Monday, 20 May 2013
Kate Garraway is 'encouraging women to think about their fertility earlier in life after struggling to conceive at 45', and has been photographed made up to look like a pregnant 70-year-old to 'provoke debate' about what we think about when we think of 'older mothers'. She's an ambassador for Get Britain Fertile, a new campaign set to launch next month with a tour of the country, all 'powered by' First Response, the makers of pregnancy tests who, according to their website, 'want to be the first to advise you on getting fertility fit'.
This isn't the first time that some debate we're supposed to be having has turned out to be sponsored by some company with a product to sell. There's been a poll, of course. It's found that seven in ten women feel that having a baby in your 40s is 'too old'. Why the need, then, to have Garraway fronting the whole thing pretending to be a pregnant 70-year-old? As is generally the way, it's done the trick, and I've spotted people from student websites to various feminist blogs and, predictably, Mumsnet, discussing whether or not women need to be told to think about having children at a younger age.
Last year it was reported that the average woman in the UK gives birth to her first child at the age of 30. I’m not sure that there is, as some people seem to think, widespread ignorance about fertility. For every person who hasn’t really thought about the fact that fertility in women declines with age, there are many more that worry about it more with every passing year - even, as readers of these articles about Get Britain Fertile might be surprised to hear - women in their 20s. It seems patronising to assume that 'today's woman' doesn't give a thought to what her ovaries might be up to until it's 'too late'. For many women, I expect that everything else just gets in the way. Time passes by incredibly quickly when you're navigating our way through life's ups and downs. Being 'child-free by circumstance' is a Thing.
Judging from the reactions to the upcoming campaign it looks like encouraging women to have children when at their peak fertility is not the main issue to be addressed – this is backed up by the survey results, which indicated that women put pregnancy on hold due to their financial situation, or because they want to find the right partner. Many women would like to have children in their 20s, but are all too aware of the other pressures they face: finding a job that pays enough or an employer that will be supportive enough if they choose to have a child, for example. Affording childcare (the most expensive childcare in Europe, no less); support from family; actually being in a relationship, or achieving certain relationship milestones – living together, getting married, getting over financial hurdles. If these things stop women from having children when they want them, what are we doing to address it all?
I waited to try for a baby until I felt 'ready'. Yet there were other factors involved too - earning enough money to pay for childcare, and the fact I was keen to get a decent amount of experience in the workplace and off the bottom rung of the career ladder before I contemplated maternity leave. I had The Fear, that without being in the right sort of job first I would be expendable, disrespected, stuck in an unfulfilling job for years. The recession compounded that fear. Just before we made the decision to start trying to conceive, I remember sitting in a pub with Luke, 'calming' large glass of wine in one hand, reeling off a list of baby-related worries as long as my arm. Most of them involved money.
As women, all these ‘problems’ are highlighted to us over and over by the very same newspapers that warn us not to 'leave it too late'. As several women discussing it on Mumsnet posted, as younger women of the 1980s and 1990s, it was impressed upon them that getting pregnant 'young' was to be avoided at all costs – it would tie them down and ruin their lives as well as their careers. No, the ideal as they were sold it was to have everything else in place first: job, house, a good man, life experience, travel. As a teenager and in my early twenties I was the same and it remains a concern for a lot of women I know. By all means have children, we're told, but certain things must be achieved beforehand, the reasoning being that having a baby means you won’t be able to do these things any more.
This may be where we’re going wrong. It’s widely acknowledged that in the UK and the US we have this ‘total motherhood’ approach to parenting that makes women feel guilty and pressured from the moment they get a positive pregnancy test. Everyone who has given birth remembers the knowing remarks of other mothers, telling you that once your child has arrived you won’t have time to do anything any more, you won’t have time to relax, you won’t have time to have fun.
Women are made to feel guilty about sitting reading a magazine while their baby plays independently in the same room, or leaving them to cry for three minutes while they make a sandwich. The message is clear: children mean that life as you’ve known it is over – and that means hobbies, relaxation, and enjoyment. Children mean that you give your all to your child, and if you don’t you’d better feel bad about it. If you don’t want to go back to work you’d better feel bad about giving up on your career or inconveniencing your employer – but if you do, you’d best start beating yourself up about not being there for your child 24/7. Children will put strain on your relationship, your sex life, and your body. They’ll use up all your cash. It's a miserable state of affairs and one that, I think, has been exaggerated to the point that we need to step back and see it for what it is: that yes, children will bring enormous changes to your life and new responsibilities and pressures, but they won't ruin your life.
Is it any wonder that some people feel in a permanent state of not being ‘ready’ for a baby? For those of us who do feel ‘ready’, we have to be careful that we’re the right sort of potential mother. Teenagers, working class women, the poor and women of colour get criticised on a regular basis, while hands are wrung every time a middle class woman is interviewed about having ‘left it too late’. Particularly young women can't possibly feel ready to have children, some people say - yet at the same age they're also told they can't possibly have decided that they definitely don't want children either.
Zita West, pregnancy guru to the stars and another ambassador for Get Britain Fertile, is quoted saying "Women need support at all ages before they conceive", suggesting that the campaign has more of a focus on women preparing their bodies for pregnancy. It's support that should be the overarching theme here. Support, a better deal for women, an end to patronising nonsense that insinuates we don't know our own minds, an outlook on 'starting a family' that actually focuses on men and the part they have to play rather than blaming women at every turn for whatever their newest supposed 'problem' is. Making people feel judged for valid choices they've made about the age at which to have children - or not have children - will never do any good at all.
Sunday, 28 April 2013
This week we've heard that journalist Charlotte Raven is relaunching Spare Rib magazine. Reactions so far show that people don't seem too sure about what this means. Some are excited - and with good reason; the idea of a feminist magazine sitting "alongside Cosmo on the newsagent's shelf" is what many have wanted for years. Others are troubled - and queasy - at the idea of a launch event involving George Galloway and Rod Liddle dressed in costume and serving drinks (although it's currently unclear whether or not this is Raven's idea of a joke).
Putting that thought out of our minds for a moment, however, there are a lot of things to look forward to about the promise of a feminist magazine in print. Its tagline, 'Life not lifestyle', is a great nod to the fact that issues affecting women are invariably consigned to the 'lifestyle' sections of newspapers and websites. Its founder is citing Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman as inspiration for what she wants Spare Rib to be.
"SR will revive the spirited and soulful vision of feminism that SR once embodied, not the timid liberal one that dominates the mainstream media," said Raven this week, something that again should be something to look forward to, as long as the magazine doesn't become, like the mainstream media, a place for cliques of privileged friends to write about a narrow range of issues and speak up for each other at the expense of those who are less well-known, causes that are less fashionable, and groups of people who are less privileged.
That's probably something we should be wary of, with talk of the magazine as a 'member's organisation' according privileges to those who can afford to donate more than £100 to the cause, and monthly 'immersive theatre events' open to members only. Of course I'll have to reserve judgment on this point until the magazine gets up and running, but the red flag is there.
Sophie Wilkinson, writing for the Observer today, welcomes Spare Rib's return, but not just because there hasn't been a feminist magazine on the shelves for years. No, it's because it will provide an antidote to 'internet feminism'. In the past year, 'internet feminism' has become a catch-all term for over-the-top drama, Twitter bullying, hounding of journalists, the ostracising of women who aren't the 'right sort', and behaviour that's supposedly putting a whole generation of women off supporting the movement. While you can't deny that drama has occurred, the 'internet feminist' is threatening becoming another strawfeminist, the updated version of the dungaree-clad man-hater wielding a bra and a blowtorch.
Wilkinson describes the internet as a place where "lazy clicks equal approval, retweets supersede debate, feminism is twisting and turning in on itself". She writes about the way the internet, though a force for good that has had a democratising effect, has ultimately led to women being less supportive of each other, of more fractured debate. Spare Rib, she hopes, will save us all from internet feminism, a "guiding light" and voice of reason in a time of "idle clicktivism".
It's sad that in lampooning online activism she's failed to take into account the fact that much of this is related to, or translates into offline action from groups and individuals that have used the internet to come together, share information, and gather support. The internet is a space where we can learn about things that fall outside our life experiences and our comfort zones. It is a place where women who struggle to do much offline activism due to their location or their health or their job or their family circumstances can do something, and this is a point that must never be forgotten or dismissed.
In suggesting that feminism today has little to do with 'genuine activism', Wilkinson sadly ignores everything taking place across the country at grassroots level, the networks and organisations and campaigns, and focuses on Twitter-based so-called 'infighting' as the reason that the magazine will be a breath of fresh air. It's also ridiculous to assume that a more 'reasoned' approach to feminist thought in printed form wouldn't be divisive. The minute Spare Rib is published, people will be poring over it, ready to write and talk about which bits they liked, which bits they hated, which bits they felt were problematic. As someone who read the original said to me this morning, the letters page of the magazine in the 1980s was continually full of argument.
Sometimes it may feel as if circular 'dramas' involving the same 20 people are dominating 21st century feminist discourse, but the actions of countless women everywhere else should demonstrate otherwise. We're going to have to wait to see what Spare Rib will become, but in the meantime it's probably best if we don't position it as the saviour of a movement represented by clicktivism and Vagenda.
Sunday, 24 March 2013
Giles Fraser has ruffled feathers with an evangelical-baiting piece for Comment is Free, published on Friday. People are angry and I think that's entirely justified. Fraser uses his platform to unleash a bit of a rant about "Jesus-lite" - a brand of evangelicalism, as he sees it, that majors on cheesy platitudes, superiority, and theological misunderstanding. The image of Ned Flanders is invoked. He shoehorns in a bit of scaremongering about Holy Trinity Brompton, in keeping with the media trend of portraying the church - and the clergy associated with it - as some sort of terrifying evangelical conspiracy. Creeping Alpha, if you like.
I found Fraser's words slightly too nasty to be credible and at times, just bizarre. He's got issues with the way he thinks evangelicals view Easter. And he worries that the pain, suffering, and doubt associated with Jesus's story has been forgotten as they focus on sunny smiles and success. One of my main issues with what he's saying is that he should know better than to write something completely without nuance in a way that panders to mainstream media and public perceptions of what evangelicalism entails. A large, influential church like HTB is always going to divide opinions - people will have had good and bad experiences with it, and there's no doubt that many members of its congregation reflect its affluent location. But that's not the full story, of course, and it feels unfair.
A lot of people are upset that Fraser appears to be simply looking for controversy, but the piece has hit home for some Christians. I think they have a point and that Fraser could have made a better one too, if he'd articulated it differently. Differently, perhaps, like Dave Meldrum did in this excellent post last year, entitled "(Not so) happy clappies". Dave's assessment of the friction that comes with being charismatic, evangelical, and depressed is spot on, and he manages to talk about the way the subculture can make him feel without sneering. It's also not all bad - he talks about increasing emotional depth in some of the services he has attended, and greater willingness to talk about difficult issues without needing a cheerful veneer. Becoming a Christian isn't about all your problems getting solved and never feeling sad again, and this is an attitude we should always counter.
It's these things that have made some people I know identify with Fraser's piece, with its reference to Christians who can be "patronising, superior and faux-caring", who promise to pray for you when you disagree with them and can't - or won't - engage with anything that isn't on-message, upbeat, and joyful.
Over the past couple of days we've talked about leadership teams running away from addressing problems, dismissive attitudes towards mental health issues, refusal to listen to concerns, irritation at constantly being told to "focus on the positives", and constant streams of platitudes that can just get too much. I was reminded of the time I was asked whether my being a feminist could be contributing to my feeling depressed, and the frustration I felt that no matter how many times people told me I was "God's beautiful princess", I didn't feel the same. I was reminded of my sadness at superior attitudes towards other denominations and traditions (admittedly something that Christians of all types are guilty of, from Giles Fraser through to the people who say traditional churches are "dead" and "make them shudder"). Sometimes there's nothing worse than sitting in church feeling as if you're supposed to cheer up and stop moping because you're letting the side down. And a lot of people can identify with that.
What's clear is that "Cheesus" culture is real and that it does hurt people and make them run away from church. It can be bloated, self-satisfied, focused on marketing and projecting an image that can cease to come across as sincere and look instead like constant advertisement, laying it on thick and trying to prove a point. What's also clear is that this needs addressing in a sensitive way, rather than pandering to people who can't see the good in the church at all. Evangelicals can see through Cheesus too, and plenty of them are even fighting him all the way.
Further reading: David Bunce has written a great post addressing all the issues raised here.
Thursday, 21 March 2013
I've been talking to friends this week about having writer's block. Posts on here have tailed off of late and there are several reasons why. I returned to work last month and things have been busy. Settling into being back in the office plus being a parent AND having a life is tiring and time consuming - who'd have thought it? It means I think about writing posts then realise I won't be able to do so in a timely fashion. It means I miss out on news. It means I think about it too much and get frustrated.
Not writing as much means my perfectionist side comes out when I actually think about blogging. Over the past couple of weeks I've agonised over exactly how I'm going to write about several things, only to give up because if they're not going to be good, I'm not going to bother. I like a lot of the posts that I've written immediately as thoughts have come to me - the words flow easily and as they've generally been posts in response to something that's either just happened or is still happening, they're easy to write.
When you don't have the time and the energy, posts don't come as easily any more. It's hard for me not to beat myself up about this. But I think there's also a weariness as well, that's come out of some of the things that have been happening over the past year.
I've thought about expanding more on my final column for BitchBuzz, about how you shouldn't fear the Evil Twitter Feminist and how you can get past the drama surrounding debate about certain issues. I've thought about it but it's really hard, because as someone else was saying to me today, there needs to be some sort of a third way.
At the moment we have one 'side' writing articles every few weeks about the nasty, elitist divisiveness of the feminists on Twitter who talk about intersectionality and privilege, and in response we have the other side justifiably getting irritated by blinkered and often offensive refusal to engage with the idea that they need to listen to diverse points of view. It's a vicious circle and every few days something else is stoking the fires again, yet there's little moving forward precisely because some people won't engage except to mock and snipe and it in turn makes some other people really angry.
I've thought about writing again about the need for more prominence of nuanced discussion in the abortion debate. It's there. You don't have to look hard to find women talking about why reproductive rights doesn't just mean the right to terminate a pregnancy because their experiences are of forced abortion and forced sterilisation and forced adoption thanks to their race or their class or their family situation. You don't have to look hard to find people talking about why 'pro-life' needs to be a more wide-ranging concept and asking where the compassion for women is in all of this. You don't have to look hard to find women wondering why some activists have a whole lot to say about not wanting to keep a child, but virtually nothing to say about the fact that four out of five women will at some point have children and that many, many feminists issues will affect them because of this.
I've thought about writing on my evolving feelings about church and the Christian community and the Christian blogosphere and the pressures and the trends and the loneliness of the past year and my thankfulness for online community, but that's really hard too. A fellow Christian blogger recently wrote about how difficult he was finding attending church; he followed this up with a post about how uncomfortably vulnerable it had made him feel. As "professional Christians" we struggle to truly articulate our feelings about church a lot of the time. We think about who's following us on Twitter; who might see the post shared on Facebook. What our friends might think and the problem that so many people seem to have with questioning. The way that someone, somewhere, is bound to say "If you have a problem with the church the problem probably lies with you!" The fact that a lot of people will judge you because you're not supposed to ask questions.
I will say this: I have felt deeply unenthusiastic. I have felt lonely. I have felt irritable, overtired, overwhelmed, antisocial, unsupported, invisible, disappointed, and sad for people I know who have felt the same. On the other hand I still know God is there - no doubt about it. I've felt affirmed, encouraged, loved, and grateful. So it's not all doom and gloom. But it's damn hard when you usually process things by writing about them and feel you can't. Who would have thought that I wouldn't want to rock the boat?
I've considered writing about a lot of things and haven't managed it - until tonight. And while this post is no substitute, really, I'm publishing it to remind myself that I've still got something going on between my ears.
Monday, 11 March 2013
Things have been a bit quiet here recently but I've been popping up elsewhere:
- I wrote a piece for the Guardian women's blog about the Christian Feminist Network (CFN) and the need for women to challenge patriarchal religion from within.
- I took part in a lengthy email conversation with Phil Whittall, who blogs as The Simple Pastor. Phil identifies as complementarian and the purpose of our conversation was for us to talk about gender issues in a non-confrontational way. We discussed feminism, the blogosphere, and the church's attitude towards gender issues. He has posted the conversation as a blog series.
- I wrote about busting myths and misconceptions about feminists for Threads, in a piece called "So you have concerns about feminism?" which was published on International Women's Day.
Saturday saw CFN attending Million Women Rise as a group for the very first time, complete with banners that we made at a pre-march breakfast. It was a great day with a brilliant atmosphere and we were pleased that the banners received a lot of positive attention.
Wednesday, 27 February 2013
This is my son. He's nine and a half months old and at the moment his favourite things are hugs, clapping his hands, and toys that make noise. One day, however, he will be a man.
For me, one of the most important things that's at stake when we talk about feminism is our future - my son's future, the future of the next generation of men. I hope I'll try my hardest to instill into him the equality and worth of all humanity, the importance of justice for the oppressed and the way women and girls deserve to be treated. Not with a respect that's really benevolent sexism, a respect that puts good women on pedestals and sneers at the rest, but with the respect of someone who truly understands mutuality. If it works, he'll be a good man and I'll be proud.
However, it's not just about him. It's about the men and women he'll know and hang out with and be influenced by and the things he'll read in the press and see going on around him. What's at stake is the idea of a future where people talking about gender equality aren't constantly asked to justify and "prove" why women should be treated as equals. It's the idea of a future where "What about the men?" isn't a Thing and widely believed rape myths aren't a Thing and people laughing off crime statistics as tales made up by "lying sluts" aren't a Thing. Where a week can go by without the news telling us about gang rape and campus rape, and Facebook jokes about rape jokes aren't a Thing.
What's at stake is a future without gaps: pay gaps, education gaps, gaps in access to maternal healthcare, to criminal justice, representation gaps in our governments. Gaps in our churches where women should be free to be the person they were made to be.
When the church pushed back against gender equality, a movement emerged. Today, numerous children of that movement - women my age - are writing about the churches, families, and organisations they have left behind. Often, they've also left their beliefs behind in the process. Yet you don't have to go as far as the Patriarchy movement to find women who have lost their faith because they've had too much experience of a church that won't talk about equality, doesn't believe in it, or dismisses women who don't fit a specific set of characteristics. This is what's at stake - it brings new meaning to the way people say that gender isn't a "salvation issue".
One day, I hope, all this will be a thing of the past. And maybe my son will see it.
Welcome to Day 2 of the Feminisms Fest synchroblog on the topic “Why Feminism Matters.”Link up below on fromtwotoone.com, considering these questions: What is at stake in this discussion? Why is feminism important to you? Are you thinking about your children or your sisters or the people that have come before you? Or, why do you not like the term? What are you concerned we’re not focusing on or we’re losing sight of when we talk about feminism? Why do you feel passionately about this topic?
Tuesday, 26 February 2013
I've just been writing a post, soon to be published on Threads, about the negative stereotypes and misconceptions people hold about feminism and how they can generally be debunked. I chose to do this as a response to the awkward silences that often happen when feminism is mentioned and outright dismissive attitudes towards gender equality from within the church. Don't get me wrong, I know it's of great concern to a lot of people, but in this respect the church often mirrors society with its fear of the bogeymen (women? Womyn?) of man-haters, female supremacists, and power-hungry women with an agenda.
I'm choosing to focus on the positives of my feelings about feminism today because at times when I was feeling alone in my worries and my concerns, I discovered that feminists were my people. They were my people when I was a student, experiencing misogyny and miserable about my body image and eating habits. They were my people five years later when I was wrestling with whatever the hell "Biblical Womanhood" meant, and how I was supposed to model it. They've been my people this past year as I've given birth, taken time off work, and (as of last week!) returned to the office.
My feminism grew out of anger and hurt at injustice. Feminists are always described as "angry"or "raging", because we know those are terrible insults when aimed at a woman, and people think that treating us as unseemly and unladylike might shut us up. As the anti-feminist propaganda used to say much more often and as you sometimes still hear: "Why can't they just be happy with being women? Why do they want to be like men?" People expect us to have sanitised, uncontroversial opinions about the experiences of our sisters, in case we upset anyone.
If you spoke in a nicer tone of voice...
If you could just sound less emotional...
If these harpies didn't give feminists a bad name...
The very first feminist blogs I read were radical feminist ones, most of them now defunct, some long gone thanks to attacks and continued conflict. In other words, the angry kind. Here were women describing how I felt, feeling anger like my own, talking about things that made me upset because my friends saw them as no big deal and looked faintly embarrassed that I was being like that again.
Ten years after I first encountered feminism, the anger and hurt is still there but so is a sense of community, of positivity, of achievement. Feminism found me when I was in a bad place and helped me to understand why I felt the way I did. It helped me to understand oppression. It helped me to like other women and develop a supportive and compassionate attitude towards them rather than one of suspicion, jealousy, and competition. It helped me to understand the perspectives of others and recognise my privilege as something to learn from rather than something to get defensive about. It introduced me to activism, to marches and conferences and networks, to new friends.
Yes, our anger needs to be righteous, with a point. It needs to make a better way. But the idea that feeling angry, or hurt, or emotional about gender equality is somehow wrong and marks us out as lesser beings is just another way of telling women that their opinions don't count. Through working towards justice and equality for women, it can actually be productive. And it needs to be, because there is still so far to go. It's abundantly clear from recent conversations on Christian blogs that a lot of people still need to look past the stereotypes and listen to those who do.
This is Day 1 of Feminisms Fest. Today we are linking up at J.R. Goudeau’s blog, loveiswhatyoudo.com to write about these questions: What is your experience with feminism? What’s a story or a memory or a person that you associate with that word? Why does it have negative or positive connotations for you? How do you define the term, either academically or personally? What writers have you read whose definitions you want to bring out? Or, if you don’t have a definition, what are some big questions you have? Be sure to use the hashtag #femfest when sharing your posts.