Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate

When I got my first job in journalism, my mentor, Diana Pulson, feature writer on the Liverpool Daily Post, warned me to stay away from women's pages, which were she said, a ghetto of knitting patterns and recipes. A few years later, feminism had turned the Guardian women's page into the place where the feminist revolution was celebrated and debated. I thought myself incredibly lucky, in the early nineties when I eventually started to write for the Guardian women's page, under the editorship first of Louise Chunn (now editor of Good Housekeeping) and then Claire Longrigg, now editor of Psychologies. The story I did then that sticks in my mind was about the so-called False Memory Syndrome, when Louise and I fought a lengthy and fierce losing battle against some obtuse male editors.

Last night was the 50th anniversary celebration of the Guardian Women's page and I was gutted that I couldn't attend. Feminism is the only ism I will own up to; misogyny still rules the world, despite the absolutely concrete advances women have made in the past forty years. When I went back to my old university, York, last year, I remembered vividly the early meetings of the York women's action group:

I remember the fights over our women-only consciousness-raising meetings, invaded by male students who said they were undemocratic, and us marauding round the college television rooms turning off the sets where a few boys were watching Miss World. But now, 30 years later, there was Amy Burge, the university's elected women's officer, who is a third-year English student. I was incredibly pleased that what had begun with that manifesto on the dining room tables had survived into the present. I wanted to know what contemporary issues they were dealing with.

'Members of the student union want to outlaw women only meetings," she said. "We were told that we couldn't have elections for the women's officer where only women could vote, even though the women's officer was representing women, not men. We've got a campaign against sexual publications, and there's a motion to cover up lads' mags, but the student union gets a premium [from the distributors] to have them on display. We get a lot of support from the NUS but Nouse attacked us."

There was a stigma about being labelled a feminist, she said. People thought of them as hairy-legged lesbians in dungarees from the 1970s. I was about to say that it was ridiculous to peddle stereotypes, until it dawned on me that she meant us. It's true - I did have a pair of dungarees. Burge showed me a feminist "zine" the women's officers had produced that term. It was called Love Your Body. It had a big article on anorexia and self-harm scars. And I realised that back in the 70s we hadn't even heard of eating disorders. No one was on a diet; it was too cold not to fill up with scotch eggs and cake. There was no real pressure to look a certain way. We wore makeup at parties and when we felt like it. We lacked these deep, painful insecurities about our bodies - or did we?

I suppose I would have been horrified, back when I got my first journalism job, if I could have foreseen that I had, so many years later, implanted myself in the very ghetto (this blog, or aspects of it) that my mentor had warned me against. On the other hand, I remember, awestruck, meeting the seminal feminist Sheila Rowbotham whose book Hidden From History had so influenced me when it first came out. She was forty-eight at the time. 'Remember how we used to go on about not wearing make-up?' she said. 'It's all very well when you're in your twenties, but at my age it's a different matter.'

Still the battles for women's rights remain. I'd still march for pro-choice and against this sort of thing


Deja Pseu said...

Thanks for posting this. It seems that "feminism" has somehow become a dirty word here in the U.S. It's always heartening to see it being embraced.

Dana said...

Yes, thank you, from the midwest US. My college student babysitter was surprised to hear me say that the patriarchy is alive and well and still oppressive. I think it's much more insidious now than in our moms' generations, because it's underground, subtle, veiled. You don't see the knife coming until it's in your back.

And this is why I won't wear heels.

twollin said...

Dana - I'm in Upstate New York. As someone with daughters in their 20s, the real fear I have is that there are a lot of people in this country and certain people running for President (including Ron Paul, by the way, who so many people are all exercised about simply because he's mouthing the magic words, "Out of Iraq") whose agenda is not only to outlaw abortion, but to outlaw all forms of contraception.
Let's see now - if taken to the ultimate (which is where these folks invariably go), a woman who refuses to have sex with her husband during certain times of the month, becomes a criminal.
This is incredibly stupid, but this is where people like Ron Paul want to take us: to remove all rights to make our own decisions. Shoot - wearing high heels? We're talking basic human rights on the line here now.

Cristina said...

I know it was said above, but I just have to say it again...

"...misogyny still rules the world, despite the absolutely concrete advances women have made in the past forty years."

Thank you for saying this. It's so true yet so many people (women, even!) don't seem to realise it.

Dana said...

Yes, my daughter's 4. How do you think I feel about it?

JuliaR said...

Thank you for writing so well, about this and other things. I just discovered you. I discovered feminism in grade 12 at an American high school in Belgium in 1974. I've never looked back. I also recently discovered this definition that I love:
Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.