Just before I started at Cambridge I went to a school leavers event. The topic of Caitlin Moran's joyously hilarious book, How to Be a Woman came up and the 'big word' inevitably followed. "Oh I'm not a feminist," three intelligent, highly-educated young women hurriedly chorused. (For the record, I wasn't one of them.)
Their refusal to even entertain calling themselves feminists was depressing and unsurprising. Beyonce perhaps unwittingly summed it up when she recently answered the question, "Are you a feminist?" with, "I don't really feel that it's necessary to define it. It's just something that's kind of natural for me, and I feel like... you know... it's, like, what I live for. I need to find a catchy new word for feminism, right?"
One of the highest profile women in the world spoke about how important feminism is to her to the extent that she lives for it but bookended the statement with rejections of the word 'feminist'. The fact is that there is a dearth of women, at all levels of society, willing to go ahead and define themselves as feminists. Why is feminism seen by many as, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, terrifying?
It's not because it's not needed. Feminism is still relevant. If anyone doubts its necessity, the Everyday Sexism Project, the astonishingly small percentage of female MPs in the House of Commons and the treatment of Cambridge debaters at the Glasgow University Union can all provide varying and illuminating evidence in its favour. At its core feminism is simply the belief that all women should be treated equally. No controversy there for a rational human being. So where is the problem?
The blame is often put on the word 'feminism' itself. Just as the word 'Labour' struggled in the 90s, the word itself has baggage, much of it negative, which is hardly surprising. A term which sums up a movement which has been viciously fought for, and against, over the course of half a century is going to illicit strong reactions. But clearly abandoning the term 'feminism' is a) unrealistic b) will involve a huge amount of admin work for libraries and c) will likely only serve to abandon the progress made by feminism over the past fifty years. Renaming feminism isn't the way forward. Rebranding and rethinking feminism for the modern day is.
We need to be realistic. There is currently a huge perception gap between what feminism is and what it's interpreted to mean. Feminism is the awesome, talented, funny actress who people who've worked with adore and the general public think is an asshole. Basically feminism is Anne Hathaway right now. Our response to people refusing the label needs to become less blasé and more understanding. It's not enough to just say "Are you a woman? Do you think women should be equal? Then don't be silly! Of course you're a feminist!" A lot of women, and for that matter men, refuse to class themselves as feminists and are simultaneously not raging misogynists ambivalent about important pillars of society like the right to vote and the right to choose.
However the entirety of the blame can't be pinned on the semantics of the word. There are serious issues within feminism itself. The standard of self-proclaimed 'proper' feminists is too high rendering feminism too exclusive.
It's ironic that a social movement based on everyone being treated equally and being included in society treats people unequally and is shockingly exclusive. You don't need to be well versed in the dialectic of second and third wave feminism and have a comprehensive response to Germaine Greer in order to be a feminist. It's wonderful if that knowledge is in your arsenal to debate at your leisure but anyone can be included in the spectrum of feminism. One of the greatest differences between 2007 and 2013 is that Katie Price has been knocked off the 'feminist role model pedestal' by the combined power of Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham and Tina Fey. Yet they are burdened with an artificial obligation to represent every possible feminist perspective at all times. Caitlin Moran wrote a best-selling book about feminism and single handedly massively increased the positive attention focused on feminism. The people on Twitter who call her out for being 'privileged' say that she's insufficiently 'intersectional'. Who do you think has done more for feminism?
We need people to be on side. The ultimate aim of feminism is the inclusion of everyone within society; every woman being afforded the opportunity to participate in society in the same way that every man is able to. A social idea centred around inclusion needs to be inclusive. Feminism in a way is more important now than it has ever been before. The big sources of power have done pretty much what they're going to do. The statutory provisions have been made. The common law has developed and enforced them. That's not to say that there isn't change to be made. There is but it has to be change that we make. Rape laws exist. So does rape culture. Sexual harassment laws exist. So does pernicious everyday sexual harassment. Equal pay legislation exists. So does unequal pay for the majority of women.
So what is modern day feminism? At its core it is still a movement agitating for change aiming for the equal treatment of women in society. I would argue that modern-day feminism has the right goals but warped values. In 2013 it needs to be inclusive, open and welcoming. The things I would change tomorrow if I could? More job sharing and flexible working for mothers. More female MPs. The phrases "she's pretty smart for a girl" and "what did she expect when dressed like that?" going somewhere far, far away never to return. These are not things that me or for that matter a minority, however passionate, can change. They will change as views change and that requires open conversation and more people saying "Yes, yes I am a feminist."
I am currently the Women's Officer at the Cambridge Union Society, an institution that has made huge developments in recent times. Our standing committee is made up of a majority of women. CUS now has the positions of Women's and Diversity officers.
We are inviting more influential and inspiring women than ever. This Monday (29 April) we are hosting a speakers event debating modern-day feminism with the Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post UK, Carla Buzasi, along with other great women like Claire Perry MP and Lucy-Anne Holmes, founder of No More Page 3 campaign. This is precisely the kind of event which aims to open up conversation about feminism and take the stigma out of the word.
The more we can talk about feminism in open discussion which explains to people why we need it and why the term is as powerfully positive as the movement, the more we can hope to change for the better. I, for one, am certainly a modern-day feminist.