The other day, I put forward the offer to write a piece for International Women’s Day. I had just finished The Female Eunuch and purchased The Feminine Mystique. I was feeling, once again, that I could put into words that very unique, but also somewhat universal concept of what it is to be a woman.
I wrote my first On Being a Woman essay this time last year. This was fuelled by a seething anger and profound devastation following the murder of Sarah Everard. It discussed violence against women, sexual harassment and how there are consistent attempts to silence both the female voice and female truth. This essay, one year on, isn’t necessarily intended to be a reflection. It will not say look how far we’ve come because at the moment this is not how I feel. What I feel is boredom; not apathy or fatalism but sheer boredom. A sense that as many famous placards so often read: I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.
I am bored of being angry and I am bored of being conceived as boring. A stuck record. That outspoken one who won’t leave things alone. That girl who ruins other people’s fun. (I distinctly remember a mutual acquaintance telling me they were off to see Fifty Shades of Grey and she hadn’t wanted to tell me because I’d ruin it with my feminism.) I am bored of hearing that it’s not all men. I am bored of the patriarchy and I am bored of the perception that being a feminist is undesirable; that if I define myself this way I am purely here to ruin your fun. That I hate men and long for a world without them. That I’m complaining about solved problems and conceived notions. That I should bloody well recognise that we’ve never had it so good (and then, consequently, shut up).
Germaine Greer infuriates a lot of people. Germaine Greer infuriates me. There are many reasons why this is the case, which in recent years has a lot to do with her attitudes towards inclusivity. At this point I’d like to make a full disclaimer: I do not intend to discuss this, I intend to focus on the fact that I have recently read The Female Eunuch and how I feel about that particular work. I propose taking a Roland Barthes-esque approach here; a focus purely on the text and less on the author.
The Female Eunuch is provocative. It’s pretty provocative now so when it hit shelves in 1972 it was even more so. It has to be read in context, which at times I struggled to do. It also took me quite a long time to read, which for me is never a good sign. As a twenty-first century reader I found that some of the arguments Greer made lacked a certain nuance. There’s a whole chapter on the womb (that ever present menace in the female anatomy), which felt like it ended with her telling me to just suck it up; if you want equality with men you can’t let a silly little thing like bleeding once a month get in the way. For me, being equal is not akin to being the same. It is possible to treat others equally, with the same levels of dignity, respect and worth whilst acknowledging difference, whether that be anatomical, social or cultural. This was gripe number one.
Number two came in the form of her appearing extremely critical of women in general, implying that as we are complicit in the patriarchy we are basically digging our own graves. Literally. I became more sympathetic to Greer’s discussions in the final few chapters on male violence towards women, but again Greer implies that part of the problem here is that within every woman is a masochist willing the event to happen. Feminism, like anything, is difficult. Not everyone is going to get on. Women are people too(!) and people don’t always see eye to eye, I get that, believe me. However, much feminist theory starts from the point that women are the largest underclass and they just haven’t realised yet. In order to achieve revolution (whether that be class, race or gender based) the oppressed class must become aware of their oppression and identify their oppressors. No one is ever going to get on with everyone, but as long as there is criticism and infighting within the oppressed group, their oppressors have nothing to fear. My main problem though is that in the book’s final pages I wasn’t left with any hope – no solutions, no breaks in the cloud – just a simple question: What will you do?
Become pissed off apparently. Greer pushes boundaries, which has invited scrutiny recently, but she’s been infuriating people for much longer than this for one simple reason: she’s a woman who has no qualms complaining and making people listen to her opinions. Those opinions may be questionable, but they are opinions, not facts, and I couldn’t begin to tell you the amount of questionable man’s opinions I’ve had to listen to over the years, often with no dissenting voice in the room. Everyone (women and men included) finds it easier to silence the female voice than the male’s. And this is what I am bored of.
I finished The Female Eunuch and said that it just didn’t feel relevant anymore. This is unfair. It is relevant because had it not been written then all the feminist writers I read today would not have had one of the cornerstones to this cannon. Also, a lot of the ideas are still applicable. Violence towards women is still an epidemic. The pressure from the patriarchy to look and behave a certain way is still there, only now there are more voices expressing dissent.
I know that generally I have an innate desire to please. I write these kinds of pieces and desperately try to justify myself so as not to come across as difficult. I want my arguments watertight, factual, backed up with truth and statistics so as not to appear too emotional. Because as a woman, that’s where they dismiss you with the most ease, with the notion that you are simply hysterical.
As I write and voice my complaints I feel guilty. There are privileges I have that many women do not. The point of International Women’s Day has been to celebrate women’s achievements, not bring a downer on the whole thing with negative pieces such as this one. However, I shouldn’t feel guilty. I am not ruining anything, not playing the cynic or negating the marvellous things women achieve on a daily basis, but I am realistic. International Women’s Day is great but sometimes it feels like there’s a manipulation of this event into yet another capitalist machine that simply exists to placate women. You’ve got your day, what more do you want?
In the Victorian period women had to put up with such nonsense as the ‘wandering womb’, then came Freud and the idea that what us women were in fact suffering with was ‘penis envy’. Then Mid-Century capitalism told us that we had it all, what could we possibly want with feeling discontent? Extra measures were put in place to shield the middle-class housewife from the horrors of the world; we were placed in protective bubbles made up of laundry, hoovering and decent homemade meals and then they wondered why many felt trapped. How long is it going to take for it to be universally accepted that what is wrong is patriarchal systems and the incessant insistence of men to seek to define us.
Let women tell you what the problem is. When we visit doctors don’t tell women that the pain they are feeling is simply in their heads. Let women tell you why they are afraid to walk alone in the dark as opposed to simply exclaiming that it’s nonsense women feel this way because it’s not all men. Let women run for parliament without fear, let women make policy, enact change and have a say in the communities they participate in. Let women lead in areas where they are most affected and where they have the most expertise. Let it be the right person for the job, not the right man. Let us examine our language and reveal how ingrained the patriarchy actually is. Let women have autonomy over their own bodies and let women tell you no without fear of the repercussions. Let yourself take all women seriously, not just your wife, mother, grandmother, sister. Let yourself extend respect to women beyond your direct understanding; those of different races, ages, classes, abilities and cultures.
Yet again I feel the record is stuck. This essay arose from the reading of seminal feminist literature and the hope that I would see how far society had progressed from the days of Germaine Greer and her female eunuch. I think feminism has progressed. I’m not too sure about society.
When women are still being murdered by strangers in public places at an alarming rate I find this difficult to believe. When even more women are being murdered by loved ones in the place they call home I find it harder still. When convictions for rape remain so alarmingly low and when truly representative statistics for all the above crimes remain so hard to come by I continue to feel despair. When I see and read that globally those who suffer most at the hands of the climate crisis and war are women and children I struggle to see the progress. Inequality for me is acting as if someone or something has less worth than you and ultimately I believe this still happens for women, especially in a global sense. Things have advanced somewhat in the West but there are still complexities. If it was solved I wouldn’t be writing this alongside countless others who are arguing similar points. Progress is not victory, but the small victories are important so that you know it’s worth continuing.
I am going to end this piece with a reading list. I am angry and I know I deploy a certain amount of wilful ignorance so that I am able to live my life day-by-day without internally combusting, however I dislike the notion that there is no hope. Hope for me is not expectation, it holds no guarantees and no disappointments. It is faith. I have faith that as long as women keep using the voices they have; those unique, compassionate, angry, intelligent, hopeful voices, that there will continue to be small victories. There will continue to be small victories that are big victories for those they directly affect, forming great triumphs on the road to a world that will continue to get better.
After all, no one suggests to me that my womb has found its way into my brain anymore so things must really be looking up. (Although I cannot speak for all women on this point, it’s probably still happening somewhere.)
Further Reading for Hopeful Futures:
- Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez
- My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem
- The Most of Nora Ephron – Nora Ephron
- All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis – Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson
- Difficult Women – Helen Lewis
- Sharp – Michelle Dean
- By the Light of My Father’s Smile – Alice Walker
- Cassandra Speaks – Elizabeth Lesser
- The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
- Decisions and Dissents of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Penguin Liberty Collection
- Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy
- The Beauty Myth, Promiscuities & Vagina – (All) Naomi Wolf
- The Feminine Mystique – Betty Friedan
- Let Me Tell You What I Mean – Joan Didion
- The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer (if you dare…)
Saffron Rain lives and writes in Stockport. She was born and raised around Manchester, only moving away to get her degree and subsequent MA in English Lit in Sheffield. During this time she wrote ardently on the North, particularly female writers and filmmakers.
Her preferred form is the personal essay and she enjoys writing about topics that she connects to on a personal level. Some of these have appeared in independent publications and she shares longer pieces on her own blog. She loves to read, particularly women, and will take any opportunity to crowbar Joan Didion into a conversation.
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