I like to tell people that I’ve been a feminist for 30 years, it is more or less that amount of time but it also serves to remind that feminism is an active engagement over time rather than just a handy label.
My introduction to feminism came via my friend Emily when I was about eight or nine, she lived round the corner from me and her parents were academics and her mum a member of the Greenham Common Peace movement (at least that’s how I remember it), this was my first exposure to politics beyond my parents weekly delivery of The Observer, though with teachers as parents my first plolitical slogal was “Maggy Thatcher Milk Snatcher“.
There I was in the early 1980s, dashing about town on my bike with my friends, wearing our “Piglets for peace” badges and generally demanding that anything the boys could do we could do as well. I suppose my early feminist years could be described as “bolshy” and I wanted to be an accountant, an engineer or a physicist - professions that I would be a female pioneer in.
When I was a teenage my family moved down to Devon and I had to make new friends, friends who at the time were less aware or less vocal about politics and feminism, politics took something of a back seat until I did my ‘A’ levels at a local college and I marched against the dropping of student grants and against the poll tax.
We still had Thatcher and the Tory party in power and they were ready made caricatures for the left to rail against, all we really wanted was “Maggy Maggy Maggy, Out Out Out”
Eventually I went off to university to study dance and politics took a back seat again, I was still a feminist, but it is pretty easy to be a feminist when you are white, middle class with an expectation of going to University and then you study an arts course with a 1 in 10 male to female ratio. Which isn’t to say that sexism didn’t exist or that I didn’t experience it, its just that I was insulated from it.
Even when I had waitressing jobs with clients or bosses that would try to grope me I always felt able to stand up for myself – and that was enough. Was it okay – not at all, but brandishing a bread knife and say “do that again and I’ll call the police” felt like I’d made my limits clear.
In my mid twenties when I was working in the not for profit sector I rarely felt what might be described as one to one sexism and when I did I was supported in by managers to deal with it. Overall I didn’t feel that my gender held me back in my career, though that didn’t blind me to the gender bias in senior management. In all of my career I chose to believe in a meritocracy, that the best person for the job got the job, but again this is easy when you have been successful in being appointed to the jobs you wanted and interviewed for. I thought the glass ceiling only really occurred in the bastions of testosterone of banking, engineering, law and so on. Not in the contemporary world of marketing, advertising and charities and it wasn’t until returning to the UK as a parent that I saw just how low the glass ceiling forms and that it is supported by the gender bias in the workplace treatment of parents.
To my mind, until there is parity in parental leave for parents which allows men to take paternity leave the glass ceiling and the pay gap will persist. Until there are family friendly working measures including affordable childcare women will be priced out of the workplace and we will bring up generations of children who will never have the role model of women in the workplace.
When there is parity on these fronts employers and employees will be forced to concede that parenting isn’t just something that women do and so, gradually, the treatment and pay of women in the workplace will improve. The will of employers isnt enough, equality should be enshrined in law.
For me, feminsim isn’t making women equal to men, we are equal to men, it is about equality of opportunity and parity of treatment.
And then there’s sex, but lets talk about that another day.