One thing about being a feminist for a length of time that can most conveniently be measured in decades is the repeated and yet always surprising head-slap of ‘are we still there? I thought that went out with shoulder-pads’. I don’t know if it’s me living in my head too much, or living in too many different countries and losing track of where most people actually are on equality, but am I the only one who finds herself looking around in a daze of cultural jet-lag and thinking ‘But we talked about it already. You can’t still be doing that‘.
Feminists have a lot to learn from our natural allies and brothers and sisters in arms, the gay rights movement. The main thing I’d like to know from them is how to bring about a 180 degree change in millions of individuals’ opinions on gay marriage in under twenty years, wherein no-one now remembers when they actually stopped thinking gay people were weird, icky and in some pre-ordained way destined to live short, unhappy lives, outside of the natural bonds of romance, matrimony and dullness, and how now everyone is sure they always thought this way and isn’t Elton John a dote with his cute little babies and if I had twins and I could afford it, you know what, they would be just as matchy matchy, too?
But how is it, that in my adult life we started off – in Ireland, anyway – fighting for contraception (Tick. Too late for my college career, sadly.) and equal rights at work, and yet now, twenty years on, women are publicly threatened with anal rape if they dare to be happy Jane Austen’s face will soon appear on the five-pound note? Has no one read, oh, I don’t know, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison and Marilyn French (who I first read for the sex bits and subsequently learnt from that housework is irredeemably political), or Catherine McKinnon or Luce Irigaray, or even Caitlin Moran on how Brazilian pubic waxes are weirdly infantilizing? Do we really have to keep re-writing every word of this stuff for each successive generation? And, seriously, do we really have to keep pretending that long since trashed arguments about men-only golf and social (exclusion) clubs are still worthy of a hearing? (Max Hastings. FT. Don’t bother.)
How is it that during the twenty years of my adult life when most people have come, via some almost unobserved cultural osmosis, to believe that gay people are people, too, that I’m still expected to be polite and nonjudgemental and entertain all sorts of nonsense about Page Three, slappers who drink alcohol and are thus asking for it, thirteen-year old child abuse victims being called ‘predators’, little girls wearing t-shirts that advertise their pre-sexuality and all-round dumbness, women being less than a quarter of people interviewed on radio news programmes, or indeed completely absent, whether the topic is breast cancer or the economy? And those are just silly season absurdities, not the complex, grinding and deeply un-sexy numbers of continued, largely unchanged structural sexual inequality.
And why haven’t Daft Punk ever collaborated with a bloody woman?
There’s something in the cultural osmosis of gay rights, and I bet sitcoms have a lot to do with it. Where the portrayal of women is still so often a reactionary one – some variant of dumb, put-upon shrew – gay TV characters doing gay things and, as time went on, just doing ordinary human things helped people to simply get used to them being around. They didn’t even have to be proud; they were just there. It was a short step from that to the revelation that, if about one in ten people is gay, you might actually know or even be related to one. And from there it was only a hop and a skip to right-wing politicians publicly embracing their gay sons and daughters and asking people to be less shitty to them. Now if only those people would wake up one day and say to themselves ‘you know what, more than one human in two is a woman’, and maybe we could treat them a bit better and not reduce them to tits and ass, too.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re still ridiculously far from real equality for gay people, and that’s just in Western countries. But at least we’re moving. It’s not ‘ok we’ll take one legalistic step forward, now endure a decade of regressive stereotyping, and also pretend there was never a problem in the first place, or that it was sooooooo long ago even grown-ups can’t remember when things were bad’.
Last weekend I went to a Feminist Geek session at the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London. Me, maybe two or three other women and Cory Doctorow were the only people in the room aged over thirty-five. (Forty, really, but I’m trying to be nice.) At first, I silently raged that there is still a need for campaigns like Everyday Sexism, or Put a Woman on the Five Pound Note Because We’re Asking Really Nicely and Not Being Shrill At All, At all. But you know what, the sheer energy, passion and bloody-minded goodwill of the women on the panel and in the audience changed my mind. I suddenly felt happy to the point of being tearful (it’s my hormones, you know) that here is a fresh, energetic and far from ignorant generation willing to pick up the spade and dig. So keep digging, girls. I’ve got your back.