I’M tearing up my card – victimhood and censorship are not compatible with my idea of accelerating social progress, writes Tiffany Jenkins.
My feminist awakening came as I was reaching adulthood, reading old tomes taken from my mother’s bookshelf. Some of them resonated with my experiences, providing the necessary social analysis to unpick and understand them. It was an exciting time: I felt part of a movement – men as well as women – who wanted to rethink the way society was organised and could probably make a difference. Since then, I have been proud to say: I am a feminist.
But no longer will I use the f-word to describe myself. It’s not obvious to me that feminist thinking today is progressive. In fact, most feminist campaigns – especially those that are successful – are illiberal, censorious and divisive. Their end result is regulation, and many promote the idea than men and women are different, irreconcilable, and that the female needs special care and protection – ideas about the so-called weaker sex that groundbreaking writers and campaigners such as Mary Wollstonecraft started to challenge in the 18th century.
Two events in the past seven days have helped me reach this decision. The first is the T-shirt incident, when David Cameron faced a backlash after choosing not to wear a Fawcett Society top, sent to him from Elle magazine, with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like” on it. The response to his decision was childish, gesture politics, where sporting a naff item of clothing is said to do more for changing people’s lives than, say, creating opportunities and improving the standard of living.
The second event is the Hollaback video doing the rounds on the internet. It shows a young woman who secretly filmed herself as she walked the streets of New York City. The idea was to record the reaction of the men she passed: the sexist comments, come-ons, cat calls and wolf-whistles.
She got them. In ten hours, 100 incidences were recorded, now edited down to two minutes. Men shout out “Smile”, “Da-amn!” Annoying behaviour, recognisable to any of us. Some of it is cute and a smart retort from the actress would not have been unwelcome, instead of filming them without their knowledge to later expose them. But other remarks and actions are not all that nice. One guy silently walks alongside her for five minutes: he is deliberately intimidating.
Now, I don’t wish to make too light of it, but come on, this stuff happens all the time to all of us in some way; there were different things going on here, and it’s really no big deal. Or rather, even when it’s not all that pleasant, uncomfortable even, it is far better than what the campaigners – because this was not a neutral experiment: it is a video with a purpose – are calling for. Hollaback is a group lobbying “to end street harassment”. They wish to criminalise these everyday interactions.
Others agree. Kate Smurthwaite, a comedian and activist, argued on Radio 4 that street harassment was a problem; that she won’t go out jogging on her own because it happens all the time: “I live near a… string of greasy-spoon cafes, and you can’t jog past them as a woman and expect to be left alone.” She was clearly complaining about working-class men rather than the artisan bacon-eating, latte-drinking, middle-classes (as if wealthier guys never cross the line). She followed up her concerns by stressing how vulnerable some women were.
“I wonder how a young women in her late teens, just starting to go through puberty, and she’s maybe having a tough time at school, and she’s just moved to a new area, this must be the kind of woman who is destroyed by it. It might be the last straw.”
Speak for yourself, Kate. This is the sort of thing that was said about women in the past to keep them in their place: that they are too fragile, sensitive and weak for the workplace, or for the political sphere, that they may faint at any moment, that they need a chaperone. Give your sisters a break. We are stronger than you think. We can tell guys to “back off”. And it is incredible that it’s necessary to make these points in the 21st century.
The T-shirt and the video may seem minor events to lead me to change my feminist identity, but it is because they are not that uncommon or unusual. Feminism has always contained different strands of opinions, some oppositional, as well as contradictions, but today the dominant strain ends up demonising men and promoting female victimhood – which will hold us all back.
It’s not that there is nothing to fight for. We still need women in top positions (though quotas will not help), and a good old-fashioned demand for 24-hour cheap childcare will help mothers as well as fathers. Abortion is also not quite on demand as it should be. But, if anything, men face problems today. Our culture is ambivalent about masculinity, which is blamed for everything. Increasingly, fewer men than women go to university. Low-paid, flexible work is a problem for both sexes, even if women directly benefit from these kind of jobs.
Instead of working together to get a better deal for women and for men, feminists today crack open the champagne when Twitter trolls are imprisoned for online abuse. (Who really wields the power here?) Elsewhere, campaigners seek to have the Sun newspaper removed from sale; student unions have banned so-deemed sexist pop songs; Edinburgh’s feminist students have been trying to have the Socialist Workers Party banned from campus; the NUS is asking British universities to teach their male students consent lessons.
The fight for freedom that old-school feminists were part of has become a regressive, puritanical movement seeking to regulate what we hear, say, read and do, so my feminist card is in the bin. If we must claim a slogan for a T-shirt, let us turn to The Female Eunuch in which Germaine Greer argues: “Freedom is fragile and must be protected. To sacrifice it, even as a temporary measure, is to betray it.”