Marks & Spencer prefer 'womanism' but what's wrong with saying feminism?

It tells you something about the necessity of feminism that it's still controversial

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I am a feminist. Wow, that sounds ridiculous. I never quite trust men who announce themselves as feminists: I always assume they’re trying to get laid. I tend to think that the best thing a man who considers himself a feminist can do is support women, disagree volubly with idiots, and in general try not to contribute too actively to the patriarchy. Behind every great woman, the saying goes, is a man who didn’t act like a martyr because he had to make his own sandwiches every once in a while.

So I don’t really walk the walk. But yes. If it is possible to be one while remaining shamefully inactive, I am a feminist. When the alternative is to be someone who thinks that unequal pay and sexual double-standards and acid attacks on little girls aren’t really worth making a fuss about, obviously I am a feminist. This is like saying “I am not a racist” or “I am not a homophobe” or “I love my mum”. It should be obvious.

I am honestly not trying to get laid. So why is this worth saying? Well, the reason has to do with the new Marks and Spencers ad that’s just been launched. Advertising is not an industry generally celebrated for its commitment to gender equality, so it’s worth noting this campaign: from the Olympic gold medalist Nicola Adams to the Booker Prize winning author Monica Ali to the nurse and Aids campaigner Helen Allen, the stars are a diverse and impressive group who might properly be considered role models.

This is advertising that’s making an explicitly feminist statement. The curious thing about it is: the one thing it is lacking is an explicitly feminist statement. In fact, it was launched with a statement that was explicitly not feminist. Steven Sharp, the retailer’s head of marketing, told the Sunday Times that the idea is, instead, “a womanist campaign… designed to celebrate women. To whom clothes are presumably important”.

Womanist! I love the idea of womanism. It’s such a doss. It’s like “girl power”: feminism with the awkward bits stripped away, feminism without the awkward acknowledgement that, with gender equality being a zero sum game, for women to have more, men are going to have to have less. It’s the feminism of Gok Wan and Samantha Brick and Heat magazine and those terrible Boots adverts where men stay in bed with a sniffle while the “girls” bustle about getting things done, feminism that loves to talk about “celebrating your curves” and “having it all” and “strong” or possibly “real” women. It’s the feminism where clothes are presumed important. (It also already means something, it’s worth remembering: the term was coined by Alice Walker in 1983 to denote the specific experience of black women, and tries to represent the racial and class biases that might sometimes be left out of a conventional feminist analysis. I’m guessing Steven Sharp didn’t have Alice Walker in mind when he settled on it.)   

Insidious though it is, this thread of thinking, or at least of branding, is usually so straightforwardly cynical that it can at least be dismissed out of hand. The M&S example is a more troubling one. The ads themselves are something to be proud of – and the company in question is anxiously retreating from exactly what is good about them, leaving it with only the unexceptional clothes and the dismal pseudo-religiosity of Annie Leibovitz’s pictures. It is a point that bears repeating that you cannot conceive of the same corporate attitude to any other form of prejudice. “Oh, this isn’t an anti-racist campaign,” Steven Sharp will never explain. “We really think of it as ethnic-minorityish.”

It is, of course, straight out of the PR manual: steer clear of avoidable controversy, avoid contaminating the brand. But it tells you something about the necessity of feminism that it can seriously be considered controversial. If men (or men like me, anyway) and companies are a bit coy about embracing the word, we are not alone: female role models continually disappoint in interviews in which they are asked about it and immediately put their shields up. Consider Lady Gaga, who explained that she is not a feminist because she “loves men”. Consider Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer, who sees no contradiction in believing in equal rights and saying, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist”.

Perhaps they’re cowardly; perhaps they’re ignorant; perhaps they just know their audience, who have been convinced that “feminism” denotes po-faced extremity. The New York Times’ Gail Collins put it well. “Every time I go on a speaking tour,” she said, “I get questions from sad middle-aged women who want to know why their daughters all insist they aren’t feminists. They might be planning to devote their lives to healing fistula victims in Somalia, but they won’t let anyone call them feminists because they think it means being anti-man, or wearing unattractive shoes.”

I suppose we could accept that the linguistic battle is over, and just get on with the practical stuff. But there needs to be some sort of umbrella – a means of ensuring that the people who want to get rid of Page 3 know they are on the same team as the people who want to get more women in government, and of ensuring that everyone understands that the journey towards each goal helps to bring the other a little closer. If it isn’t this term, it will have to be another one, which will quickly be subjected to exactly the same assault. These negative associations have accumulated because too many of us are afraid to insist that being anti-sexist is part of being normal, because too often those who would like to maintain the status quo have control of the conversation. There’s only one word for the philosophy that demands one at least tries to get in their way. And it certainly isn’t bloody “womanism”.

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