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I’ve always been a feminist but…

June 26, 2013

I think I was brought up as a feminist – the middle one of three girls, with a strong mother and a supportive father – how could I be otherwise? I played with my sisters, went to the Brownies and Girl Guides, and railed against injustice wherever I saw it. Then I went to university and found a name for what I had always believed – that the world was an unequal place, and that women needed to fight for their rights.  My first experience of feminism saw me standing on street corners in St Andrews whistling at men that walked by and travelling to London to abortion demonstrations in a minibus. I also took part in a conscious-raising group where we shared stories of our lives and examined our vaginas to see what they looked like! This was all life-changing for me; the women I met went on to become ‘movers and shakers’ in politics and the media etc. Meanwhile I went on to take a youth a community postgrad course, and set out on a career that would see me working mainly with women (and some men) in community work settings, social work and now higher education. Throughout all this time, I have carried a feminist identity with me, but it has not stayed the same.

Undoubtedly the biggest shift for me was in having two sons, and a partner who chose to stay at home to make his way as a writer. I knew almost nothing about small boys – how to play with them? What to talk to them about? And yet I loved them absolutely; they were (and still are) more important to me than my own life. And that changed things for me. I began to see things from a boy/man’s point of view, and realised that it is not always easy being a man in a ‘man’s world’.  I wrote about this in my second book (edited with Kate Cavanagh), Working with Men Feminism and Social Work (1996, Routledge), in a chapter called ‘Why do men care?’ Here I explored the complex issues of women, men and caring, looking especially at why men chose to become professional carers, defined here as social workers. Were they different from other men? I concluded that they weren’t, but that they felt different, and this brought them advantages and disadvantages within what is still a ‘women’s profession’.

My sons are now young adults, and they are independent people, successful in their own, very different ways. And I am a middle-aged woman, reviewing her life and wondering how/where feminism is today. I have spent the last five years or so talking about this with others. I even carried out a survey with social work students in Edinburgh in 2008, and in Sydney and Auckland in 2010. Two persistent themes came up here: ‘I’m not a feminist but … (I support women’s rights and believe that women should be treated fairly etc.)’ and ‘I am a feminist but … (I like dressing up and I’m not anti-men etc.)’ It was clear that the distance between the two sets of views was tiny; that if feminism was to have any continuing meaning for a new generation, it would have to accept diversity, contradiction, and individual choice.

I am again revisiting the subject of feminism through debates in our Moral Panic seminar series (www.moralpanicseminars.wordpress.com) and on social media through twitter. I am finding it increasingly difficult to identify a ‘true’ feminist position in contemporary discussion of prostitution, pornography, domestic violence, even pole-dancing.  Then again, history demonstrates that there were always different ways of being a feminist; radical feminism offers a very different worldview to that of liberal feminism, socialist feminism and postmodern feminism. Whatever feminism we sign up to today, I believe it must be willing to accept that inequalities in society do not relate only to gender, and that there are as many differences within women as there are between women and men. This is an uncomfortable feminism – but so it should be…

Viviene E. Cree

26th June 2013

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