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Next generation of young women needs to get the feminist fight going again

Posted on 10 March 2013 | 11:03am

At 55, I am lucky enough still to have three generations of women in my family life; an elderly but fit mother, in her 80s; a partner of the same age as me with whom, I worked out the other day, I have now spent around one fifth of my life asleep; and a daughter aged 18 who is discovering her own voice and opinions, and making something of them.

On this, Mother’s Day, I thought I would give over my blog to the last of these three, whose blog suggests to me that she might follow me and her Mum down the journalism route after she has finished her studies. On verra.

She wrote the piece below for her own blog, farfromgrace.org, to coincide with International Women’s Day. (and if you scroll down a bit on her site, you will see a very nice piece she wrote about her own Mum and grandmother recently)

I quoted her on the gap between equal rights and equal worth at a panel discussion on International Women’s Day on Friday, where I made the point that women are too accepting, still, of male domination in politics, business and culture more generally. Feminism seems to have stalled a bit, and established power elites (not least here in the UK with our Bullindgon government, but also in the US via the right-wing Supreme Court) are re-asserting themselves. So it looks like it will be up to the next generation to rekindle the flames of a good old fight.

‘I was born 18 years ago, into a world where times are changing. The glass ceiling was said to have been lifted. For women like my mother, opportunities were lush compared to the drought of the last century. Supposedly, women had been granted equal rights. Unfortunately, I grew up to learn that equal rights do not guarantee equal value.

I found myself in a world where women were being objectified and scrutinised over their looks. My life was situated in a cell of media influence and imaging which was hard to escape. My eyes and ears feasted on this concept of the ideal woman. She is pretty, slim, and her silky hair falls effortlessly down her back. She watches me from billboards and magazine covers. When in doubt, the advice from the media is to be more like this ‘femme parfaite.’ But what am I if I am not and will never be this woman? What if I don’t want to be her? Is my life going to remain unfulfilled?

For a girl today, society is a confusing place. We are encouraged to aim high, yet our self esteem is conditioned to be low. We are educated that in this day and age we can go on to achieve anything a man can do, without the limitations that our ancestors were blocked by. Yet, when attempting to chase this ambition, we are reminded that we belong to the gender which is so greatly patronised by the media. This image of a sexualised woman means that we are introduced to the harsh truth that many men do not welcome women into powerful positions. To my sadness, there exist women who accept this as their fate because it is what they have learnt is acceptable.

This leaves young women wondering where they stand. How do we nurture our ambitions with the outer voices whispering that you’re ‘just a woman’?

Ambition is a value that has long been claimed by men. In this legally equal world, men are the leaders, while women are still expected to be the carers and even the aesthetical pleasers. Ours ear hear men speak, while our eyes watch and judge women.

I want to know where lies the voice of a girl. Who speaks for her? Women today are largely unrepresented throughout institutions which mould our society. When we look at Parliament, our government, the boards of major companies, or powerful figures in media and culture, it is hard to escape that we are still stuck in a man’s world.

Children grow up imitating the roles they see in their childhood. If this male domination remains, patriarchal values will be placed into the minds of our future leaders and powerful figures, meaning that change won’t come.

If we want to eliminate these inequalities, successful and powerful women need to be embraced and placed as role models.

Young girls go through years of seeking the perfection which is defined by the media. Unfortunately, this perfection doesn’t exist. We are all imperfect. Woman have flaws, just like men. However, the most tragic flaw which embodies millions of women, is the misunderstanding of their worth. There are many young girls who feel that this beautiful perfection is the only one worth seeking.

I don’t want future generations of girls to be plagued by the question of ‘what am I if I’m a woman?’ The answer to this questions is that being a woman should not make any difference to what you can achieve. Women and men have been granted equal rights so women will use it and move forward in this process of achieving true equality.

One day the term sexist will have died its death because we will no longer need to say this word aloud. Until then we must encourage women to ignore limitations and know their worth as a human being.

Happy international women’s day boys and girls!’

  • E Mooney

    Brilliantly written piece. If I had a daughter I would encourage her to read it and take strength from it. I watched that fantastic film “Made in Dagenham” yesterday so reading this piece from Grace really resonates. Keep it coming please:-)

  • Perceptive and very well written. Obviously takes after her mother!

  • Dave Simons

    I saw ‘Made in Dagenham’ a while ago and when it had finished the audience, myself included, stood up and clapped. There were anachronisms in the film – for instance hot pants hadn’t reached Dagenham in 1968 (I would have noticed if they had, for I lived in Barking and Goodmayes, and remember their first appearance in 1970). But it was such a relief to see ‘ordinary people’, and especially ‘ordinary women’, taking on the corporates and winning (with a bit of help from Barbara Castle). But things move forward and then move backward. One decade we get Women against Pit Ciosures, then another decade we get women protesting outside schools in South Yorkshire because their obese children are being ‘force-fed’ healthy food as opposed to chips, crisps, sugary drinks and burghers. I often watch Channel 4 News and catch the end of ‘Hollyoaks’, a programme targetted at today’s teenagers and twentysomethings, and I wonder if I’m in a time warp – is this where forty plus years of feminist revival have led?

  • Sarah Dodds

    As a mum of four who is setting up her own business while holding elected office, I am all too aware of the juggles and struggles of attempting the feminist balancing act.

    My words to my 18 year old self would be…..

    a) Don’t let anyone define succes for you. I have chosen to have four kids, who now range from 4 to 13. They are utterly, utterly wonderful and my main source of joy. I gave up working full time to be with them as little ones. That was right for me, and right for us. It was also the single most powerful thing I have done to change the world. I have been blessed with the chance to follow my own path entirely here. Do what is right for you and your kids (if you even want them!) Define your own success.

    b) Challenge the sexism. I have never encountered more “everyday sexism” than in local government once elected. To my amazement when first elected, I found that on agendas, minutes and in meetings I was a “Councillor Mrs.” It took an early meeting with the Chief Executive, in which I assured him that the extra layer of vulnerability the constant references to my sex and marital status highlighted was entirely illusionary, to try and stop it. Eventually, after about a year, we got to a council meeting where I was finally a simple Councillor (and not a “Councillor Mrs”) for the entire meeting. Sadly, the majority of the other female Councillors (and there are not that many on this council!) are happy to keep with “Councillor Mrs.” But that is their choice!

    c) ….which brings me to me next point. Other women. They can be part of the problem, when all of them should be part of the solution. It is not good enough, in most cases, for women to bemoan sexism as something that is done to them by men. Although it is. Many of the glass ceilings that are still around are installed by men but other women help to keep them in place. Some are happy to define themselves in the terms set by men. On the other hand other women will make you feel that you are letting the side down if you take my parenting path. The best way to combat this is to nurture and treasure relationships with any woman who is willing to do her thing, and let you do yours. My friendships with other strong women have given me the identity and strength to create my own path, and love every minute of doing so.

    d) Feminism is not about success in career, in competing with men / and or other women. Feminism will only have reached it’s own full potential when women can choose their own paths, however ambitious or otherwise in a wordly sense, without the mockers from both sexes jeering on. Sadly, sometimes that still seems far away.

  • Dave Simons

    Referring to point ‘b’ we still have a mixed second chamber called ‘The House of Lords’, and female Councillors are often elected as ‘Lord Mayors’ with male ‘Consorts’. Come to think of it we are the ‘United Kingdom’, even though the last king died in 1952! I’m not surprised that when you get into the sticks of Lincolnshire you get ‘Councillor Mrs’. I think the UK is run by old boys’ clubs, Westminster being a big one, and when you get into the countryside you soon realise that feudalism did not end with the emancipation of the serfs in the early fifteenth century. Nice to hear from you, Sarah, and nice to meet you a year ago!

  • Michele

    It is a puzzle isn’t it, I often feel like slapping myself at my reactions to women who’ve done well in the media, especially on BBC.

    Some have certainly been placed but really shouldn’t be role models.

    Joan Bakewell remains one of the best (despite the plum) but I’ve screamed at the box for years re the mannered delivery from Sarah Dunant that just isn’t softening at all. A certain American professor that’s often on review programmes, always sitting down but still in silly heels. As for Christina Patterson and her whiney whingey squeaky baby voice Aaaaaaagh.

    I’m off …. when Sarah Montague repeatedly asked Renzo Piano recently ‘But why is it so tall?’ re The Shard …… she must have asked him six or seven times, he looked about to suffocate on incredulity! Like the crystal top should be erm ….. lower?

    We do have some really good women commentators in the world of economics though and that clever American IT woman Prof Alex …. ?? is very interesting although I usually don’t have a clue what she’s on about but don’t compare her to blokes.

  • Michele

    Ever g*bby 🙁

    Down to something or other …. maybe so many St. 5 espressos this morning!

    It’s occurred to me that one of the differences in the last few decades of equal opps is that in fact women in some roles have been ‘allowed’ something more than the men in similar roles and it’s not necessarily a gift.

    We go in the bank or the PO or public transport or dept stores and staff are mostly uniformed so we have a narrower field by which to compare the work or be distracted by gender.

    Listen to radio and we assess presenters and interviewees by their material unless their accent is ‘put on’ (like that of someone recently departed).

    When we watch the box or assess people IRL we do so with extra info about them, how they look, what their taste is like, how smart they are re their health and weight etc.

    We assess Paxo etc on what they say, aren’t diverted by their choice in clothes (although some have been by Jon [sp?] Snow’s many ties).

    I must admit that I’m often disappointed though by the women presenters on these programmes that look as if they’ve just nipped in for an hour from the wine bar downstairs. Why do they have this ‘freedom’ to be more than the job role?

    Do they regard their image as more important than the role?
    Are they being ‘allowed’ to be less than serious about it so we won’t take them as seriously as blokes who’re restricted to more standard attire?
    I doubt Paxo would be allowed to present in his Bermudas ….

    Should we be distracted by the choices they make so that a new component (ie: their taste, themself) is brought in to the assessment vs: simply how they do the job?

    I was struck (or gobstruck) last night by Q. Time, the comparison between two serious women politicians and the third woman panellist (A. Platell) who’d gone seriously overboard in the image stakes. Perhaps her tactic (like that of the Wail itself) is distraction from what she was saying (it nearly worked).

  • Michele

    On the subject of Dr Alex (who I see is actually Aleks ——-YUK I hope she’s kicked her namer/s)

    this programme was on this afternoon and should be on iPlayer by now.

    Very interesting (and thank gawd she doesn’t have to mention Annardicker once!).

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s7yyt

    All about the addictiveness of gabbing over the net and open to all ……
    I’m only half-listening some of the time so am not sure whether this is the programme that was also about the IMpossibility of deleting uploads one regrets ….. they get on to too many servers for it to be easily do-able 🙁