A few weeks ago, I was asked to be part of a panel discussion questioning whether the legacy of feminism has been betrayed, at the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London’s West End. The discussion arose from the play Jumpy, by April De Angelis, originally performed at the wonderful Royal Court Theatre. The story centers round a mother and her teenage daughter trying to come to terms with one another. I went to watch the play the week before the discussion and I haven’t laughed that hard in ages. I left the theatre feeling elated and inspired, and remembering why theatre is such a fantastic medium (which is sometimes easy to forget three hours in to an especially dull production). Tamsin Greig’s performance as Hilary is one of the finest comic, heartbreaking turns I’ve ever had the honour to watch.
A week later I headed to the theatre feeling both nervous and excited. I’d been sent the discussion points beforehand, which was a big relief, but I had the fear that people would think, what is she doing here? Who is she? Which was exactly what I was thinking myself, and would only be natural for them to think, given that the other panel members consisted of April- the playwright, Penny Smith- a hilarious and smart broadcaster, Immodesty Blaize- One of Europe’s most famous Burlesque dancers, and Dr Rebecca Johnson who’d been part of Greenham Common.
We all met in the green room beforehand and were introduced, with Penny Smith breaking the ice remarking on how delicious the sausage rolls were on the craft table. We then had to pose for photographs, which was a little more daunting than we’d anticipated. I’d turned up in jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt. Immodesty was kitted out in a Mad Men esq vintage dress, with full show makeup. We all began to pale slightly under her shadow, but were quickly picked up by tips from her on how to pose to look your best. After all gratefully taking the tips on board, I could see everyone’s brains ticking. Was this OK for women about to participate in a feminism discussion?
Just before we went on stage, Tamsin popped round to wish us luck. She squeezed my hand, and I remember thinking how mad it was that she was reassuring me, given that she was going on stage herself in a much greater and more daunting capacity in an hour and a half. The nerves had truly taken over in a way they never had when I was about to act on stage. I was going on as myself, and was gripped by the fear, not that I would say something stupid, but that I wouldn’t be able to get any thoughts out at all. To my surprise, as I took my seat on the stage, in the midst of the set of the play I’d so adored, all my nerves evaporated. We’d been told before hand that the discussion panel for the play Posh had been packed. I think all of us on the panel were thinking we wouldn’t be so fortunate. Given the treatment feminism receives in the press, I really did think it would only draw in a small crowd of older women. But to my joy, we had a full house, of mixed ages and sex.
The biggest talking point of the debate seemed to be, how do we make feminism relevant now? For many people of my generation, feminism is understood as a dirty word, and perhaps worse, an irrelevant issue. The great Susan Faludi published a superb book that detailed the unbelievable backlash against women after 9/11. You may say, huh? What backlash? And this one of her main points. When women try and fight for women’s rights, people generally feel that you’re harking on about the past, that the economic crisis, or issues or race and class need far more attention, and thus get more attention, while feminist issues are pushed under the rug. In my experience, there is a serious lack of awareness in young women of how much farther we need to push. Our grandmother’s pushed, so did our mothers, but we seem to have dropped the ball.
During a 4th year American Studies class in 2012 at the University of East Anglia, my classmates were shocked to discover that our female lecturers were getting paid substantially less than their male counterparts. We were then told that no female faculty members were invited to a Humanities dinner held by the Chancellor. Women make up a huge proportion of this department. When they banded together and went anyway, the Chancellor would not shake any of their hands. My most inspiring lecturer Becky told me that the worst thing about it was that none of the male faculty members even seemed to notice. As students, we were completely unaware of this injustice. Generally, the young women I spoke to in my department, after I’d heard about this, had no idea about the existence of a pay gap. There is a strong belief that we’ve achieved equality. Speaking to young men, the repeated response I received was, “Well, I don’t go round saying I’m a masculinist”. Admitting I was a feminist made both young men and women pull a face. Almost no straight women I spoke to considered themselves feminists.
I think a large factor in contributing to the lack of awareness on the subject of feminism and what it’s essentially about, comes from a complete absence of it in the school curriculum. And by the term feminism, I simply mean, the demand for equality between the sexes. You may study it as part of the women’s movement of the 1970s and swiftly move onto the Civil Rights movement and that’s it. Until I elected to take gender classes at university, I was shamefully unaware. To a certain extent, I too thought feminism meant hairy armpits, and man hating.
And so back to the panel…
As the debate ended, Rebecca asked me what the older generation needs to do to help the younger generation take the steps forward that our predecessors laid the path for. The audience laughed, as it was an enormous question and one that was impossible to answer in the four remaining minutes of the discussion. What became clear in how Rebecca phrased her thoughts however was that men, “shouldn’t” be doing this and that…And so feminism in her words framed itself around negativity.
Maybe we need a new word. But what is very apparent is that we need to redefine feminism, and the first step is surely to not be ashamed of pushing for our rights, and most importantly, to make the word positive. Jumpy the play absolutely proves that you can combine feminism and humour. That women, of course, can be funny. That this issue need not be a drag. That men can be feminists. That change is possible if we realise what needs to be changed. Sitting in the company of such strong, funny, successful women was an incredible privilege and we came away longing to have a longer discussion.
So, has the legacy of feminism been betrayed? Thanks to the strength of previous generations of women, I find myself having graduated, able to get a job, and on the pill. Are the young women of my generation betraying the legacy? Perhaps not, but we’re not particularly aware of it either. As of yet, we can’t quite have it all. It is hard to be a woman. We fight the boundary between feminine and masculine, between virginal and sexy. Last week I walked down the street at 11pm. I was wearing long sleeved trousers and a coat. I caught the eye briefly of a man in his early twenties. As I passed, he said, “I bet you fucking love it, don’t you”. This remark was provoked simply by me being a woman. I found myself fuming for my twenty-minute walk home, thinking of all the comebacks I’d like to have shouted at his aggressive remark. It was sad to realise how vulnerable I felt. It made me hyper aware of the power of words. With words, we can teach our boyfriends, our brothers, our sons how we deserve to be treated.