I am in a room full of remarkable women.
They are intelligent, eloquent and inspiring. They speak confidently and openly about the strong women who raised them. Mothers who strove against the natural grain of patriarchy. Mothers who wanted their daughters to know the freedom of equality, to know their value, to have feminist ideals and political voices. Mothers who have influenced and inspired their daughters to be strong women.
I am staring at my shoes.
We are here to talk about feminism and identity. Somehow, I have been deemed qualified and valuable to this discussion. I am lost in this room. Not because I feel that I don’t belong – I believe I do. I am educated, I can speak, I am a feminist. But, as I hear about the strong sense of identity these glorious women have inherited from their mothers, I begin to feel a sudden overwhelming sense of sadness that I find hard to explain.
My childhood emerges from the shadows of my mind and presents itself as, quite simply, inadequate. I know it’s not a competition and I know that no one’s childhood is ever perfect, but I begin to lament the strong female figure championing female identity and equality that did not exist for me. And, as the sadness subsides, guilt smothers me.
I am very fortunate to have a mother and a father who raised me in love and kindness. I grew up in Wales in the 90s. My mother taught me the values of being useful, respectful and generous to others, of being patient and hardworking. But my mother didn’t teach me about equality between the sexes. It did not exist for us. Our roles were practical, purposeful, to support the men who held the power. And politics? No. Feminism? Hell, no. A sense of identity? None of that was relevant to my little-girl world, or my teenage world, or anything inside a working-class home where my entire upbringing was focused on doing well at school, going to university and getting a good job so that I could earn well and live well.
I first came across the word “feminism” in a sociology textbook when I was 17 years old. I was studying sociology for A-level at my local college in a class of many boys and few girls. The principles of feminism were covered in a short paragraph and taught in half an hour. I didn’t pay much attention. I remember some of the boys sniggering and dropping the words “lesbians” and “bra-burners” like they were bombs. I’m ashamed to say I probably giggled, endorsing their ignorant behaviour. This was a radical feminism that excluded males and my entire world revolved around fancying boys and pleasing my father. I couldn’t imagine a world without men. Feminism was not relevant to me.
Feminism reappeared in university, in the form of Simone de Beauvoir’s essay The Second Sex. I was blown away by the boldness of her words, but struggled to make them relevant to me. They helped me smash essays, but they didn’t fit in my present or future.
Our roles were practical, purposeful, to support the men who held the power. And politics? No. Feminism? Hell, no
I was independent at university, but entirely directionless. My broadened, well-read mind was instantly crushed when I returned back to Wales after I graduated. I slotted neatly back into the identity of a subordinate that was shaped for me as a child, knowledge and sorrow oozing over the sides. Back to being useful. The equality I craved and independence of mind I had begun to develop was held down by the passive female identity I was expected to resume.
Back in the room, we are talking about the first time we identified as a “feminist”. My cheeks are hot with embarrassment.
This morning? I still struggle with what feminism means to me. I am still living somewhere between the girl who believes she should stay in her place in traditional working-class culture and a woman who wants to be an empowered, influential member of society.
Here, we all agree that although new-wave feminism is far-reaching, with the effectiveness of social media, new literature, strides in activism, it is still not reaching those who are most vulnerable to inequality. When Topshop pulled the Feminists Don’t Wear Pink campaign, we all felt angry that an opportunity for young people to engage in feminism had been missed. And we all agree that shouting our feminist voices is not enough. The time has come for action. But where do we start?
It starts at the beginning.
Feminism in its purest form is a political movement that focuses on social, economic and political inequalities. There is very little (if any) bra-burning involved. But if the word “feminism” is the barrier, we need to find a new word and use the language of inclusivity.
My mother is strong because she has endured inequality; I am strong because I know how to endure and I believe her approach to raising her daughters was right in many ways, but these values need to be taught to all our children. No exceptions. The feminist struggle won’t be half as much a struggle if children grow up in places of respect, generosity and equality. Sadly, where children and young people don’t live in environments of love, they need to see it elsewhere in society – in schools, hospitals, government and in the street. The message of equality needs to come from everyone’s mouths.
Emma Glass’ debut novel, Peach, is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and is out in paperback on 10 January 2019