I Am Woman

Click to visit the Siren Stories website and read more work by J.J. Barnes and check out her latest novels.

Click to visit the Siren Stories website and read more work by J.J. Barnes and check out her latest novels.

One of my favourite memories with my mother, and there are many to choose from believe me, is from when I was about nine years old.  My mum had an old record player, a throw back to her hippy days, and would often call me into the little room at the back of the house to listen to records whilst she sat cross legged on the floor and enthused about the music.  The time I remember most fondly is when she played me Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.”  She told me to listen to it closely and held my hand, then as it played she got tears in her eyes and squeezed me hand hard, and told me that I am incredibly blessed to live in the time and place I do, that women in my history have fought for my freedoms to live as I do now, but that the fight isn’t over.

As a little girl one of the feelings I remember most vividly having, mixed in with the annoyance that I’d been dragged away from the TV and the embarrassment that my mum was being an emotional sap, was that it was now my turn.  Women before me had fought, my mum had fought, and now it was my turn.  Looking back I don’t resent being dragged away from the TV and I don’t feel an ounce of embarrassment about my mum’s tears.  On the contrary it spurs me on, it makes me feel pride and passion.  It’s something I anticipate doing with Miss Rose and Baby B when they’re big enough to hear.

I am woman.

I regularly see arguments against feminism, so I want to talk about just why it is such an important thing to me.  Explain my beliefs in a way that I hope will make sense, maybe even connect with someone else in the way it connected with me.

I didn’t always feel as strongly as I do now, at least not on the surface.  The idea that as a woman I should be fighting for my value, fighting for equality, seemed crazy.  Not because I thought women in general didn’t deserve it, I most certainly did, but because I didn’t think I did.  I felt worthless, meaningless.  I was treated like I was worthless by men and I believed them.  I was made to feel like my only value was in my looks, my body and my sexuality, and because I felt like those things were worth very little in and of themselves anyway, I felt like there was nothing worth fighting for.  Not for me.

The thing is when you’re oppressed you eventually start to believe you deserve it.  Feminism didn’t connect with me for that very reason.  Feminism is all about how you DON’T deserve it, but because I so obviously did deserve it, why would feminism speak to me?  My counsellor, a wonderful woman who saved my life in so many ways, spent hours with me telling me it wasn’t my fault.  Telling me that no matter what I did, no matter what I said or how annoying I was, nobody has the right to treat another person like that, like how I had been treated by men.  On an intellectual level I believed her, I knew it was right and I knew I would be saying the same to other women if they ever shared experiences like mine.  But still, in my heart, I didn’t believe it.  I still blamed myself.  I could talk the talk and agree that I wasn’t to blame and create the image of positivity about myself that would convince anyone that I had healed those wounds.  In truth it was a mask.  I felt like if she had been there, if she had known me and seen me, she’d have held me at least partly accountable.  She’d have said “well if you’d said that differently, or not worn that, or not done that”.

After my husband left and my daughter and I started a new life alone, I started healing for real.  I started reading articles written by women, watching interviews with feminists I came to admire, and following feminists on Twitter.  I saw them talk about their own experiences.  Some the same as mine, some less “severe” and some much worse.  I learned about the oppression of women around the world, from the gender wage gap in the west to the violent gang rapes and acid attacks in India and Pakistan.  I saw that I wasn’t alone, and I realised that as well as hurting for those women, as well as sharing their pain in some cases and empathising as best I could in others, I did not blame a single one.  I didn’t have any feelings of they deserved it.  Not one.  I felt in every single case like their attackers, their oppressors, their abusers were to blame.  I felt that society’s patriarchal set up that allows men to climb ahead of women and treat women like objects was to blame.  I learned that if they weren’t to blame then I wasn’t to blame.

One argument I hear a lot is that women in the west have equality, and we are just moaning about things that don’t matter when our energy could be focussed on those in countries such as India where the gang rapes are frequent, or Saudi where women are prevented from living or working freely.

Now don’t get me wrong, the treatment of women around the world sickens me.  I read articles about it and want to help in anyway I can, even if it is just to raise awareness so the world can see what is going on.  But that doesn’t change the reality here.  I sometimes want to scream in their faces.  I want to ask them if they are really telling me that my rape, my abuse, is meaningless because other people have it worse?  Because let me tell you it isn’t.  It is not meaningless.  Yes I am grateful I was never killed, yes I am grateful I was never attacked by a gang on a bus or burned by acid.  But to tell one person that they are not entitled to feel their pain because someone else has it worse is ridiculous.  There is always someone with it worse.  The pain you feel, the scars you’re left with, are yours and you are entitled to feel them.  If we only ever vocalised pain about things we had it the worst in we would never been allowed to feel our pain ever.  Broke your leg?  That guy lost his, shut up moaning.  Your child died?  That person lost twins, you aren’t allowed to feel the pain.  It’s insane, it is offensive, and it is incredibly unhealthy.

I hear that women need to take more responsibility for themselves.  That if women go out in short skirts, they should expect men to respond.  That if women want to achieve equal pay and representation to men, they should prioritise education and work over family like men have to.  Men don’t have freedoms that women don’t get, they are just not handed free rides and are expected to take care of themselves.

Men are paid more than women in the same job, with the same qualifications doing the same hours.  Cases are shown time and time again.  When a celebrity, such as Jennifer Lawrence speaks up, she’s shut down because she’s a woman with  good income and has no right to moan.  She’s not just speaking out for herself, she’s speaking out for women everywhere, women around the world who are paid less than their male counterparts and in all different lines of work.  Her income is irrelevant, it’s the disparity she’s highlighting that matters.  And you know what, so what if she was just speaking out for herself?  Yes she has an amazing lifestyle and fabulous income, but does she work less hard than her male co-stars?  Is she less dedicated, less talented, less of a box office success?  No.  If she is equal to the men she acts alongside then of course she should fight for that to be recognised.  Trying to silence her because she earns more than you is the same as telling someone not to cry because someone has it worse.  It’s just a new way to silence women and shame them for wanting equality.

With regards to telling women to have responsibility for themselves I just feel disgust.  For one thing it’s not just women in mini skirts and heels that get raped, it’s women in their pyjamas asleep in bed beside their boyfriend.  It’s nuns, it’s teachers, it’s children.  It’s all women in all clothes.  I want to ask them to look me in the eye, friends and family who know me and love me, and tell me it’s MY fault.  Tell me that if I had dressed differently it wouldn’t have happened.  Tell me to my face you think I am to blame.  The woman you know and love, blame me.

The Boy and I were talking about something similar just recently.  How he can walk home from town at 1AM with his headphones in and not worry.  How when I walked home from town at 11PM I had friends texting me all the way to check I was okay, had to text to say I was home safely, and was criticised for putting myself at risk by not taking a taxi.  For a ten minute walk.  The Boy is safe walking in the dark alone.  I am not.  It’s not because of my clothes, it’s not because I’ve flirted or danced with someone, it’s not because I’ve taken my clothes off around a man and then not accepted responsibility for his arousal.  It’s because I am a woman.

A lot of men see feminism as women seeking superiority to men when we already get an easier ride.  “Women expect men to buy them drinks in a bar” “Men have to pay for the first date” “Men have to buy the engagement ring” are arguments I often hear.  First things first, you do not have to buy me a drink in a bar.  If you do, that’s very kind and I might accept, I might not.  You do not have to pay on the first date, if you invited me I will appreciate it, if I invite you I will expect to pay.  If it was a mutual arrangement then we can take it in turns or split, I don’t mind.   But if you don’t want to pay, then don’t.  If you sure as hell don’t have to buy engagement rings.  If you don’t want to propose, then don’t.  Simple.  And secondly, you guys want us to stop expecting you to buy us drinks, we want you to stop raping us.  I think you get the better deal out of that set up.

Feminism is not about women being “better” than men, it’s about women wanting their equality recognised.  We want it recognised by culture, by society.  We want it recognised by the men around us, by our family and friends.  We want to be represented in business and politics.  We want to be as safe in the streets as men are.  We want to be paid for our work fairly.  We want sex trafficking to stop.  We want gang rapes to stop.  We want child marriages to stop.  We want women everywhere of every race and every religion to stop being treated as second class citizens, stop being blamed for their abuse, stop being treated as objects.

I am woman.  My mother taught me that when I was a little girl and I will teach it to Miss Rose and Baby B.  I look back and thank the women in my history for the freedoms I have now, and I look to my daughters to carry the fight forwards, just as my mother looked to me.  I look around the world and wish we all had the freedoms I have, and that daughters around the world were free to carry their fight forwards with the freedoms my daughters will have.  Not because the fight is won, but because our fight here is so much further forward than theirs, even though our fight is far from won.

I am a feminist because I recognise what is going on in the world and what the world has done to me, what it does to my fellow women.  And I want it to stop.

“I am woman hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore.”

If we all unite and stop bickering about who has it worse, we can do something.  But we have to stand together.

“Oh yes I am wise but it’s wisdom born of pain.  Yes I’ve paid the price, but look how much I’ve gained.”

True throughout the history of women’s liberation, and true for me individually.  I have learned so much and I continue to learn, but I carry the scars of a brutal education with me, just as my ancestors carried theirs.

Fight the good fight, ladies.  You’re worth it, I am worth it.

I am woman.

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