Sunday, 2 November 2014

Preaching feminism beyond the choir

Recently, I went along to ‘Shouting Back’ one of the London Thinks events at Conway Hall, which featured talks and discussions between prominent feminists Caroline Criado-Perez (co-founder of The Women's Room) and Laura Bates (of the Everyday Sexism Project).

Despite having long considered myself a feminist, this was the first organised, equality-focused event I’d ever been to. And I’m glad I did – aside from the generous provision of free booze and snacks (which always get my seal of approval), I learnt a heck of a lot. I hadn’t intended to, but as each speaker took to the stage, I was so struck by the facts they reeled off that I decided to jot some of them down:

  • There are five men for every one woman in parliament.
  • In the UK, 18 out of 100 high court judges are women – a statistic that makes us third last in the entire world.
  • Just one in ten engineers in Britain are women.
  • 80% of all experts quoted in the news are men.
  • 84% of news articles are written by men.
  • A woman is raped every six minutes in Britain. 
This was (I assume) a room full of feminists, well aware of the fact that while women might have the vote, and a place in life that isn’t  tied to the kitchen sink, there’s still a long way to go before we reach true equality. But while there were no audible gasps, there was still a definite frisson of shock around the room. A sense of, bloody hell, how can this still be?

Afterwards though, it occurred to me that in actual fact, the very event it was posed at went a long way to answering that question. Most of the people gathered at Conway Hall that evening had probably been following the work of Criado-Perez – who last year led a successful campaign to get a woman’s image onto the ten pound note – and Bates – whose Everyday Sexism project shines a light on the sexism and misogyny that women are still subjected to everyday - for a long time. 

And if they’re anything like me and the two friends I went along with, they probably follow countless feminists on Twitter, read feminist books and op-eds in the media, engage with the debate, and self-identify as feminists themselves. In essence, the speakers were pretty much preaching to choir.

There is undoubtedly a lot of good that can come from this. Arming those already converted to the cause with solid statistical evidence of inequalities can be helpful; from a personal point of view, I’ve already used some of the things I learnt to call out sexist arguments. Some people might even have come away from the event feeling mobilised to do something practical about it – to start their own feminist campaign or project.

But this idea of preaching to the choir still persists. For one thing, I could probably count the number of men at the event that evening on one hand. And the friend who invited me along knew that this was something I’d be really interested in – when perhaps our approach should instead have been to invite a friend who has never really shown any interest in feminism, who wouldn’t be able to tell her Germaine Greers from her Caitlin Morans, to allow her to hear exactly why feminism is still necessary.

Campaigns like Emma Watson’s recently launched He for She speak to this problem – helping to make feminism a palatable concept, rather than one that conjures images of bra burning man-haters. The recent spate of male politicians and celebrities sporting ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirts may also (theoretically at least) be helping to raise awareness, and feminism less of a taboo. 

But however much of a fine dandy Benedict Cumberbatch might look in his Whistles T-shirt, the fact remains that there’s still a lot to be done. And sitting at feminist events and nodding vehemently in agreement, then going home and doing nothing much about it, isn’t exactly going to help.

I’m not, unfortunately, suggesting that I’m doing anything particularly revolutionary myself. For true change to occur, I think a grassroots kind of approach would be best – for instance by providing an awareness of feminism in schools (most of which are still hotbeds of sexism, where talk of young girls being ‘frigid’ is still commonplace). Aside from a few forward-thinking English teachers, I think I went through my entire school experience having very little concept of it, and I think I would have been less likely to accept a lot of the shit directed towards most teenage girls (and onwards), had I been a little more aware. 

But until I figure out a way of personally helping to effect bigger change, I’m going to start simply by preaching beyond my own choir. Instead of limiting the chats I have about feminist topics to those who I know will share the same sentiment, I’ll make a conscious effort to involve my other friends. I won’t bother biting my tongue when I hear some bullshit sexist remark, for fear of coming off as strident or shrill. And if I do attend another event, I'll be looking beyond the usual suspects. So, if you're reading this and know me - prepare for a potential invite.