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Katherine Baldwin

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Feminism Means Freedom, Choice and Equality, but We Also Need Self-Respect and Sisterly Love

Posted: 29/04/2013 00:00

Feminism

I've called myself many things in public - a binge eater, an addict, a perfectionist, a workaholic, to name but a few - but I've never called myself a feminist.

It's only now that I'm starting to wonder why.

It could be because I was politically apathetic during my younger years or, more accurately, too scared to voice opinions and therefore too fearful to form any. But I suspect it's because, somewhere along the line, I understood that feminists weren't attractive or in vogue - that they didn't wear heels or get the guy. Or maybe I thought they belonged to another time in history and were now surplus to requirements, that their job was done.

At some point, I also decided that I wasn't strident or outspoken enough to call myself a feminist, that the F word was the exclusive territory of those who wrote controversial books or grabbed at microphones in public meetings.

A few years on, I'm of a different mind. The debate around feminism sparked by Caitlin Moran's How to Be A Woman, my attendance at the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre two years running and reading Lena Dunham's simple definition of feminism, among other developments, have brought me to my senses. Dunham, the creator and star of Girls, said in an interview with Metro:

Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs? Do you believe that women should be allowed to leave the house? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Great, then you're a feminist.

If it's as simple as that, I'm happy to join the F crew.

I passionately believe that women and men should earn equal pay for the same work (I recall working in a company where the men seemed to get more money because they negotiated harder); that men and women should have equal opportunities in the political and corporate worlds; that women should be supported to take time out of their careers to have children, if they want to, without being penalised, overtly or covertly; that women should not have to suffer domestic violence or sexual abuse; that women should be free to wear their skirts at the length they want without being told they're asking for it; and that they should be able to choose to be mothers, with partners or alone, to stay childfree, to marry or remain single without being judged.

But I also think feminism and its continuing success depend a lot on how we - as women - view and treat ourselves and how we support other members of the sisterhood.

As a life-long self-critic - about my appearance, my work, my behaviour, you name it - I know women are often our own worst enemies. From the boardroom to the bedroom, we can struggle to speak up for our needs or to set boundaries. And we often put ourselves down.

A woman's low self-worth and how this can sabotage her hopes and dreams has been a recurring theme in interviews I've been doing with women for my book. The Baby Gap will address the unintended consequences of feminism - the crowds of women around the world who have impressive CVs but are wondering if they have left it too late to be mothers and are questioning the choices they made or didn't make throughout their lives. For my research, I've been asking women what tips they would give to younger women to help them achieve their professional and personal dreams.

The most common answer is to resolve one's low self-esteem - many women I've spoken to, who are childless by circumstance, not choice - say they wasted years dating deadbeats, staying with men who would never commit or getting mixed up with men who emotionally or physically abused them. These are the years they will never get back - sometimes they are the fertile years they will never get back.

Their humble advice is for women to get to know themselves, to learn to love and value themselves, to set their boundaries and not to settle for anything less than they deserve.

So feminism, I think, has to look inwards as well as outwards.

And if we're going to advance, we also need to put our rivalries aside and build each other up. I say this because of a recent experience that reminded me women aren't always the best at cheering each other on.

I had just turned 42 and was on my way to rockaoke (karaoke with a live band - it's a lot of fun) with some girlfriends to celebrate. For once, I'd decided to be bold and had put on some sparkly gold shorts I'd bought on a whim when shopping with a Mexican friend who loves to dress up, teaming them with black tights and suede boots. I would normally dress more conservatively, despite protestations from my friends who say I have the figure to wear what I want. But decades with an eating disorder and poor body image seriously damaged my relationship with my appearance and I'm not over it yet.

That night, though, I had decided to challenge myself. I'm not sure I would do it again.

The stares I got from fellow females on the Tube - the sniggers, the up-and-down looks and the whispers - made me feel so uncomfortable that I concluded it's not worth showing a bit of leg. Of course, I have no idea what they were whispering about - my head tells me they were saying I was too old or too fat to be wearing hotpants - mutton dressed as lamb, as the saying goes - because I'm sad to say I have made these judgements of other women in the past. My friends suggest they were jealous and wanted to knock me down a peg. But whatever it was, I didn't feel any sense of solidarity or support or any message of 'you go, girl, looking good!' from my sisters on the Tube that night. I felt vulnerable, under attack and rather foolish for dressing like that.

So while feminism is about equality with men, it also has to be about equality among women. If we get to the top, let's give others a helping hand up (something the late Baroness Thatcher famously failed to do). If we see a beautiful woman, let's celebrate her looks rather than try to cut her down. And if we see a body conscious, 42-year-old looking rather sheepish in sparkly shorts, let's give her a smile and cheer her on - because we all need our sisters on our side.

 

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