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Fionola Meredith

Feminism needs to take a good look at itself in the mirror if it wants to win more support

Fionola Meredith

With its air of pinched lips and puritanism, it's no surprise that some people hate the F-word, says Fionola Meredith


International Women’s Day in Belfast last year

International Women’s Day in Belfast last year

International Women’s Day in Belfast last year

Call yourself a feminist? No, really, do you? And if you don't, why not? It's International Women's Day tomorrow, with the annual march for female rights in Belfast city centre, so it seems a good time to ask the question.

Personally, I have always referred to myself as a feminist, because I believe in gender equality and equality of opportunity. Simple as that.

I think that women should be free to do whatever they want to do, to be whoever they want to be, in exactly the same way as men, unconstrained by prejudice, bigotry or discrimination and regardless of what anyone else thinks. Honestly, who could disagree with that?

These days, only the real nuts, weirdos and assorted misogynistic losers on the margins of society think that women are lesser human beings than men.

Right now, feminism is having a big media moment. The MeToo movement against sexual harassment has blasted a trail through Hollywood and right around the world, smoking out leches and creeps who think it's okay to treat a woman like a piece of meat.

We have seen female celebrities falling over themselves to wave their feminist credentials in our faces.

Harvey Weinstein, the once all-powerful film titan whose grotesque actions were the starting point of MeToo, has been found guilty of rape and led away in handcuffs.

And yet there's this ongoing problem with the F-word.

A great many women, and vast numbers of men, are unwilling to describe themselves as feminist.

Last year, the BBC reported that fewer than one in five young women, in both the UK and the US, would choose to identify this way.

True, there's been a small rise in the overall number of British women who say they are feminists: a 2018 YouGov poll found that 34% of women in the UK said yes, compared with 27% in 2013. But that still leaves two thirds of the female population giving the cause a definite thumbs down.

Why? Well, for a start, there remains a deeply engrained cultural perception that to be a proper, card-carrying feminist you must sport extremely hairy legs, reject make-up and despise men.

None of these are necessary requirements, of course, but old stereotypes are difficult to dispel.

While we're on the subject of appearance, however, it certainly remains the case that women - particularly those in politics, the media or the public domain - are judged far more harshly for the way that they look compared to their male counterparts.

Seriously, how many female TV presenters have you seen who are fat, have wonky teeth, or are over 60? Barely any, right? Yet there are plenty of male presenters that fall into those categories.

I'm not saying that those men should be condemned for their looks. I'm simply saying that there remains an insidious double standard at work, in which women are expected to be decorative and men aren't.

You can't blame the patriarchy for everything, though. If mainstream feminism wants to recruit more people to the cause, I think it should take a good, hard look at itself in the mirror.

It seems to me that feminism has become obsessed with victimhood, focusing too often on what women can't do, as opposed to what they can.

Girls and women are seen as passive victims, crushed by male oppression, as though victimhood is somehow an important status in itself. This strips them of agency.

Aren't we supposed to be empowering young women, firing them up with confidence, drive and ambition, not treating them like delicate, easily wounded children, in need of constant protection by the state from the predations of evil men?

You may not like being wolf-whistled, for instance, though some women do, but it needn't destroy your life.

Feminism has become far too pinch-lipped and puritanical, like a religion, with too many rules about what women should think, say and do. Dissent is not tolerated.

For example, when the French actor Catherine Deneuve and Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, both dared to express concerns about the more hardline aspects of the MeToo campaign, they were immediately branded traitors and mentally deranged rape enablers who were suffering from "interiorised misogyny".Not very sisterly.

I believe that International Women's Day remains an important focus point for women's rights.

Domestic abuse, which is at horrifically high levels in Northern Ireland, the gender pay gap, reproductive rights: these are all issues of deep, ongoing concern. There are many battles left to fight.

But if we want more women to call themselves feminists, we have to listen first to why they hate the word.

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