, having studied it at school.
Macdonald says: “From my happy, white, middle-class, all-girls’ school bubble of privilege, it seemed like something unnecessary. I really did think feminists were complaining about nothing.”
After working for a year, then attending university, Macdonald says her experiences opened her eyes as to how bad women can be treated.
She says: “Women are constantly overlooked, objectified, demeaned, held back and attacked (in more ways than one) by society, and the problems multiply if you are a woman of colour, LGBTQ, disabled and/or working class.
“I began looking back at my own experiences of things like sexual harassment and severe problems with body image, and realised that these things were not okay, and that something seriously needed to be done. So I started Tomorrow’s Girls partly as a way to soothe my conscience and repent for my initial dismissal of feminism, but mainly as a way to help other people come to the same conclusion I’d come to; feminism is an urgent issue.”
Feminism is vital because we need to start treating women as people, not as objects. - Lucy Macdonald
Feminism, for Macdonald, means speaking up and demanding that women be treated fairly in all aspects of life. It is important too, she says, that feminism battles other kinds of oppression too, such as racism and homophobia: “I strive all the time to make sure my writing is relevant to all women, not just privileged, white, educated women. It sometimes seems like modern feminism only serves these privileged few, and I want to make sure that this isn’t the case.”
She continues, “I feel passionately that we can convert our passion and anger into real change, if we just speak up about how sexism affects our lives and how messed up society really is. It’s not just important, but vital to discuss feminism and women’s rights today. Feminism is vital because emotional, physical and sexual violence against women is endemic. Feminism is vital because we need to safeguard women’s reproductive rights, destroy rape culture, improve representation in all areas and put paid to glass ceilings and pay gaps. Feminism is vital because we need to start treating women as people, not as objects.”
It is evident that feminism is an issue that still needs to be discussed and that the problems surrounding equality for women and men are still as rife as ever. Hopefully, in generations to come, women won’t be faced with the same issues as they are today.