It's the year 1910. Constance Lytton is in her prison cell. Two wardresses are holding her arms, one her head and the other her feet. The doctor leans on her knees and stoops over her chest to get at her mouth. The sense of being overpowered is complete.
As the steel gag is forced between her teeth, her jaws fastened wide apart and a tube put down her throat, the pain is intense. The food instantly makes her vomit and she is left for the night, her hair and clothes drenched. She cries out: “No surrender.”
She was a feminist.
It is 2012. Hundreds of men and women take to the streets in protest. A flash of cleavage here, thigh there. Flesh proudly on show and placards at the ready. They are demonstrating against the idea that if a provocatively dressed woman is raped, she is “asking for it”. An idea voiced by a Toronto police officer, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, to a group of students a year ago. An idea held by many. An idea their slogan “Consent is sexy” is trying to destroy.
They cry out: “No one ever asks for it – that’s why it’s called rape.”
They are feminists.
And so am I in case you were wondering. It all came to me one afternoon while stood on a chair shouting, but that is something I will come back to. The fight has changed. That is needless to say. Women can vote, get the same education as the boys and go to work with the big boys. Women can live their lives – dress, walk, talk, like, dislike, do and not do whatever, however and whoever they please. Or can they?
Nowadays, it is so easy to dismiss the need for feminism because the ‘big issues’ have been dealt with, but there is still so much discrimination against women out there. And when I say ‘out there’ I do not mean all the way over there, where it can’t get you and you don’t need to worry about it. I mean right outside that home, office or tube window.
Actually, scratch that. It could very well be inside that window too.
In May, a YouGov survey of over a thousand Londoners, commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, found that 43% of women aged 18-34 had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces last year – one in 25 of these cases involving unwanted sexual touching. Their research also showed that last year 45,000 incidents of domestic violence and 3,000 rapes were reported.
You may be telling yourself that this still doesn’t concern you because only a minority of women are affected and only a minority of men are committing these horrific acts. And in the case of physical or sexual abuse you’re right, it is a minority, but encroaching upon the basic human rights of women comes in many forms. When asked why he was a feminist, 23-year-old student Vassily Vorozchichev, responded: “Look at the world, why aren’t you?”
A 2010 study conducted for Springer’s journal of Law and Human Behaviour concluded that 90% of women have suffered sexual discrimination in the workplace including offensive sexist remarks or being told they could not do their job properly due to their sex. In addition to this the study found that 10% of women had been promised promotions or better treatment if they were “sexually cooperative”.
Women are also hugely underrepresented in politics in the United Kingdom, with only 144 female MPs out of 650.
Clearly any female political representation shows we have come a long way since the feminist movement began in 1848, but we have not come far enough. Not by a long shot.
Founder of UK Femenista, Kat Banyard, said: “It feels like progress on women’s equality has not just slowed down, it has gone into reverse.
“Abortion rights are under threat, women are still outnumbered four to one in Parliament and 84 years after getting the right to vote thousands of women are still victims of rape every year while the rape conviction rate is stuck at 6%. It’s not good enough.”
On October 24, at a march on Parliament – led by Suffragette, Emilene Pankhurst’s, great-granddaughter Helen Pankhurst – lobbying on issues including representation of women in politics and access to childcare, several female MPs turned up in support including Labour MPs Harriet Harman and Yvette Goodman; Conservative MP Amber Rudd; and Caroline Lucas represented the Green Party.
Mrs Harman, 62, added her voice to the protest saying: “I strongly support these campaigners. There is the misplaced belief that women have achieved equality and they should just shut up and stop moaning – but there is a broad movement here that will continue to call for change.”
Never a truer word. Both fortunately and unfortunately. The movement will definitely continue to call for change, but sadly not with everyone’s consent. Feminism is still a cause that the majority of men and women (Yes, and women) do not support. A recent Netmums poll found that only one in seven women surveyed by the parenting website consider themselves feminists. This is partly because a lot of people don’t understand what feminism means.
Feminist Masters student Priscilla Aroso, 23, asserted: “Most women accept the status quo and actually think those of us who challenge our enforced subordinance are men-hating lesbians who'd sooner burn a bra than buy one.” The lack of understanding of feminism is exemplified in the stereotypes attached to it.
Priscilla asked: “When are we ever go to see our daughters earning as much as their husbands, wearing what they want without fear of being hailed a 'dyke' or a 'slut', or going wherever they please no matter the location or time of day?” Can’t you see, feminism is not about overpowering or emasculating men in society. It is not a war between the sexes or an attempt by women to become more “manly”?
It is about fairness and understanding. About realising and celebrating the differences between men and women, because they are there even on the most basic biological level – last time I checked boys don’t hit puberty and start growing boobs (although I am sure many of them wish they did) and girls’ balls most certainly do not drop - but these differences do not instantly make one weaker than the other.
Finally, it is about giving women the recognition they deserve, appreciating them as equal members of society and giving them a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Is that too much to ask? Anna Read is one of many playing a part in this uphill struggle. She is the Director of the London Feminist Film Festival which starts on November 29 at Hackney Picturehouse and is the first of its kind in the United Kingdom.
The festival aims to get people talking about feminist issues, get feminist films seen by a wider audience and to support women creatives. Anna explained: “The trouble is that sexism is so embedded in all of our lives that it’s easy to not see it, to just take it for granted that that’s the way things are or that it’s natural somehow. “We need to stop making excuses. We need to stop turning a blind eye to things which are obviously wrong.” I wish it weren’t true. I wish I didn’t need to be some ‘naggy woman’ harping on about it, but it is and if you don’t like it, become a feminist and do something about it.
How common casual sexism is was highlighted when I first mentioned that I was hoping to write a feature on feminism. I got quite a few groans and rolled-eyes from male colleagues. People instantly assume that feminism is some kind of extremist movement. It really isn’t. I hate to break it to you, but you might just be a feminist too.
Priscilla said: “If you know it's stupid that, for centuries - nay, millennia - people have questioned whether women are equal to men, you're feminist. If you don't think it's stupid then you need to look your mother, sister, lover, daughter or friend in the eye and tell her she's an idiot simply because she has a womb. If you can't do it, you're a feminist.”
One person’s reaction particularly stuck in my mind. While explaining my idea and my view point he interjected to tell me he had recently watched a feminist author on some chat show talking pubic hair and urged me not to argue that it was sexist.
Pubic hair is not sexist.
Would I be with someone who only thought I was attractive without the natural physical manifestations of my womanhood though?
No feminism way.
The author he was talking about is journalist, feminist, wife and mum Caitlin Moran, which brings me back to standing on a chair shouting.
In her book, How To Be A Woman, Caitlin says that if you think you are a feminist - if you have looked at things and gone “Hey, wait a minute, life might just be better if men and women had a mutual respect and appreciation for each other” or something to that effect - then you should come on out of that feminist closet. And why not make some noise about it while you’re at it?
She says you should stand on a chair and shout as loud as you can, ‘I am a feminist!’
Seriously, you should try it some time.