My dilemma: to be or not be feminist?

 by Anna Vallarino

From the Women’s Assembly whit clear embargo ‘no men’ to the Feminism-shion of the celebrities: when to be feminist sounds a way to find easy solutions – not really effective – to gender inequality

 

“The assembly is a women only (self-defining) event, organised by women for women. If you are a man and you’ve accidentally been invited and then bought a ticket please accept our apologies”: a colleague of mine invited me to take part in the conference The Women’s Assembly Against Austerity in London last February. In the invitation email there was this clear embargo “no men allowed”. Recently, there has been talk about a fourth wave of Feminism; the Feminist movement looks to be once again on a high, with most of the discussion about media stereotypes and sexism. Books such as How to be a woman by Caitlin Moran have reignited the debate on the situation of Western women; the success of initiatives such as Everyday sexism has showed how many women still feel themselves to be one of the weakest and most threatened parts of society. Can we speak of a united feminist movement though? Fortunately not. A feminist conference that clearly denies male presence has a Stalinist flavour. Why avoid men? Because they are seen as the enemy? Everyone should be welcome in the debate on women’s rights and roles. After reading the invitation to the conference, I said myself, if they call themselves feminists , how can I call myself a feminist?

 

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My mind has lately been much taken by this existential doubt: “To be or not to be a feminist?”. After a period in which I said “Yes, I am”,  currently I’m going through the valley of doubt, and the voice that answers “No, I am not a feminist ” is prevailing. First of all, I have never liked the ideological -ism , secondly I often find it limiting my free thought constrain my opinions to a collective ideology, whatever it is. Lastly, there is another dilemma:

How can I fight for gender equality, when I am the first to define myself by my gender? It sounds paradoxical. As if a black man should be a blackist, or a gay, homosexualist or an old person, oldist. I know these examples may not be particularly appropriate but I think they can give an idea of the paradox.

Besides the old-fashion Stalinist feminism of the ‘sisters’ (the invitation email for the Women’s Assembly, began with ‘Dear Sister’ ) and other forms, we are now seeing another way of being feminists – that fully reflects our times – a very glamorous feminism, bought as if it were an accessory, a Gucci handbag. This new wave feminism-shion is spreading all over the press – even in the fashion magazines – and bookshops’ shelves are full of respectable middle-class white women who give advice to their women friends on how to be assertive at work or on how to not give in to sexist comments.

A few days ago in newspapers there was a long debate on the adjective ‘bossy’: Sheryl Sandberg , the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the bestselling book Lean in, turned the debate around: “When a little boy asserts himself, he is called ‘ leader’; yet when a little girl does the same , she risks being branded ‘bossy’,” she wrote and – supported by Beyonce, Condoleezza Rice and others – has suggested that that word should be prohibited. A banned word? How can you think that banning a word can change something?

Journalist Hadley Freeman, a declared feminist, wrote about this in The Guardian (12/ 03): starting from the Sandberg proposal – considered as well-intentioned as useless – she gave some tips on what we should do to improve girls’ self-esteem , suggesting among other advice, that we “Ban all newspapers and magazines from the school that talk about diet, celebrity body shapes and sex lives”.

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To my mind, banning something to educate is also purposeless, and further I ask to myself “what about the little boys?” . They, too – even if probably less – are persecuted by un- educational advertising, by media stereotypes. Not only girls have eating problems and not only girls have low self-esteem. Sometimes it seems that this new wave of feminism becomes an opportunity to limit our capacity to discern, to simplify the issue. Currently, I have been reading too many articles in which women are seen as victims, victims of men, victims of the media. Are we sure that the reality is so clear?

Unfortunately, the skein is not so easy to unravel, and it is not by banning the presence of men, nor adjectives such as bossy, neither celebrity magazines at school that we can really improve our way of behaving, of being and, above all, of thinking. My doubt is whether it would be better to abandon the word ‘feminist’, to start talking about just gender equality, for all of us. Nobody should be limited or judged by their gender. However, this seems to be too idealistic, and in return, with the aim of being practical, I again ask myself: “to be or not to be feminist ?”

As Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, wrote in her book The Useless Sex (1961), explaining her refusal to write just about women for women: “Women are not a special fauna”. We are not a special fauna, and we should demand not to be treated as such and especially we also shouldn’t conceive of ourselves under this term. I still do not know if I want to be a feminist or not; all I know is that I think that education is the key to improve society gender inequality. It is not by banning men’s presence, words or celebrity magazines that we can really change something, but by learning to understand what we should take as example, what we should refuse and accept as a woman, but above all as a person.

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