Feminism should represent all voices. To promote inclusion this International Women’s Day, we asked four women what their fellow feminists need to know
Photography: Mark Harrison
International Women’s Day has always been celebratory, dedicated to championing the rights and achievements of women everywhere and highlighting the work that still needs to be done to overturn injustice and achieve global gender parity. And this year’s is perhaps the most politically charged IWD yet.
Spurred on by events in the US, campaigners are reclaiming the call-to-arms spirit that saw a generation of Suffragettes engage in civil disobedience in the name of the vote and Iceland’s entire female population go on strike to protest the gender pay gap. This means that on 8 March 2017, grassroots feminist groups in 30 countries are taking to the streets in a strike that aims to highlight the impact of economic, racial and sexual inequality on women the world over.
Following January’s Women’s March, while it’s great so many of us are more politically aware and engaged than ever before, it also means that, in our haste to promote the common good, we might all too easily assume that all women carry the same burdens and are fighting for the same rights. Depending on race, sexuality and class, feminism – and, conversely, prejudice – can mean very different things to different people.
Modern feminism is often accused of listening to, and serving the needs of, just one of type of individual: the able-bodied, white, middle-class woman. But now, with women’s rights squarely on the agenda, it is our duty as feminists to promote the views and needs of the many, as opposed to the few.
To reflect this ambition, we’ve invited four women to share their unique world views and experiences, and to explain what they’re fighting for every day.
“Look around and ask ‘who isn’t here?’”
Becca Bunce, 30, is a co-founder of women’s rights group IC Change and campaigner for disabled feminist group Sisters of Frida. She lives in London
“I’m asked ‘what’s wrong with you?’ so often I considered making it the title of this piece. If, as a woman, someone comes up to you and says, ‘What’s going on beneath your clothes, what’s your body like?’ how would you feel? Because that’s exactly what I’m being asked because of my disability. Also, there’s nothing wrong with me; there’s a lot wrong with that question.
Language is a powerful thing, and it’s often deployed to devastating effect without anyone really batting an eyelid. As feminists, we talk a lot about women taking on the ‘burden of care’. But what if you are seen as the burden? Countless studies have shown that disabled women are more likely to suffer domestic and sexual abuse than non-disabled women. People can have significant forms of control over disabled women and often that behaviour is ‘justified’ because people identify with the carer who is taking on this ‘burden’. Rhetoric which paints any human as a burden is hugely damaging.
People often treat me with either pity, disregard or as an ‘inspiration’. Each is dehumanising in its own way. These attitudes all imply that, as a disabled woman, there is something wrong with me and the rest of the world is just fine. But perhaps it’s the world around me that doesn’t quite fit my needs, or the needs of one in five people who have a disability.
On a practical level, I look at our public spaces and all too often, they’re not accessible for me, or for mothers with prams, or for anyone who can’t take huge, great leaps to get up or down concrete steps. Think about all the people who, far from being able to join the conversation, can’t even get into the room. The Women’s March in January was great, but many disabled women, including me, couldn’t attend as it wouldn’t have been safe. One great thing that came out of this was #AccessibleOrganizingMeans [a hashtag highlighting the need for accessible protests] – an example of the disabled community using their knowledge and expertise to make spaces more inclusive.
Over the past year giving talks on feminism and disability, I’ve worn out five pairs of jeans as I’ve often ended up bum-shuffling up and down stairs. I’m also often escorted through a different exit because the main exit isn’t accessible.
As a feminist, look around the room and ask yourself ‘who isn’t here?’ Then ask what would it take to get that person here? Next time you go somewhere and notice it doesn’t have disabled access, take a few minutes to send them an email or tweet them. If you’re organising an event, try championing spaces that have excellent access standards (see euansguide.com).
True progress for the feminist movement means disabled women – and women from other minority groups – are included, their voices heard and their needs championed. To do that, though, we first need to get into the room.”
What I want to see
“I’m really comfortable with being me, and that includes people seeing my disability. That’s what I wanted to show in this photo. I haven’t tried to hide the things I can’t do, that I need a bit of support to do a standing photo. Just because your body doesn’t conform to what people think is normal, it doesn’t mean you have to hide.”
“Racial stereotyping is the biggest threat to my aspirations”
Tobi Oredein, 27, is a journalist and founder of BlackBallad.co.uk. She lives in London
“When I was a teenager, I realised just how important it was to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I knew it was critical to perform an extreme version of reverential behaviour at all times. The need for immaculate manners wasn’t just important because they’re the building blocks of respect, but because, as a young black woman, forgetting them or being forthright in my opinions could see me labelled as the ‘black girl with an attitude’.
As I transitioned into my 20s, it felt instinctive to shrink myself and hold back my observations in the workplace, as I knew the ‘angry black women’ archetype was like a shadow that followed me around the office. At times I questioned whether these stereotypes were a figment of my imagination. However, in the early days of my journalism career, my fears became a reality when I pointed out a mistake that had been printed in the publication I was working on. Not only was I silenced, but I could hear the office whispers of ‘She’s got an attitude’.
Even black women who have all the power, fame and riches in the world can’t escape the angry black woman trope. Michelle Obama was called this dehumanising stereotype more times than I, or probably she, cares to remember.
After weeks of replaying my very own ‘black girl with an attitude’ incident in my mind, I made a strange sort of peace with the notion that racial stereotyping would be the biggest threat to my career progress and life aspirations. Then again, in an industry where 45% of journalists are women and 0.2% of journalists are black, it’s not surprising that media representation for black women still needs improvement.
And women that look like me don’t just struggle to break into busy newsrooms. The double barriers of gender and race prohibit all women of colour from having a seat at the tables in boardrooms. Over half of FTSE 100 companies don’t have a single non-white executive on their boards. There are only seven female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies – all of whom are white.
If the sisterhood of feminism is to improve across racial lines, all feminists need to understand and acknowledge that the experience of womanhood changes vastly because of racial identity.
Listen to us when we discuss the daily racial micro-aggressions we face. Micro-aggressions range from a white person expressing their surprise at how well I speak English, to asking ‘Where are you really from?’, the implication being that because of my skintone, I couldn’t possibly be from the country’s capital.
Use your voice to call out men and women who discredit women of colour and their achievements with lazy stereotypes. Question why there is a lack of women of colour in your office and in the media you read. Join black women when we march from Oxford Street to Westminster to highlight that black lives matter. Read books such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Read the lifestyle website that I founded, BlackBallad.co.uk, and inform people that a site just for black women isn’t reverse racism – it’s the only place black British women see themselves fairly represented. If we do all of that, then all women will have a better shot at success regardless of their race.”
What I want you to see
“You don’t really see black women at the head of the table. I feel like the wry smile and casualness of my portrait challenges that: why can’t black women be here? For me, it’s a form of rebellion.”
“People love to use your size as a weapon against you”
Deborah Coughlin, 36, is a writer and artist
“Your body is being policed. And the chances are you’re the Chief Copper.
Women’s bodies have always been under scrutiny – abortion, ageing, pubic hair, whatever – and we’ve become accustomed to it. It’s why I rip the hair out of my upper lip every two weeks in an eye-watering ritual to fit in with these customs. Some things are harder to make fit. Like a fat arse.
Being fat means not fitting in. I don’t fit into clothes, tiny bus seats or the stock photo idea of what an attractive woman is. And if literally not fitting in wasn’t enough of a stigma, other people love to use your size as a weapon against you.
Like when a homeless guy shouted that I shouldn’t have spent my dosh on doughnuts when I apologised for not having cash. Or having it explained to me that fat girls don’t sell records by my first music manager. Or when the owner of American Apparel said fat people didn’t belong in his shops. What do these seemingly acceptable forms of discrimination do to our heads?
Well, little girls fear becoming fat more than their parents dying. 20% of people would rather lose a finger than pile on the pounds and, in a Woman’s Hour poll, 18- to 24-year-old women said the negative word they’d least like to be associated with was fat, ahead of stupid and boring. But for all the stigma and obsessing we’re neither happier nor healthier – we’re the fattest, most anxious and narcissistic generation ever.
For so long we have been fed only sanitised one-note images of women. These are so prevalent that our eyes and brains have stopped recognising the intrinsic value of bodies that look any different. Researchers recently found that larger women were massively discriminated against when they were looking for a job. From starting salary to leadership potential, anti-fat prejudice affected them on every metric. As author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, Susie Orbach pointed out, ‘Today, “fat” has become not a description of size but a moral category tainted with criticism and contempt.’
It is our moral obligation to reset body standards. Take the small but radical step of unfollowing aspirational ‘inspo-grams’ and follow people who look more like you and your friends (I recommend @effyourbeautystandards @mynameisjessamyn and @felicityhaywardcurvemodel). Take a stand against lazy assumptions at work or on the street (from a health perspective, for instance, people in the ‘overweight’ BMI category actually have lower death rates than those of ‘normal’ weight). Above all, stop policing yourself and rebel. You’re awesome. We all are.”
What I want you to see
“Strength isn’t about aggression for me. I wanted to show that you can be angry at the situation while still being kind and happy. That’s why I’m smiling. People will still take you seriously when you’re positive.”
“Lesbians still need to fight to reach true equality”
Sophie Wilkinson, 29, is a journalist
“Lesbians might seem pretty sorted when it comes to equal rights – same-sex marriage! Anti-discrimination laws! – but in truth, these form the icing on a cake that’s not fully risen yet. So my feminist sisters must remember that lesbians still need to fight – and be fought for – to reach true equality.
Working in the media, I live in a metropolitan elite bubble. Yet, my career improved vastly after growing out my crew cut. People told me I looked ‘softer’, but really I just looked less lesbian. If that’s what happens to me, in my LGBT-friendly bubble, what goes on elsewhere? A quarter of LGBT people have been bullied in the workplace. And even though I’ve neutered my appearance, it’s a lose-lose as it renders me ‘not gay enough’ to get into gay bars.
Extra visibility of queer women in recent years – Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne, Ellen Page and characters in Orange Is The New Black – has flipped some lesbian stereotypes. But that list is a lot whiter and thinner than it should be. Day-to-day, however, this feels like little more than good PR.
Since appearing more feminine, strangers shout ‘Dyke!’ at me less. Unless I’m with my girlfriend, when certain men feel entitled to our time and personal space. Straight women, with a good man, are mostly considered off-limits to catcallers and creeps, but I could be out with the best woman and we’d still be double the target. One in six LGBT people has experienced a sexuality-related hate crime in the last three years and 26% feel they must change their behaviour to avoid hate crimes. I have a mental list of places where I feel safe showing affection to my girlfriend, and, boy, it’s a small map – made even smaller when I’m denied entry to gay bars. We sneak kisses when we’re sure no-one is looking. It stings all the more when I see straight couples casually snogging. If you see harassment, be a good bystander and let the victim know they are not alone – walk with them or simply acknowledge the incident and that you don’t agree with the harasser.
Ultimately, creeps would be far more appreciative of women’s sexual autonomy if they’d had robust sex and relationship education (SRE). The government has just announced that SRE will soon be compulsory in all schools and this is a big step in the right direction. Kids should know that ‘lesbian’ is more than a PornHub category built on male desire. My niece and nephew are six and eight and know that men and men or women and women can get married. It’s not hard to give age-appropriate explanations of stuff that happens all the bloody time.”
What I want you to see
“I’m proud to call myself a lesbian, but I have to adopt various shields in my daily life. I wanted my photo to reflect that. Butchness can make me feel safe from homophobes, but women should feel safe looking however they want.”
Words: Anita Bhagwandas, Alexandra Jones
Hair and make-up: Rose Angus at S Management using Kiehl’s and Laura Mercier