fem11

Feminism

On Saturday I attended FEM11 - a conference organised by UKFeminista. The day for me was a curious mix of heat exhaustion (dam no air conditioning) and the rush of adrenaline you get when 1000 like-minded people all woop, cheer and clap the exact same things you too want to woop cheer and clap. It’s the same feeling I get when at a gig stood in the middle of a crowd all singing along to a song I love. It’s a feeling of being part of something bigger, reaching out and being reached out to. It’s a very human, and very social, feeling to experience. At least I think so. Bliss.

Kat Banyard, co-founder of UKFeminista, kickstarted the day with a very rousing speech about the future of feminism. She’ll go far that girl. This was followed by some excitable young feminists sporting huge merkins (is that a word we use anymore?) over their crotches urging us to attend a ‘muff march’ in December against the proliferation of cosmetic labiaplasty. Then came Sandi Toskvig. Sandi is so intelligent and witty and her talk began so promisingly. She drew on children’s books, discussing the sexism inherent in them and then turned to the history of literature, suggesting the very act of committing words to paper is sexist. I can definitely see her argument. Writing stories down and orally retelling them are very different acts with different consequences. And her point that once the Bible was written, Jesus’s teaching took on a sexist, androcentric tone and women began to be excluded from the public sphere is valid I think. Sandi then discussed our brains. She stated that the brains of men and women are inherently different - explaining why men and women are adept at different things. Literary skills, Sandi said, are found concentrated on one particular side of the brain - the 'masculine’ side which is enlarged in men. While the oral telling of stories is found in the other, 'feminine’ side of the brain, enlarged in women. This is all very interesting, but I wish Sandi had just taken one step back. Is she suggesting our brains are already separated into male and female at birth? Is this a difference that exists before socialisation? Sandi didn’t address this and this left us feeling that this is indeed what she thinks. However, this poses a problem: essentialising. If we argue that men and women are biologically different, and that socialisation and sexism reflects this then we are saying something wholly different to what I would argue. Which is that we are born with the same brains but they change through socialisation. Girls are taught to be vocal about emotions, to talk, while little boys are told to go outside and play and to keep their feelings and emotions to themselves. This division is social, I would argue, there is no biological basis for it. And while differences may be displayed in our brains, this is because the brain is like a muscle, and certain parts of it are exercised more depending on which 'sex’ we are assigned.

I did enjoy Sandi’s talk though, and I liked her idea that women and men see the world differently. Up until now, the 'female’ way of seeing the world has been viewed as inferior and weak and that this privileging of masculinity over femininity has essentially caused many of the world’s problems. Men have been in positions of power for thousands of years. They have led people into war, they have raped and pillaged lands, and the ownership of power and money over others has become of highest importance. It can be argued that if we were to stop and listen to women we might learn a new way of looking at our world.

In an essay I wrote in the final year of my degree I argued that feminism has something to bring to the environmental movement which cannot be found in more 'masculine’ approaches utilised by organisations such as Greenpeace. My lecturer (a male environmentalist) disagreed with me and tried to steer me away from that argument but I wrote the essay anyway and got a fairly good grade on it! I won’t go into details in this, my first blog post, - it’s already a bloody novel, but I do think this argument could be applied to other movements such as the anti-capitalist movement, and should be considered when attempting to get more women into politics. 

Women look at the world differently - not because we have vaginas instead of penises, but because the gender binary within which we are socialised leads us to a different viewpoint. We have different experiences, different values and priorities, even different problem-solving methods. These perspectives are valuable. Masculinity has had its turn and look where we are. Now the world is ripe for a change - perhaps a 'feminine’ turn in politics would bring up some solutions to our many, many problems.