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What Is a Guilty Feminist?
I’m a feminist but when I was choosing a new headshot, I asked my husband, “Does this photo of me look a bit ‘Dove campaign for real beauty’?” And he said, “No, darling, you look lovely,” and I thought, “Well, that campaign’s failed.”
What is a guilty feminist? In 2015 I described myself as a “guilty feminist” for the first time, because I lived with the knowledge that my beliefs were firm but my feelings existed on a trampoline. My goals were noble but my concerns were trivial. I wanted desperately for women to be taken seriously in leadership roles all over the world, but I also wanted to look good sitting down naked. I knew that even thinking there was a “good” way to look in any posture didn’t chime with body-positive, twenty-first-century feminism where we were all meant to love our bodies as if they were our dying grandmothers, and that any criticism of them could be seen as disloyalty to the sisterhood.
I felt like a fraud for saying defiantly in an internet debate that, as a woman, my chief role was not to be decorative; and then later that day crying actual tears on finding that my favorite dress was tighter than usual because I’d put on weight. I could deliver a power seminar on charismatic leadership techniques for senior women in a law firm and the next day make an apologetic phone call to a comedy promoter in which I “hoped I was not bothering him,” speaking as fast as possible in my lady voice, as “I was sure he was very busy,” when it was obvious I’d just woken him from an afternoon nap.
This troubled me especially because so many more of my conversations with women were moving away from Sex and the City territory and toward gender equality. Something was in the air. Hillary was running for the White House. New York magazine pictured thirty-five of Bill Cosby’s accusers on its front cover. Gloria Steinem dedicated her book to the doctor who illegally performed her abortion in 1957, naming him as a hero. A tidal wave of change was coming and I wanted to be on the crest of it, but I worried I wasn’t good enough.
I confessed my feelings to fellow comedian and friend Sofie Hagen. She and I had a series of lunches that year that had started as jokes, shop talk and revelations about our love lives, but had drifted into feminism. I showed Sofie my hypocrisies on the grounds that she’d show me hers. Because we were both comedians, council zoning required that these insights be shared with the world, through the medium of podcasting, and The Guilty Feminist podcast was born.
For the uninitiated, a podcast is radio that no one stops you making because you put it on the internet yourself. Please let me reassure you that whether you live in a delightfully secluded cave not cursed with Wi-Fi and have never heard a minute of this podcast, or you binged the whole thing in a week and cross the days off on your calendar until the next episode comes out, I wrote this book with you in mind.
When Sofie and I committed to admitting our double standards out loud, a part of me feared we’d be shunned by the club, that the “proper” feminists we knew would roll their eyes at our embarrassing admissions. We weren’t just making these confessions to our BFFs four margaritas into a Friday night, we were recording them for distribution. We screwed up our courage and hoped that other women identified with our inadequacies and aspirations.
It turned out we weren’t the only ones living with contradictions. Women responded in droves. Many have written to tell us that they’d previously felt unable to call themselves feminists but now they knew they wanted to and could. Others said the show had acted as a valve for their guilt—a place they could laugh off things that didn’t matter or that they were working on. They realized they didn’t have to be perfect or even consistent to be a force for meaningful change. The emails I receive, which tell stories of women activated by The Guilty Feminist to apply for PhDs, lodge sexual harassment cases, start talking to their high school students about gender equality or even report sexual assaults, can always be boiled down to two statements: “Because I listened to the podcast, I have decided to say yes,” or “Because I listened to the podcast, I have started to say no.” I do not take credit for the boldness of these listeners. I think a big part of their conviction comes from hearing our live audience laughing and agreeing and commenting. It makes individual women feel like they have an army behind them when they speak up in a meeting, fill out a funding application, or tell a catcaller he’s just not cool.
We’ve had some luck with our timing. More people listen to podcasts now than go to the cinema on a weekly basis. Just when feminism was facing the onslaught of Trump, Weinstein, and the worst excesses of Twitter, people were turning to podcasts for information, inspiration, and entertainment.
I’m overwhelmed at the response from our audience, who turn out in droves for the show and queue, tweet, and email to tell us what the show means to them. I’m also convinced that if I’d attempted to pitch a broadcast comedy show with “feminist” in the title in December 2015, the industry would have responded with a polite refusal and an assurance that feminism isn’t a ratings winner. I am amazed and thrilled to say that The Guilty Feminist podcast has had 50 million downloads in just over two years. While internet neutrality exists, artists can find their audience and audiences can find their jam.
For readers who’ve not heard the podcast, it’s a comedy show in which we explore themes that feminists need to tackle head-on—from nudity to body capability and from power to democracy. Each episode features stand-up, discussions with guests, and also weekly challenges. Thanks to this last aspect of the podcast, I have thrown myself out of a plane, posed naked for a life-drawing class, led a feminist discussion group with a class of teenage boys at an inner-city school, and directed a short film like a boss.
The guests and I always start each episode with one-liners that begin, “I’m a feminist but…” These are true confessions about times when our actions and values have spent time apart. They’re usually playful, silly things that don’t really matter. It’s the equivalent of using a loofah in the shower to slough off anything you don’t need, but for your gender equality headspace. Here’s one of mine: I’m a feminist but when my four-year-old nephew insisted on me putting on my wedding dress and watching Beauty and the Beast with him, I also put on my tiara, which he had not requested.
In autumn 2016 Sofie Hagen left the podcast to go on to other exciting projects, but I’ll always be grateful we first sat down together at lunch and said, “I’m a feminist but…” I hope that, in continuing the show with other comedians and in writing this book now, I’m shooting (even if it’s in a scattershot way) for a life of “I’m a feminist and…”
For readers who know and love the Guilty Feminist podcast, I hope you find this book has plenty of new takes on much-loved themes that challenge us daily, with some requested favorites down on paper for the very first time.
For every reader, I hope this book will reflect this mix of comedy and more thoughtful discussion and challenge you to leave the house, take up the space and time you deserve, find your most unapologetic and persuasive voice, begin to truly trust yourself and communicate that self-belief to the room, create your own microclimates for success, shine a bold, strong light on other feminists, and strike out fearlessly for gender equality—exfoliating unnecessary guilt as you go.
This book also intends to include as much as possible. It looks at the intersections between gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, and gender identity and how those advantage and disadvantage groups and individuals in society. It includes trans women as women. A 2016 survey by the consumer insight agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group discovered that 48 percent of Generation Z (people born mid-1990s to mid-2000s) identify as “completely heterosexual,” compared to 65 percent of millennials. In addition, 56 percent of these same young people said they know someone who goes by nontraditional gender pronouns like “they/them/ze” and the same percentage shopped for themselves in both men’s and women’s clothing shops. Seventy percent of Gen Zs in the survey supported gender-neutral bathrooms as opposed to 57 percent of millennials. The future isn’t binary and this next generation won’t form two orderly camps. We need to build a world for these young people who are more comfortable with their own fluidity and don’t see gender or sexuality as fixed. The world they want to live in doesn’t conform to gender norms and that’s a good thing because it doesn’t demand that they “act like a lady” or “man up.” This book is unapologetically part of that trend. The right side of history is calling us in.
I am using terms in current style guides as directed by the communities in question. I use “people of color” and “women of color” to describe nonwhite people because it is the term currently used by the social justice movement and recommended by the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Although it began in America, it has become universal and I use it because feminist leaders and influencers in nonwhite communities do. It is often abbreviated to POC or WOC on the internet.
I use “queer,” as is increasingly standard, to mean “nonnormative” and as an umbrella term for sexual and gender groups who are not heterosexual and/or not cisgendered.*
I use “nondisabled” not “able-bodied” because most often it is society’s attitudes and infrastructure that disadvantage those whose bodies function differently and because this is recommended by disability activists.
If you identify with any of these groups and prefer alternative terms, switch them out as you read and know that I’ve gone with the most current accepted terms, at the time of writing, to be as respectful as possible to the communities I’m writing about.
WHY GUILT AND FEMINISM SOMETIMES GO TOGETHER…
We’ve all been raised in a patriarchy, and our feelings have been shaped by this, starting in our childhood. While our adult minds might be far beyond thinking our worth lies in having Jennifer Aniston’s hair, Jennifer Lopez’s arse and being liked by everyone everywhere all of the time, deep down inside it’s easy to feel that things will be better if we can only live up to what the billboards want for us.
Just because we’ve been hardwired to be self-critical and distracted by meaningless, unattainable goals doesn’t mean we aren’t feminists. It’s one reason we need feminism! We’re allowed to acknowledge, to try to reverse and even laugh at our own cultural brainwashing while we tackle the big stuff. We need to create a space for ourselves to be and grow. I don’t wish to lower the bar for feminism by saying, “I’m a feminist but…” but I’ve realized over the last few years of engaging with this and talking to women that, for many of us, feminism has become another thing to feel guilty about.
Women are trained to feel guilty when their kids are in the after-school club because they are working back-to-back nursing shifts—and guilty that they’ve dropped out of the half-marathon they were running for their teentrepreneur charity because they’ve got severe period pain—and guilty for being late to their mother’s birthday dinner because they’ve been helping their friend through a messy break-up—and guilty for enjoying sexual submission because it feels like they shouldn’t be getting pleasure from some kind of Handmaid’s Tale–style scenario, as surely that’s what feminists are meant to be fighting against in the first place?
Not all individual women feel these things, but I know that many do, because when I talk about them on stage, the largely female audience laughs in recognition. (One advantage of doing stand-up comedy is that you can identify trends without surveys. If the audience doesn’t laugh, it might mean you’re on your own.) Also, women often approach me after shows in the bar to tell me they labor daily in a guilt soup and are tired of it. Are most men judging their best efforts as failures? Is it common practice for guys to attack each other savagely on Twitter for not being sufficiently nuanced in the language they use around the brotherhood? Are boys encouraged to look at their achievements and aspirations as wanting?
Proper, dedicated, lived-and-breathed fuck-the-patriarchy feminism is a wonderful thing for the empowerment and elevation of women everywhere. But what if we’re not there yet? What if we know the bits we know and are embarrassed by the bits we feel we should know and don’t? What if we fear we will die at ninety-five, still wanting desperately to have smooth legs and a flawless forehead and without having read The Bell Jar? What if we tell our best friend that she’s strong, powerful, clever, beautiful, and that she should never accept that loser guy who treats her like she’s disposable—and then immediately sext our sexist ex? What if we are at base camp, and the summit looks like it’s crowded with better feminists than us?
This book is about starting today and challenging ourselves to a series of small but meaningful changes. We don’t have to be perfect to dare ourselves to be better. Taking power and finding strength is a positive, potent thing to do. Learning to live with our contradictions and love ourselves anyway is a noble goal in itself. Laughing at the gap between where we want to be (Maya Angelou) and where we are (My God, I Can’t Believe I Just Said That) can be cathartic, joyful, bonding, and just as empowering as celebrating our achievements. If we can dare to put our bag of guilt down for an hour to play and laugh, we might find that, when we pick it up, we don’t need all of it any more.
Equally importantly, I want to explore in this book how guilt can be an invisible gatekeeper that stops us fully including ourselves in rooms of influence—and stops us including others. Stepping forward and making ourselves central in circles where we have any amount of influence is the first step in including other women in those places. To include ourselves we have to look at how welcome we feel inside our own bodies and how to use them to signal our power and confidence to the world. We will explore how to be confident and take up the space we deserve in classrooms, boardrooms, hospital rooms, living rooms, and even hotel rooms. We will look at our willingness to conform or to flaunt our differences, how potent a tool language can be, and our ability to create boundaries. We will examine the identity of the enemy in the feminist fight and ask how our protests can be more than sound and fury and truly lead to meaningful change. We will even ask how some of our guilty pleasures have hidden feminism packed inside of them.
Many people now define feminism as individual women being able to make individual choices. But feminism is not about whether you personally wear high heels or not. Wear them if you want. Don’t if you don’t. If you wear them regularly and want to check in to make sure it’s your actual conscious choice rather than what your brain has been persuaded to see as normal through lifelong submersion in the patriarchy, you can try giving heels up for a few months and then putting them on again, so you have room to make a comparison. That way, you can assess whether being taller is a sensation you enjoy, or if high heels are just painful and unfun, and proceed with the rest of your life accordingly. Either way, it’s not much to do with feminism. That’s just learning about what makes you happy.
You turning up to a party in sneakers or a kitten heel isn’t going to make the world a safer, better-represented, more liberated place for women to live in. You could argue that your choices about heels, make-up, romcoms, and career help to create an empowered headspace important for your feminist agenda. If so, start to assess your life step by step and work out who you are and how much more dangerous you could be if you got fearless and ferocious. But really and truly, it’s how different the world is because you are in it that’s the feminist part.
So, feminism and us. Guilt and all. Let’s begin.
HOW WE GOT HERE
WHAT’S FEMINISM FOR?
I’m a feminist but some days even my life doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.*
When I was a teenager, my family became Jehovah’s Witnesses. In that religion, as in many, feminism was not encouraged or even allowed. Men were “the head of the household” and women were “in subjection.” I always struggled with my place in this small-scale patriarchy.* I was a pious Bible student but had a great deal of trouble with the misogynistic, homophobic, and xenophobic texts in the Bible. Although known as a hardworking, faithful Jehovah’s Witness girl (I was devotedly dowdy), I was once told by a young “brother” in my congregation, “No man will take you on because you wouldn’t be a submissive wife.” Well spotted, Brother Darren. I would not. When I realized that I was an atheist and left the religion, I knew that equality for women was something I believed in and wanted to fight for. To be clear, this does not mean I don’t respect feminists with a faith, but my experiences in an extreme religion have led me to be alert to sexism within religion. I’m aware that some contemporary religions go to great lengths to eradicate their patriarchal heritage.
I applied to go to college (further education was also discouraged by the religion, so my ambitions had stalled while I was still a practicing Jehovah’s Witness), but it was 1997 and “feminist” was a word that came before “studies”—something to write essays about rather than a way of life. It wasn’t something we talked about much as young women in the Junior Common Room. It was a time of “Girl Power” and ladette culture in Britain, where I had taken residency. Girl Power meant the freedom to drink, swear, and watch porn like the boys, without ever asking if “like the boys” was something we all wanted to be.
It was my impression that too much focus on gender inequality was perceived as an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for your place in society. It felt like we had to shut up and pretend we were on a level playing field, because we didn’t want to be accused of complaining. In this regard, the brave new world I’d stepped into was disappointingly reminiscent of the cult I’d just left. Back then, I wasn’t sure if “feminist” was a word that I could or should use as my own. I wasn’t alone.
Many women I knew then, and still others I know now, didn’t or don’t identify with the word, fearing that if they own it, it will make them appear militant or man-hating. Some feel guilty if they use the word, worrying that it excludes men. Some women feel marginalized from the feminist movement and find it’s just another place for them to feel “less than” because of the way they’ve been treated. Their experience of feminism is what is sometimes called “white feminism”—movements for “equality” within the feminist movement that effectively mean that when white, straight, cis, nondisabled women have as much power and privilege as their powerful male counterparts, the job is done. Some women feel ashamed if they don’t call themselves feminists, anxious that they’re betraying the sisterhood.
It’s important to know what the word means, whether we’re trying it on for size or we’ve worn it proudly for years, while perhaps forgetting to check in with its full history. So I’ve written a beginner’s guide to feminism in this chapter and tried to make it brief, amusing, and accessible. The history of feminism is none of those things, so wish me luck. If you feel like I’m teaching suffragettes to suck eggs, skip this section or read it to check I got it right.
Feminism is a combination of social and political movements with a common goal to define, develop, and demand political, social, and fiscal rights for women. I’m sorry to tell you that a man coined the term. Charles Fourier, Utopian French philosopher, came up with the word. Of course he did. It was 1837, when no one listened to women. I’m willing to bet his girlfriend coined it half an hour before, but no one took it seriously until he said it and then mansplained it to her. He didn’t have a wife because he thought that traditional marriage was damaging to women’s rights. He was also queer positive, socialist, and thought we could make our everyday work erotic. Where’s Charles Fourier on Tinder when you need him?
Feminism isn’t one thing. It’s been through lots of waves, existed in many guises and today is a collection of tribes, frequently in disagreement with each other.
Feminists are often categorized by their points of view on how best to gain equal ground, and I find it helpful to think of feminist tribes in terms of board games:
Mainstream feminists try to carve out legal rights and social breakthroughs for women within the existing sexist system. Today’s mainstream or liberal feminists often focus on individual choice to reject or conform to traditional gender roles, while arguing on behalf of women over issues such as reproductive rights, parental leave, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence. They have a pragmatic approach favoring changes that can be made in the short to medium term, using existing legal procedures and power structures.
Basically: “If we all team up together we can get the top hat, the car, and the boot and buy Kentucky Avenue, Park Place, and some railroads and start chipping in for some houses. We can play Monopoly as well as the old boys’ club, and yes, we might be ten thousand years behind in the game, but with some luck from the Community Chest and the occasional Get Out of Jail Free card, we can catch up because we’re terribly clever and much more motivated. We might not win but we can bloody well stay on the board.”
Radical feminists tend toward a view that the patriarchal capitalist system will always oppress women and that power will never be shared and must be taken. Some radical feminists see a complete dismantling of the system and the constructing of a new one as the only viable solution to gender inequality.
In short: “Fuck this shit. We are not playing your stupid, unfair game so stop trying to give us the iron and telling us to Pass Go and accept $200 that you’re just going to take away when we hit your Boardwalk hotels. You want to play Monopoly? Well, we want to play Equality. We don’t care if we go to jail. We definitely don’t want to win Second Prize in your stupid Beauty Competition.”
Separatist feminists (a much rarer breed) subscribe to a sort of radical feminism that believes women must separate themselves from men entirely and start over. They believe that women need to remove themselves from heterosexual relationships, at least for periods of time, suggesting celibacy for straight women. This isolation denies the system valuable female resources and allows women to author our own structures.
To summarize: “We’ve tipped up the board and are playing Jenga in our fort. Don’t come in. You can’t play.”
Parasite feminists use the opposite approach, feeling that women need to feed upon the patriarchal system, bleeding dry its resources and using them for our own ends.*
Their approach is, “I see you have Boardwalk and Park Place. I’m taking them and putting four of my hotels on them, collecting rent and charging you for loitering. What do you mean, that it’s not fair? Nothing you’ve ever done has been fair. Fair’s not possible till we steal from you what you’ve stolen from us. Oh look, we’ve landed on Free Parking. Give us everything you’ve got, mofo. We’ve just changed the rules.”
There are many more schools of feminism that you can research and find board game metaphors for, but this gives you an idea. Most varieties of feminism want the same thing—equality of influence, power, and resources for women—but each faction thinks its methods for reaching those goals are best. Some feminists get frustrated that we seem to be letting the male-favoring status quo build more hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place while we argue about the best way to pass Go and the right way to mortgage our Water Works.
FEMINISM IS ALSO DEFINED IN “waves,” or generations, because every time we win or lose a point, the struggle changes.
First-wave feminism has its roots in the social revolutions of the 1700s. If you’re overthrowing a government, you start to think about your place in both the old and new order and now the subject of “fair” is on the table, you want a piece of it. Socialist ideals took an awfully long time to take. Society had been feudal and autocratic for a very long time. First-wave feminism includes the terrifyingly brave suffragettes, who chained themselves to railings, blew up buildings, set fire to landmarks, and were force-fed horribly in prison, all so we would have the right to vote for Donald Trump and Brexit. I’m glad they’re dead and don’t know this.*
Second-wave feminism came about after women had gained the right to vote in most Western countries and had been granted (or had snatched) some extra autonomy, overalls, and tractors during the world wars due to a lack of men on the ground. Then they were expected to get back in the kitchen and make the patriarchy a sandwich in the 1950s. The 1960s is a famous period for women’s liberation, synonymous with bra-burning, which some people say never happened, but actually did once. I’ve seen a picture.* Second-wave feminists—many of them women of color, Jewish women, and queer women, a fact that is often shamefully forgotten—made incredible strides in the perception of appropriate roles for women in society and gave women a loud voice and permission to ask for more rights, representation, and influence. They made massive headway in reproductive, parental, and employment rights. They even made everyone stop saying “When the judge enters everyone must stand for him…” because they pointed out that if we always default to a male pronoun, we always expect a male judge. Now we say “them,” but most of us still picture a bloke most of the time. Everything takes ages.
- "This really is the 'everything you have always wanted to know about feminism but were afraid to ask' manual. Essential reading for the planet."—Emma Thompson
- "Hilarious, irreverent, eternally surprising, classy as hell, genius."—Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of Fleabag
- "Tackles issues from democracy to sexuality to porn with a lightness and hilarity that makes even the newly ordained feminist feel at home."—Scarlett Curtis, author of Feminists Don't Wear Pink and Other Lies
- "Her 'Open Letter from the Gentlemen of Hollywood,' a riposte to the Weinstein saga, is worth the cover price alone."—Sunday Times
- "A passionate, funny, fresh, thought-provoking read, as engaging as it's informative."—Guardian
- "This high-energy book reminds readers about the origins of feminism and how important it is for women to support each other."—Booklist
- "A witty book full of insights, opinions, and good advice."—Kirkus
- "With a distinct, lively, and consistently hilarious delivery, Frances-White upends common misconceptions-feminists, she assures readers, can love lipstick and men-and encourages readers to do "what you can, when you can" to end oppressive power structures. Feminists of any stripe will be moved by this rousing, funny, highly appreciative exhortation to 'smash the patriarchy like a strong, green, healthy plant breaking through the foundations of an old house.'"—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Dec 31, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press