Sometimes my childhood seems like some sort of strange social experiment. I wasn’t allowed to draw stick-figures or colour in colouring books. I most definitely wasn’t allowed Barbie dolls. Care Bears and Jem and the Holograms were strictly forbidden. My mother shuddered at anything pink and frilly. I wasn’t allowed to become a gender-stereotype, even when I wanted to be. I was given Lego and blocks to play with. I was told to be creative – to colour in the whole sky in the pictures I drew, rather than just the thin line at the top.
When I was two or three I told my mum the Smurfs were sexist because there was only one girl. She stopped letting me watch it after that (little did I know that Smurfs are actually asexual, and Smurfette was created by Gargamel in one of his failed evil plans). I stopped telling her shows were sexist after that. At primary school, the word “sexist” didn’t go down very well. The other kids thought I was being naughty when I called them on their bigoted behavior: oooh, you said sex!
I’m allowed to draw stick-figures now
When I was about five I drew a picture of sexism, as I understood it. On one side of the paper I drew a girl wearing shorts and on the other side a girl wearing a skirt. The day I drew it I was at the University with mum because I was too sick to go to school. Mum was so proud she printed the picture onto an OHT and showed her students in class. I had to explain to the class that sexism was saying that girls couldn’t wear shorts and that they had to wear skirts. I was getting the hang of being a good feminist. I went to a talk about violent toys with my mother and grandmother one night and pointed out to the speaker that the Power-Rangers were sexist, because there were only two girls and their costumes were yellow and pink.
There was one situation where my own understanding of symbolic gender ambiguity got me into trouble, however. When I was about six, there was some event on at school. I was desperate to pee so I went into the office block and wandered down the unfamiliar hall-way looking for the toilet. The only one I could see had a picture of someone wearing pants. Women can wear pants too, I reasoned. This would have been fine if I wasn’t interrupted, half-way through, by kids who were outraged that I was in the men’s toilet. The humiliation was devastating. It’s hard to be a good feminist child when other people don’t grasp your sharp social critique.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realised some people didn’t like the word “feminist”, that it made them think of man-hating or other things they didn’t like, or that it is no-longer needed now that women can vote and do other things they couldn’t do before. The negative stereotypes around feminism are evidence that it is still needed. When I was teaching first year sociology I would ask the tutorial class “who here thinks women should be able to vote?” and when everyone raised their hands I would say “Oh good, so we’re all feminists here.” Sociologists like to mess with people’s conceptions of the world and shake things up a bit. Feminism is in the water, in that we take all the things it has worked to achieve for granted, but there is still so much more work to do. The difficult thing is that gender-discrimination is often covert nowadays. It comes out in rape-culture and the sexual objectification of women (and sometimes men), it is hidden behind those sleazy remarks that make us uncomfortable, it is still evident in horizontal and vertical gender segregation in paid work, it is compounded by poverty and racial discrimination, and it is global, in the two-billion women living below the poverty line. Identifying as a feminist is making a statement that things aren’t just fine and dandy. There is still more work to be done.