For the first 20 years of my life, I suppose you could have called me a ‘feminism virgin’.
Living a painfully beige existence, brought up by laughably conservative parents and mixing only with other Nice Middle Class Girls From Good Families(TM), I simply never encountered feminists – much the way one doesn’t come across lorikeets while snorkelling.
I actually used to parrot that infuriating lie: “It’s irrelevant now. We have equality in the West.” It’s a line that seems to be popping up more and more when school-age girls are asked about their views on feminism, and this perception acts as a big-ass barrier to recruiting the next generation of gender equality game-changers.
So why did I used to say it?
Apart from the obvious (that I had never encountered a real live feminist before), I genuinely thought we did have equality.
Like thousands of other little middle-class Western girls, I was given a step-by-step timeline for my life about the same time as I was given my first nappy change. Exit womb. Go to school. Study hard. Be pretty enough to attract a husband. Get a job, or go to uni in the meantime. Get engaged. Marry. Get a joint mortgage. Get pregnant. Quit job. Spend rest of life looking after hubby and bubby, possibly while juggling part-time hours. End of.
Most of us never think outside this rigid timeline, because the very idea is unnatural. We’re taught these are all things we must do – as inexorable and natural as needing to pee after your fourth glass of wine. Sure, we know other people do different things, but we don’t think too much about it. It’s only once we try to deviate from the script ourselves that we realise how hard it is to choose differently, and finally click that if you own ovaries – you don’t have equality of choice.
My own journey to enlightenment began one Friday night, sitting on my battered green couch next to my partner of seven years. Dinner cooked, dishes washed, reality TV shit blaring away. Still on tonight’s list of to-dos: monotonous vanilla sex I didn’t particularly want to have, and sleep. And I thought: this is my life now. My one special, precious, bittersweet and short life. We’ll get engaged one day, then married. I’ll have a big fancy party, all my friends will be jealous … and that’s it. The end. I won’t be ‘me’, I’ll be an extension of someone else. My boyfriend’s rules were clear: I was to be a dutiful wife, dishwasher and masturbatory aid; and my career ambitions and travel dreams were both out of the question and ‘immature’.
I was living the dream. The life everybody always told me I’d want, on the path to being MARRIED! And LOOKED AFTER! And I didn’t fucking want it. I never had. But I’d never been taught about any of the alternatives.
Only when I decided domesticity and servitude held no joy for me did I realise how effing difficult it is to choose differently. My employers pay me less because of the chance I might get knocked up (fucksakes, how bout I worry about getting a date first!). I have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. The double standards regarding dating and sex never fail to depress me (and it’s not like I’m setting the expectations bar particularly high). I get sick of the hassling, the teasing, the well-meaning but woefully bad advice – all aimed at corralling me back to an ‘accepted’ role of subservience. Fortunately I encountered feminism, embraced it, and have continued to hold it close and show it off in public ever since.
The moral of the story is it’s tough to convince today’s young women of the importance of feminism. They don’t need to break down barriers or social conventions to do what they’ve been told they were born to do. Many really couldn’t care less about the number of women in boardrooms, because they’ve never been encouraged to want to be there. They dismiss the pay gap, because their future husband is (of course) going to be the breadwinner.
Each and every single one of us needs to be brought up to think seriously about what we want out of this life. I spent years agonising over my career, because I learned it was super effing important (after all, you’ll have to do it for 8 hours a day). I didn’t spend a second questioning my personal life (even though I’ll experience it every second of every day). People are making noises about re-introducing parenting classes in schools – perhaps this could form just one part of a greater lesson on how to choose your preferred path through life.
To achieve equality of choice, our girls first need to realise they have a choice. Then we might see some action on making those choices equal for both sexes.