Amy Jenkins: Will powerful women please stop saying, 'I'm not a feminist, but...'

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The Independent Online

Gender Politics

Female Tory candidates standing for the first time in this election have made it pretty clear they don't want to be called "Cameron's Cuties".

But then it turns out they don't want to be called feminists either. Of six interviewed this week, only two – Joanne Cash and Kemi Adegoke – said they consider themselves feminists. The other four presumably resort to the well worn disclaimer: "I'm not a feminist, but." Like "I'm not a racist, but", these are five words that should have you running for the door.

"I'm not a feminist, but I don't want to be called a cutie." "I'm not a feminist, but I think Parliament shouldn't have such anti-social hours." "I'm not a feminist, but female MPs shouldn't be judged on their appearance." To the four deniers – um, sorry – but you are feminists. The personal is political, you see.

These are educated, motivated, politically involved women. Do they really think that the word "feminist" still means an angry man-hater in dungarees? A stereotype that barely existed in real life – and certainly didn't accurately describe the second-wave feminists who changed our lives forever in the seventies. But feminism, it seems, has been a dirty word ever since the bras were put back on – something it is dimly perceived that you are not meant to be, while all the while the received opinion goes unexamined. Luckily, the received opinion in this case is that women should be treated with respect, that they should have equal opportunities to govern the country, that they shouldn't be objectified – but – yell it from the rooftops - "I'm not a feminist!"

I say "luckily", but of course it isn't luck, is it? No, it's a hundred years of feminist discourse. It's Emily Pankhurst and the Suffragettes, it's Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan and the first woman doctor, the first woman MP. It's hunger strikes and marches and Spare Rib and Virago and a struggle that was hard won. It's a liberal consensus so established that aspiring women MPs are able to say "I'm not a feminist, but" without noticing how idiotic that seems.

Perhaps they think they're post-feminist. Some people think post-feminism means it's empowering to choose to stay at home with the kids or to go pole dancing, ie: wishful thinking. I think it means that there are women around now who have grown up with a sense of entitlement and don't have to fight the battle their forebears fought.

That's certainly my story. My step-mother brought me up to assume that I would earn my living and that my brain was equal in every way to a man's. (Well – actually – that's a lie. She brought me up to think my brain was superior in some respects; the ability to multi-task, for example, and the ability to set the VCR to record – a skill my father never mastered.) That idiosyncrasy aside, I was introduced to an egalitarian world of opportunity, or so it seemed. I naturally wore mini-skirts and lipstick with the rest of them and expected equal treatment as my birthright. I didn't bother to read the feminist texts. Why bother when there was so much flirting to do?

In my twenties I moved on from the girly "best friends" of my teen years and prided myself on all the male friends I had. Looking back I suppose that other women just seemed like too much competition. Being "post-feminist" I didn't have a political lens through which to view my personal decisions

Then I got married and had a child and things changed. Firstly, I sought out the "sisterhood" again. Secondly, I watched Mary Poppins about 50,000 times. The mother in Mary Poppins – you may recall – is a suffragette and she sings the following: "Our daughters' daughters will adore us and they'll sing in grateful chorus: Well done! Sister Suffragettes!"

I couldn't help noticing that no one was singing anything about poor old Mrs Pankhurst. In fact, she was barely remembered. I went out and bought lots of books. I found out all about the Pankhursts and the Suffragette movement and it was fascinating. Then I moved on to the Seventies feminists and they were great too – and still around. I went to meet as many of them as I could and they were the kindest, most decent, most gentle and thoughtful bunch of women you could ever hope to find. I wished they were all my best friends. Most importantly I realised that feminism was fun.

I also realised there's no such thing as "post". A war of a sort may have been won, but bloody skirmishes continue. The real reason people say "I'm not a feminist, but" is fear. We live in a society that ostensibly values equality, but all women know that they risk being vilified if they step out of line. "I'm not a feminist, but" is code for: I am a feminist but I'm fearful of the terrible rage that is poured out towards women who seem angry or presumptuous or who have a little cellulite.

Please don't clip Kirsty's wings

Role Models

I have written about how Kirsty Moore, the first woman Red Arrows pilot, was nominated as a role model on the brilliant Pinkstinks website. It campaigns against the genderisation of toys and successes include getting Sainsbury's to re-label their kids' dressing-up clothes as unisex. Previously, doctors outfits were labelled as being for boys. Now Pinkstinks have heard from the MOD who have decided they don't want Kirsty Moore to be a role model on the site and have refused to supply a photo. The irony is that one of the costumes Sainsbury's previously labelled as for boys was a pilot's outfit. Pinkstinks is working to help young girls realise the dream. Don't the Red Arrows want more like Kirsty?

How Jamie ended up being able to do no wrong


If you read Naomi Klein's No Logo then you might be forgiven for thinking that brands are a bad thing. But what about a "good brand"? PSFK, a hip consultancy in New York – has declared the solidly British Jamie Oliver the third best brand in the world. He was beaten only by Google and Apple. PFSK asked their team of experts – "culture-creators, cross-discipline professionals and trends researchers" (and two or three professors of jargon?) – what made a good brand and the answer came back: something that not only fulfils a need but improves people's lives.

The report calls Jamie not a chef but an author, TV show host and "mobile application steward" – whatever that may be. They say he "owns a personal brand of better habits" and inspires people by cultivating community. What they mean is - he is a personal brand of better habits. Jamie is healthy eating. He's like that little "TM" that hovers over everything big and American that's a brand. When you're cooking sea bass that little "JO" is hovering – top right-hand corner. So healthy eating is no longer something that you do, they'd have us believe – it's a brand, it's an identity. You can almost hear the cash registers ringing. Corporate America rejoices. Now you can brand a carrot. And meanwhile the population get fatter and fatter.

A great example of 21st-century patriotism


Jane Root, once the controller of BBC2, has pulled off something of a coup with her new documentary series. It's a history of America, and the show – made mostly by Brits for the History channel in the US – has received validation at the very highest level.

Remember the way Tales Of The Unexpected was introduced by Roald Dahl in an armchair? Well America, The Story Of Us is going to be introduced by President Obama. The channel stresses that the show is the story of "all of us" – ie – not just white America. Root admits to being astounded that Obama agreed to the gig but says: "Having passed healthcare, the administration is on an up, and I think the inclusiveness of the whole approach impressed the President. We call it '21st-century patriotism' – everyone can be proud of being American, but not pretending the bad bits didn't happen."