Thursday, 5 April 2012

77/111 - Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters

I bought this book quite recently as it was on special offer somewhere. I have a growing collection of books on the subject of feminism and it occurred to me that although I would consider myself a feminist, I don't actually know all that much about its history. I'm not convinced that this is essential to being a feminist, but it's always good to know nonetheless.

I've read a couple of books in this series before, and so I was prepared for a crash course and also prepared not to understand quite a lot of it. There is a huge amount of facts in here, and sometimes not a lot of detail, but you can't really get that deep in only 130 pages. The book primarily concentrates on feminism in the UK, however later also talks a lot about women across the world.

I was surprised to find out that feminism has been a derogatory term since the 1800s, and that many women who we look at as feminists (like Virginia Woolf) actually wanted to distance themselves from the term itself. Early British feminists were concerned with enabling women to vote and also with passing laws which gave women equality with men in terms of marriage and property rights. I was also surprised to hear about the direct action taken by first wave feminists fighting to get the vote for women. Some of their actions included breaking windows and setting fire to houses of politicians who opposed the vote for women.

The other parts I found really interesting were the explorations of what feminism could mean to women of different social classes, races, religions, sexual orientations and cultures. The type of feminism which is dominant here is, as I've mentioned before, concerned with body image, balance between work and family life and the pornification of young girls. It's really easy to forget that in many cultures, women are still fighting for basic human rights, let alone feminist rights like voting. In cultures where girls are less valued than boys, if they are not killed at birth, then they are fed less food which hinders brain development, and then they are married off, some as young as ten years old. They have no education, live in poverty and then they too have children very young, possibly dying in childbirth and then whole cycle repeats itself once more.

Within western culture too, there is a large divide in what feminists want. The desires of middle class feminists seem trivial when compared to working class feminists whose struggles keep them in poverty, and sometimes this is even enabled by middle class feminists (think about a white woman who employs an immigrant maid, or an au pair from overseas).

I'm not saying that white middle class feminism is less important, because clearly it's important to a lot of people, and as a white middle class woman it speaks to me because these are issues that affect me directly. However, clearly I have a lot of learning to do. The issues that white middle class feminists are concerned with are intensely personal, and I think they're kind of a distraction from larger global issues. I also see this connection with what's going on in American politics (and also recently, British politics). There is this huge HUGE focus on reproductive rights for women, and whether gay marriage should be legal. Both of these issues are massively important, and I fully support full reproductive rights for women as well as any kind of marriage. However both of these issues are personal ones - I have a real problem with politics that wants to tell me what to do on a personal level not only because I don't think it's anyone's business, but because there are issues that are MUCH more important. How about that fact that in some countries, being gay is punishable by death? Or how about that we're in several global conflicts? Or that a huge percentage of the population don't have access to basic things like healthcare and clean water?

The conspiracy theorist in me wants to say that these personal issues are being beefed up to distract us from larger issues. Yes, it's important that full reproductive rights are available to women, but there are bigger problems I think. It's so difficult because these have become such divisive issues. On the one hand, I would vote against any party that threatened to take away my reproductive rights, but what if that party also had incredible policies in place for fixing the economy, or pulling out of conflicts, or investments in the environment? I guess it's got to be a compromise, but it's ridiculous that these issues are the ones which will ultimately get the votes one way or the other.

That's all for now.

Next: Drive by James Sallis

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