What does it mean to be a feminist in 2016? The answer to that question, it seems, touches on everything from buying neutral toys for girls to not accidentally laughing at sexist jokes, as we discovered last week when Lansons gathered four of the contributors to the 2015 book “I Call Myself a Feminist,” published last November by Virago. It features the perspectives of 25 women under 30 from all walks of life on what feminism means to them, and is by turns a funny and moving anthology which was lauded in one review as “refreshing and eye-opening and much needed.” As it draws on a rich well of women’s experience from around the globe, it captures perspectives on the challenges facing women in traditional African cultures, to women forging a career in UK politics, and the barriers we all face with sexist language.
I was fortunate enough to chair the discussion between four of the book’s contributors; Hajar Wright, a talented singer and copywriter who was raised a practising Muslim; Emily Benn, currently an Associate Director in Sales and Trading at UBS Investment Bank, and a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Croydon, Martha Mosse, an award-winning performance artist and feminist activist whose work is about oppression and control, and Alice Stride, a prolific young feminist writer and the press officer for national domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid. This diverse panel drew a packed room of around 80 guests for a lively debate on where we stand. What struck me was the breadth of issues that we ended up discussing, and the high attendance (standing room only) showing how passionately both women and men feel about the lack of equality we continue to face. Unsurprisingly, there was consensus on many issues – the poor representation of women in senior positions in industry and the appalling human rights’ abuses that women are subjected to around the world, along with how we might begin to tackle them. Men tend not to notice that they are surrounded by other men in certain environments, so simply highlighting that interview panels are all male, for example, can be enough to start bringing about change.
However, there were more divergent opinions on how we deal with the more insidious elements of sexist culture. As the panel pointed out, just because feminism is more visible today, it doesn’t mean that we are necessarily making progress. Sadly, neither is the optimistic theory that misogynists will simply die out bearing up. One audience member recounted that his young daughter is already experiencing issues on her school rugby team as her young male team-mates simply won’t pass to her.
The panel agreed that we can all make small steps as individuals to challenge this type of behaviour wherever it arises, especially as parents and within families. Young girls growing up today face huge new challenges with online technology, both with its easy dissemination of violent pornography and the use of these channels for vicious harassment.
There are positives though, and one of the defining elements of today’s movement is the prevalence of funny and bold women shouting about the cause in a way that appeals to new audiences, such as Caitlin Moran and Bridget Christie. Ultimately, not being held back from what you want to do because you’re a woman, even if that means being able to walk home without your keys threaded through your knuckles, is a type of feminism that most people could subscribe to. As Kate Mosse highlighted in the book itself: “The F-word is for fairness.”
A sincere thanks to all our panellists and guests for a lively and thought-provoking evening.
Lansons regularly hosts wide-ranging debates and talks at our offices. Sign up to our newsletter on the left sidebar and check out our events page for more more upcoming and past events.