Feminism : when the personal stops being political

I was inspired to write this blog partly by my disappointment with articles like this one: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10030351/Feminist-education-has-been-the-making-of-me.html, and the popularity of titles like Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman and Hadley Freeman's new Be Awesome. There's an emphasis on the personal that seems to eschew the political, as though feminism today is just a cheeky pout, not threatening anyone but not a pushover either, hey! Moran's book focuses on the bodily aspects of 'being a woman', which gives her plenty of room to trace her own journey to womanhood, whilst Freeman's gives advice about how to deal with being single, to talking to someone who's single, etc etc.

How do we put the political back into these personal testimonies? There's nothing wrong with the personal affecting your politics - personal experience makes it real, keeps you grounded. It's probably little surprise to those who read my blog posts that feminism came to me through a mixture of personal experience and literature. When I was 20, I went out with a boy who was a Norman Mailer fan. I'd spent my entire teens immersed in the nineteenth century. I had no way - no way - of grasping what the hell was going on in stories like 'The Time of Her Time' (although I did manage a reply by way of Norma Femailer and 'The Time of His Time' which employed lots of boxing metaphors. My then boyfriend said it was funny but I 'didn't understand'). I hadn't really come across that kind of misogyny before - I don't think I even knew the word. I grew up in a family where my parents both believed I should have as good an education as my brother, where my Dad encouraged me to do everything I wanted to do. I didn't understand this deep-seated animosity towards women.

When I was revising for my finals, long after I'd split up with my boyfriend, I came across Kate Millett's phenomenal Sexual Politics, which had a section on D H Lawrence, one of the authors for my exams, inside. She also had a section on Mailer and - bingo! Yes, a klaxon really did sound for me. Suddenly, this man made sense! Albeit through a prism of feminist theory.

Even then, though, I still wasn't completely converted. That didn't happen until the following year, when I started my PhD. Sitting in the university's College Club bar one night, listening to yet another middle-aged man lecture about middle-aged men, I had a moment of panic (and my PhD was on a middle-aged man, too, James Joyce). Where the hell was my place in this world? I couldn't relate to any of it. And what was the point of it all, anyway? What was the point of literary criticism? What did it matter, outside these walls?

Then my old tutor, a wonderful man called Jack Rillie, sent me a copy of a Modern Fiction Studies special edition, Feminist Readings of James Joyce, and I finally found my answer. Feminism made sense to me, both in terms of literature (how to read, not what to read) and in terms of negotiating the wider world (I was expected to feel uncomfortable in that college club bar. It didn't belong to me! But maybe I could take it back, somehow, one day....). I complained about the bookshop I worked for selling Playboy magazine ("are you embarrassed by the pictures?" my departmental manager asked me with a smirk). I started attending feminist conferences and I got my first academic post because when I was asked what I could bring to the job I said I was a young woman, and that this was a profession that needed young women. Which, in the mid-1990s, was absolutely true. I became the fourth woman in a department of over 20 men (and only two of the women were on permanent contracts).

I was still rubbish at picking boyfriends, but you can't win them all. Feminism was, and still is, important to me, because it helped me understand how the world was shaped, who it was shaped by, and what I could do to find a place in it that suited me. Feminism was meant to change the world, and in many ways, it did. I bought my own flat as a single woman; nobody asked me when I was planning to get married when I went up for a job interview; I could have as many, or as few, sexual partners as I wanted. I couldn't, in 1995, book a flight as 'doctor' (I came up as 'male' on all the travel agents' computers), but I can now.

Feminism and personal experience formed the basis of my book, Between the Sheets, and I'll never be prouder of the fact that the hardback carries a supporting quote from Susan Brownmiller, one of the founding mothers of second-wave feminism and author of one of the most important feminist books ever written, Against Our Will. Being a woman and a feminist isn't just about giving meaning to 'being awesome' or recounting how you felt when you started your periods. Being a woman is a political act in itself. I just don't want the personal to over-ride that.    


  1. Love that line 'Being a woman is a political act in itself'. You've nailed it in one. Like you we sisters and brothers were brought up as equals, in education and all aspects of life. To aspire to achieve what we can and help others when we can. Feminism had not yet reached India, but my family were way ahead of the Betty Freidens of the West and I am ever thankful for that.


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