Last week, I got to attend a great women’s leadership conference in which I got to meet many students who were passionate about feminist issues, and external speakers like Helen Pankhurst- granddaughter & great-granddaughter of Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst, noteworthy members of the British Suffragette movement. Whilst I definitely enjoyed the event and left feeling inspired and motivated to promote activism through my blog, it prompted me to want to talk to you all about the idea of what a feminist looks like, white feminism and choice.
Many different areas and aspects of Feminism were discussed during the event, particularly in reference to Helen Pankhurst’s latest book– yet there were a few topics of discussion that I found myself disagreeing on. Feeling as though you have a different idea of what feminism is, compared to the ideas of someone coming from a family of many suffragettes, is definitely an eye opener.
I’ve used the term white feminism before in my blog post This Is White Feminism, in which I define white feminism to be activism for the rights of white women and white women only- and since then, I’ve gotten better at being able to spot the intentional (or unintentional) exclusion of women of colour in many feminism discussions. When we acknowledge the progression that has taken place in society, thanks to the feminist movement, most fail to recognise that there has been very little progression in the community of women of colour; this was a strong feeling that I got throughout the event and upon reflecting on what was said at the end of it.
I’ll try to explain this with an example…
We were asked in the conference to rate how far we believed Feminism, (as well as particular issues such as the gender wage gap) had come on a scale of zero to five; zero meaning no change, and five meaning a complete change. Almost every single person in the room rated these two issues at a three out of five… it’d be important for me to acknowledge, that a large majority of people in the room were white women. When I voted one out of five both times, I could only think about the fact that in the U.S. (2018), white women on average made 79 cents for every dollar made by a man, whilst black women made 63 cents.
I also couldn’t ignore the fact that whilst gender equality seems to be progressing in the western world, our society and our large corporations are responsible for destroying the lives of women of colour, in other parts of the world (e.g. garment slave labour in which approx 80% of victims are women). Is this what we really want to call progression? Because I know I can’t and won’t be satisfied until all women are benefitting from the slow growth of gender equality, not just those who are white and privileged.
‘You’re a feminist? Oh, but you wear makeup…’
The idea of choice when it comes to feminism, is something that I regard highly; I find myself constantly reminding others, that the way one woman chooses to live her life shouldn’t mean it’s the way that all women should live their lives- yet it doesn’t make anyone a bad feminist for going about things differently, and in the way that they feel most comfortable. The topic of appearance arose, as it often does, and there was a general consensus that women are dressing up and presenting themselves a certain way, because it’s the way society has pressured them to feel, not because it’s what they want; as a dressed up feminist sitting in the audience listening to this discussion, I certainly felt rather awkward.
Whilst this may have certainly been the case a few years ago, thankfully this is an area of Feminism in which we are witnessing progression, as more young women are making decisions regarding their appearance, for their own happiness. Now more than ever, women are encouraged and made to feel comfortable to unapologetically be themselves; of course we still have a way to go, but at least this is an area of growth amongst all minority and marginalised groups of women.
There is no template for what a feminist should be, do and look like- but more often than not we’re presented with the idea that a feminist is a white woman who rejects all modern ideals of beauty, because she doesn’t want to do what the world expects of her. She doesn’t shave her legs, because that’s what the world wants her to do, and she certainly doesn’t wear makeup or revealing clothing, because that would suggest that she cares for the opinion of others, particularly men.
There is no image of feminism, or rather there is one, but it’s wrong and it’s feminists who are also responsible for it being upheld. Whilst some women may find empowerment in rejecting all ideas of what they believe is expected of a woman in society, others may enjoy doing what some consider to be ‘expected’ of a women such as being a housewife or wearing makeup- not because they’re complying with sexist ideas but because they want to and because it makes them happy.