I’ve only read Amazon’s extract of Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism. After I’d finished I had to remind myself that there are lots of different kinds of feminism, and the fact that the media picks and chooses who to focus on isn’t the fault of the chosen.
But I still wanted to respond to what frustrated me in the extract I read. I was once a middle-class girl who was too scared to call herself feminist, the audience of the book. But I didn’t change my mind because feminism seemed easy, but because I realised what how hard the women who had been before me had fought, and I wanted to honour that struggle. I wrote about it a year ago, but thought I’d repost it just to show that even middle-class white girls who say ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ aren’t a homogenous group.
In some ways I was extremely precocious feminist. I still have my copy of the Railway Children which says “Happy 7th Birthday on the inside” and in which I had writeen RUBBISH in black felt tip pen over the paragraph near the end when the Doctor tells Peter that he must be nice to girls because they’re soft and weak. I grew up in the 1980s and really believed Girls Can Do Anything, and was prepared to fight for it.
But something happened in my teens, my feminism faded. I know why, and I know I’m not alone. To middle-class girls in all-girls schools sexism and misogyny often seem far away. I was taught by some of the coolest feminists I’ve ever known. My school had a quilt hung in the hall that said “Me aro koe ki te hä o Hine-ahu-one. Pay heed to the dignity of Women”. But it was an all women world and so feminism seemed unnecessary.
It was ridiculous, because sexism and misogyny were all around us, all the time. We didn’t recognise them mostly because we were too busy using them to try and destroy each other.
So all through high school, and into my first year of university I didn’t call myself a feminist. I was 18 when this changed, and I remember the change as a revelation. it wasn’t of course, I must have forgotten all the small things that lead me there.
I was babysitting, I’d put the kids to bed and settled down to do the readings for one of my tutorials. I was reading women’s accounts of growing up in Germany towards the end of the 19th Century. One woman was from the aristocracy, one was middle class, and the others were all working class women.
Most of the women had become involved in left-wing politics later in their life and their stories were amazing. The best of the fathers in the narratives were completely hopeless, most weren’t that useful, but the women survived, and fought for their brothers and sisters. I was blown away by those women and their strength. They had all fought so hard for things that I saw as so basic.
But it was still school work, so as soon as I was finished being blown away I watched a movie the kids’ parents had left behind. It was called The Heidi Chronicles and I remember almost nothing about it except that it was about a woman who was involved in women’s liberation, and it showed how much she’d gained but how hard it was, and how it had cost her.
My response to the stories of women’s lives, both fictional and real was: “I have to call myself a feminist, I owe it to all these women who went before me, who fought so hard and gained so much to become part of that struggle.”
And that was the beginning.