Fifty Shades of Feminism, Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes & Susie Orbach

Four decades after the birth of Virago, writers explore the many meanings of feminism now

Helen Taylor
Monday 08 April 2013 11:45
Is the personal still political? American suffragette circa 1920
Is the personal still political? American suffragette circa 1920

On her first day as trainee barrister, a woman is asked by a man what the difference is between a woman and a shopping trolley. The answer: "A shopping trolley has a mind of its own." Martha Spurrier's anecdote is typical of the misogynistic anecdotes, historical facts and political realities faced on a daily basis by women across all societies, as related in this lively collection. How refreshing to read a book dedicated so lovingly to the hated "F-word," a term shunned by so many girls and women afraid of those familiar accusations of being (as Sharon Haywood reminds us) "man-hating, undesirable and humourless".

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To mark Virago's 40th birthday, the publisher has produced this collection of personal responses to the question, "What is feminism and what does it mean to you?" The 50-plus brief accounts, from successful and often celebrated women – selected to be multi-cultural, varied in class, age and sexual orientation (albeit mainly London-based) – all address the question with that familiar feminist mantra, "The personal is the political". They draw powerful lessons from exploitation and marginalisation, as well as violence towards women in families, workplaces and the public realms of law and politics, not to mention the spheres of theatre, fiction and pornography.

The spectre of the bestselling 50 Shades of Grey haunts the book, raising fresh issues about women's desire, romance, and the uncomfortable issue of pornography designed for women. The pressures on young women to adorn and pluck are well criticised in Alice Stride's passionate denunciation of her teenage sister's "identikit Topshop babe" aspirations, with stern words admonishing her for shaving her pubes, as well as Sandi Toksvig's horrified description of a young woman at a graduation ceremony being helped down cathedral steps by her parents because she couldn't walk in high heels.

There is a sometimes uneasy tension between women whose governments allow them little or no freedom of education, work or physical mobility, and Western women who consent or choose to bind and Botox their bodies for an increasingly critical male gaze. Many contributors offer a roll-call of the appalling lives of women across the world – abuse, coercion, rape, trafficking, genital mutilation and poverty. Several contributors remind us that women do two-thirds of the world's work and own 1 per cent of its wealth. Sayantani DasGupta warns Western-based feminists that denunciation of cultural practices such as genital cutting does not help activists on the ground, and advises us to listen and offer solidarity.

But the anger and resistance of feminism is the triumphant tone. Bidisha rejects the notion of greyness in favour of red, saying "Feminism is coloured the red of women's rage, women's despair, women's power, women's brilliance and women's ability to survive." Jude Kelly sees it as ideally "a big, bold, baggy overcoat that can accommodate each fully rounded female" .

The book has the optimistic air of early collections from the transatlantic Women's Liberation movement. Curiously, this is a hardback, which gives it a more formal appearance than the serendipitous collation warrants. But what a great book to dip into, full of wonderful life stories. Camilla Batmanghelidjh's aspiration speaks for all feminists: "Tangoing with compassion... while getting drunk on a thirst for excellence." Go, girls!

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