There’s another bloody feminist campaign to get behind – it can seem like there’s always another feminist petition to sign. The latest one is about Feminism being removed from the A level politics syllabus. The petition was started by June Eric-Udorie and quickly reached over 40,000 signatures. It is an important campaign, but as usual it attracted a fair share of ‘whataboutery’ comments from people who think there are more important things out there on which to spend one’s time. This led me to think about two things:
- The reasons why this particular campaign is important, and how it ties in with other feminist campaigns.
- The reasons why we need so many bloody feminist campaigns in the first place.
If the lack of Feminism on the A-level Politics curriculum was a stand-alone instance of women being erased, marginalised, misrepresented, demeaned, underestimated or otherwise ignored, then it wouldn’t be so much of a big deal, obviously. We could look elsewhere for inspiration, self-respect, pride, role models and a sense of our place in the world. But a quick look at the feminist campaigns and petitions which have been necessary over the past couple of years tells a story which is fairly constant in its message about a woman’s place. From the absence of women on banknotes and passports, and mothers’ names on marriage certificates, to the objectifying images on Page 3, in lads’ mags and on ‘beach body’ advertising billboards, to the lack of women composers on the A-level Music syllabus and the lack of older women on BBC TV, to the opening of a Jack the Ripper Museum where a women’s history museum was meant to be, and to the highly stereotyped representation of girls in children’s toys, books and clothes: all of these separate elements combine to make a very consistent whole.
It is difficult to get away from the dominant narrative. For children growing up surrounded by this culture the same message is found again and again, whether it is in school or in music videos, magazines,books, television or the internet. Women are there for their sexiness or not at all. At school there is a chance to redress the balance by making sure that women and their achievements are represented as much as possible, but this is not happening. Women in history for example are largely there for the same reasons they exist in contemporary culture: they are either titillating, married to powerful men or being murdered (sometimes all three). There are some notable exceptions, but often they are used as the exceptions that prove the rule. Powerful women in history, like those now, tend to exist as stand-alone figures, with little trickle-down effect on other women. Exceptional women remain just that: exceptional.
Jung coined the term ‘collective unconscious’ to describe how ideas and beliefs are passed down through the generations and amongst contemporaries, almost like a kind of osmosis. The resulting belief systems are ones we are hardly aware of, let alone able to challenge, because they go in so early and so deep and are continually reinforced. It is a form of indoctrination which means that our beliefs become ingrained and take on the veneer of truth. In the case of beliefs about women, it means that restricting and damaging stereotypes are seen as normal and natural, to the point where it can seem more ‘unnatural’ to challenge them. As far as I know the ‘female of the species’ doesn’t have to mean ‘modest, passive and eager to please’ in any other animal on earth. There is no reason at all why it should do in the case of humans.
The representation of women, whether it’s the ubiquity of sexualised or pornographic imagery, the way women are referred to in stereotypical, old-fashioned and insulting ways in the media, or the way that women are left out when it comes to the ‘important’ stuff (particularly BME women, older women and women with disabilities) paints a broad picture which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s all linked: we can’t teach either boys or girls that women are human too if we consistently leave out all the evidence of women’s diversity, brilliance and achievement at all stages of the educational process.
All of this stuff matters because, as a complete picture, it is so bloody relentless. Each of the problems the above-mentioned campaigns were set up to address serve to reinforce all the others. And it all makes more work for women. It’s worth remembering that women work largely for free on these projects, campaigns and petitions (along with all the other unpaid work that still falls to women). Whilst the default sex (male) gets on with life, women have to challenge nearly every new idea that crops up, because the default decisions don’t usually don’t take them into consideration. It can feel like fighting to stand still. When there is criticism of a new feminist campaign, particularly if its subject is one I personally find slightly boring, I am always grateful to the woman/women who find it interesting enough to pursue. Somebody’s got to do it.
Men don’t generally have to spend their time campaigning just because they are men, so they have more time to spend campaigning on other issues that are important to them, or on getting most of the top jobs, or on doing most of the crime. The few men’s rights groups that do campaign on men’s issues tend to concentrate on feminist-bashing and complaining about the advances women have made, in terms of the impact they feel it has on their own sense of entitlement. They are not fighting to establish a level playing field, as women have to do, but rather to protect the beneficial injustices that have existed for so long in their favour.
It would be surprising if a man were to start a campaign such as June Eric-Udorie has done, even though men obviously sometimes have girl children and presumably wish them well. Even men who otherwise fight for equality issues tend to leave sexual equality well alone, even when it affects children in areas such as education. Without the work that women are doing the collective unconscious will keep absorbing the same old ideas and prejudices: boys will have less of a chance to learn to respect girls as equal human beings and girls will have less of a chance to see themselves as deserving of respect. Some of these boys will grow up to be men who perpetuate current sexist attitudes, and some of these girls will grow up to be women who start campaigns against their ill-informed decisions. They will probably be as dismayed as I am about the complete lack of understanding shown by many men regarding the common experiences of women, and wonder why something wasn’t done earlier about educating them.
This ignorance, coupled with a lack of empathy or respect, is part of what feeds into a culture of violence against women. Many more feminist campaigns deal with the serious issues around rape, abuse and men’s fatal violence against women, and again many of these are run voluntarily by women who are also trying to earn a living and/or bring up a family. June is running her campaign whilst also studying for her A-levels. You can understand why many women do not or cannot get involved – we’ve all got busy lives to lead. So thanks to June for taking this on, and thanks to all the other women who give their time for free or for little reward in order to make the world a better place for other women. The true purpose of feminism of course, is to smash the patriarchy, but in the meantime let’s all kick up a big stink every time we see women being erased or misrepresented in the public sphere, so that the generations of girls to come have a better chance than we did at knowing how brilliant, strong and inspirational women can be.