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Why feminism can mean something different for every woman

By Mary Kenny

Published 07/03/2016

Life’s disappointments: Germaine Greer was not able to have a baby
Life’s disappointments: Germaine Greer was not able to have a baby

Feminism, like many "isms", changes with each generation. And so it should. Change is a sign of development, adaptation and survival. Perhaps surprisingly, nuns were often a source of feminist ideas. Nuns came in 40 shades of personality types, just like everyone else, but they had great dedication to girls' education. The most withering judgment a nun might make was: "You'll end up working at Woolworth's." (At one time considered a downmarket store.)

My girlhood heroines were Joan of Arc, the dancer Anna Pavlova and Iris Kellet, the equestrian ace.

I was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, whose ideal way of life was living in a cheap hotel in Paris and meeting Jean-Paul Sartre for high talk over cigarettes and Pernods in Left Bank cafes. They disparaged possessions as "bourgeois". This would be a difficult template of feminism to emulate now.

De Beauvoir was brilliant on analysing how society had stereotyped women, but she also saw that Nature was the joker in the pack. She had abortions because "pregnancy makes a woman Nature's plaything" and she loathed that.

All stereotypes are limiting of both men and women. Pink for a girl and blue for a boy is a hideous form of stereotyping. And, yet, if you banned every fairytale ever written, little girls would still find a way to play at being princesses.

I'm delighted to see the prominence and visibility of young women in so many walks of life now. But I don't repose much confidence in the idea of gender quotas. Ability should be the first criterion. You must be up to the job.

All jobs should be open to ability. Yet, natural inclination is still a factor. You won't find many women wanting to be long-distance truck-drivers. Or sewage engineers. When I saw women sweeping the streets in the USSR, I felt it was belittling.

Is the Catholic Church the last bastion of prejudice against women being ordained? Not quite. And despite the patriarchy, women remain the majority among congregations.

Before a village Mass recently in provincial France, the women seemed to be running everything: but when the priest appeared they all kissed him on both cheeks, like mothers making a fuss of the only boy in the school.

Which brings us to the mothers of sons. Feminist or not, they come to see that, to rephrase Tammy Wynette: "Sometimes it's hard to be a man."

Domestic violence is a feminist issue - who wouldn't deplore it? But I have yet to read a really insightful analysis as to why some women - modern, free and independent - still choose violent men.

Rape is an important feminist issue - as well as a criminal matter. Women should be empowered with the confidence to report it whenever it occurs.

Yet, I think "no means no" is a silly slogan. The entire world of advertising and PR is devoted to the art of persuasion. If people are open to persuasion in everyday life, they can also be persuaded to change from "no" to "yes" in sexual encounters.

There probably is a case for "consent classes" for university students. Boundaries have been blurred and maybe need restating. My son was sitting on a bus recently when he heard schoolboys loudly discussing the schoolgirls they had slept with. He felt like telling them off, with reference to some Victorian tome of courtliness: "Gentlemen! We don't bandy a lady's name in the mess!"

Abortion has become a feminist issue, though it wasn't always so. Early feminists were often evangelical Christians. Marie Stopes believed that effective contraception would halt abortion.

People must follow their consciences on this subject, but a woman will always be more admired for having a baby - especially in difficult circumstances - than for terminating a pregnancy. Hallmark has yet to produce a card saying "Congratulations on your abortion!"

I appreciate the point that we are entitled to sovereignty over our own bodies, but again Nature plays the joker. Germaine Greer once said: "If we had rights over our own bodies, we'd have the right not to get cancer, not to grow old."

Germaine tried hard to have a baby in her 30s, but Nature - and assisted conception efforts - declined to co-operate. We all learn that not every choice is ours for the asking.

I agree that motherhood should be voluntary. And childcare should be supported by every available element of society - the Government, private industry, communities at every level. Affordable and high-standard childcare is often the major deciding factor in whether women become mothers.

Equality: yes, as an aspiration. But older women experience this differently. They notice that older men get called "Sir", while older women get called "love".

The word "feminist" has come to mean "extremist" for some. But no cause was ever won without an element of extremism - even fanaticism. Moderates often inherit the mantle of the wild outliers and make it respectable.

Am I a feminist? Yes, but a feminist of my own time and influences: with theory tempered by experience.

And, surely, we are all still entitled to define our own kind of feminism?

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