Flowers laid in Clapham Common in memory of Sarah Everard, who went missing in March Credit: Pietro Recchia/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Why we need feminism now

Sexism is obvious to those who look closely—as women writers have long realised
March 20, 2021

I put hoops in my ears. I rubbed cream that smelt of geraniums onto my arms, and went out into the night to meet my friends. I had to go along a road that had a park on one side and empty buildings on the other. There was no one around. The liquid moon of a motorbike’s headlamp appeared, far off on the opposite side of the road. As it came closer, it crossed over, and came straight at me. I put my head down, away from the light. I froze. The motorbike swerved and stopped, sort of side-on, blocking my path, gleaming purring metal. A voice said, “What have you got for me darling?” I looked up and from deep within the helmet a man wearing the mask of a skull looked back at me, sharp teeth and jawbone coming out of the dark. I thought: he is going to hurt me. And then I smiled at him.

Why did I smile? I have asked myself this question many times. I have felt shame at my smile. It came involuntarily, as automatic as adrenalin. Does my training run that deep? Mary Wollstonecraft said that “the mighty business of female life is to please.” How to parse a woman’s smile? Who can tell its secrets? In this instance I know that the texture of my smile was fear. I smiled because I was terrified, and this was how my body thought to protect me. Survivors of rape worry that they will not be believed, sometimes because they did not fight back, or try to escape. They are right to worry; juries acquit men on these grounds. But these acquittals, and the systematic suspicion of a woman’s testimony, fail to comprehend the workings of violence. Silence, stillness, a smile: these are the last ditches of protection, the body’s chronic attempts to circumvent an attack, rather than complicity with it. Indeed, complicity itself, often touted as consent, can be the evaporation of power.

Perhaps my smile did protect me, and disarm him. Or perhaps he thought twice when other people turned into the road. Or perhaps he only ever wanted to mess with my head. At any rate, he drove off. Nothing happened, not really. There was no harm done. Yet I tell this story because my fear at the edge of the cavernous park was one more jolt in everyday gendered reality: a hand between my thighs on a crowded train; the boy who was my friend who gave me a razor and told me to shave my legs; the driver who shouted out of his window “do you want to die, bitch?”; earning less than men, for the same work; watching another woman assaulted on television, for entertainment; receiving another instruction to cheer up, calm down, eat more, eat less; seeing rooms of white men make decisions about women’s bodies; hearing a President say that he could do anything to women. Grab ’em by the pussy.

Feminism only makes sense if you believe in sexism. Otherwise it has no object, no legitimate claim. And here we come to a precipice: many people do not believe in sexism, in the same way that many people do not believe in racism. They deny that these are structural realities. If they concede that there is a problem, it certainly does not exist in them. They are not sexist. Indeed, men might say that they are under attack, caught up in a kind of war—they love their military metaphors—a culture war, a war on free speech, a sex war that women are winning, wearing the trousers, victorious over redundant, henpecked men.

I met a man, a successful artist, who said he was worried that women now have an unfair advantage. He was sympathetic to feminism, he explained, but he thought it ran the risk of discriminating against men. He told me that he had been asked to speak on a panel where he was the only man. This upset him, he said. He felt like a token. I saw another man on the news, a Member of Parliament, say that he did not believe in feminism, but in equality for all. He simply would not put up with double standards (lower for women, higher for men). I heard another man on the radio, a judge this time, say that he disapproved of positive discrimination. The first priority, he insisted, in choosing a judge is that they should be a good judge, rather than come from a particular group of people. He was concerned that favouring a candidate on the basis of their identity would discourage those who felt that the dice were loaded against them. I have listened to many men say that the “me too” movement feels like an assault on them. It has gone too far, they explain. Their hands are tied. They are not allowed to flirt anymore. There are some bad men, of course, but not them. Not all men. When is International Men’s Day, they ask every year.

Privilege does not see itself as such. This is core to its operation. The way of the world passes for the way of justice. Male supremacy stipulates itself as a reflection of merit, rather than a contingent function of power. And if you are told that what you think you see—sexism, misogyny—is not really there, but just a figment of your imagination, you might start to doubt your eyes, your capacity to read the world. You might venture to say that one of the reasons why people did not vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election was because she was a woman. This might elicit outrage, or a smirk, followed by a list of “real” reasons why she was not quite right. She was cold, unlikeable, too pleased with herself. As Rebecca Solnit put it, “unconscious bias” was “running for president.”

You might complain when a man touches you, you might whisper that it is harassment—and then be told that it is just a bit of fun, don’t be such a snowflake. And indeed, as your words fall through the air, they can seem like snowflakes, settling on nothing, vanishing into the tarmac. You are the offence, your complaint is the offence, rather than the offence that you are complaining about, and you are making everybody feel bad. A feminist is a killjoy, by definition, as Sara Ahmed explains; you kill joy by calling out sexism. “To be willing to go against a social order, which is protected as a moral order, a happiness order, is to be willing to cause unhappiness.” You are the one who is “difficult,” and “angry,” and causing tension, not the man with his hand on your knee.

From the perspective of gender, there are two ways of experience. One is flooded with light and runs along smooth lines. It feels well framed by language. Words like meritocracy and impartiality seem to touch something real. In this realm, the architecture of decision-making is constructed out of glass and steel. Shafts of objective reason shine through to the best candidate. Unbending principles of due process and the rule of law gird the halls. Here the best man wins. Here a man is innocent until proven guilty. To obstruct his path, to stop him from further ascent because of the whisperings of women would be prejudicial. He could lose his career. It would be a witch-hunt.

The very same place can feel like it is made of thorns. Due process, the rule of law, the proper channels—these bar your way; they can draw blood. The branches of the state—immigration, education, justice, healthcare—these tangle you up. You might know that you have been beaten, or are qualified for a particular job, or are ill— but the verdicts come back negative. Not guilty. Rejected. It is all in your head. Work—invisible, precarious, reproductive, emotional—does not feel like liberation. This does not feel like a land of equal opportunity. It does not feel like a safety net.

You might say quietly: if this is a witch-hunt, I am not the hunter. In the 16th century, it was said that you could find out whether someone was a witch by forcing them under water. If they floated back up, they were a witch. The king of Scotland, James VI, explained that this was because God made the pure water expel them. He (the king) went on to say that another way of ascertaining whether someone is a witch is seeing whether they can cry. Witches cannot cry. This is not a fail-safe method with women, however, because women can fake cry, “dissemblingly like the Crocodiles.” They can turn on the waterworks. It is impossible to know whether a woman is a witch, or just a woman.

Here, you are guilty until proven innocent. You cannot be trusted on the basis of your words, or your crocodile tears. Weep or don’t weep; speak up or stay silent; you’ll drown all the same.

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The North Berwick "Witches," Agnes Sampson, Agnes Tompson, Dr Fian are tried before King James. Most were executed. C.1591 Credit: Alamy


#MeToo is a chastening demonstration of where we are. Founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke “to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of colour from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing,” her movement subsequently swept the world.

One might have thought that surely, at last, this would be the moment of truth. In a flash, on everyone’s screens, people would see what feminists had been trying to show for centuries. Twitter lit up like an unpolluted night sky. Every woman had a horror to impart. And yet men, and women too, shrugged, or called bullshit. Harvey Weinstein was sent to prison for rape, but nothing much changed. Indeed, men doubled down. This was a moment of truth, but not the one feminists had longed for. The absence of action, of acknowledgement, after we had told our stories, felt like a slap in the face, a reminder of just how deeply some men feel entitled to women’s bodies. It demonstrated yet again the basic, unfathomable refusal of people to see what is right in front of their eyes.

In part, sexism is hard to see because it is a structural phenomenon. It is, that is to say, a web of historic, economic, political, institutional and individual forces that operate on bodies and psyches, and that sustain an oppressive hierarchy based on gender. It exists in the connections between events as much as in the events themselves. It cannot always be read off the intentions of actors, but is legible in the patterns and outcomes of life. It is often inadvertent; indeed inadvertency is part of its mechanism. It is a bit like gravity; it cannot be seen, but its pull can be felt—in governments packed with men; in laws that permit domestic violence and ban abortion; in girls deprived of education and ostracised for menstruating; in female genital mutilation; in unpaid labour and low-paid exploitative and precarious work; in the flat-lining of careers—for those who are lucky enough to have one—after women have children; in gender-based murder; in the victimisation of women in war; in forced sterilisation; in the stripping of rights and safety from migrant women; in the fact that black women have a higher risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

Sceptics of feminism can see individual incidents of harm as bad, but they will not admit a pattern. Indeed, trying to convince them of one is a sexist experience in itself. Nothing to see here. You are gaslit; you are a conspiracy theorist. It is only when the facts are admitted as linked that patriarchy comes into view. It is then that the little things—the things that we are told do not matter—can be understood as mattering. A wolf whistle matters, for example, because it is part of the grand scheme of things—because it reverberates amid the noise, as constant as traffic, of men judging, policing, and silencing women—because it recurs on a continuum that runs from the gender pay gap all the way through to femicide.

Seeing sexism as structural elucidates why there can be no such thing as reverse sexism, just like there can be no such thing as reverse racism. Racism and sexism and racist-sexism only make sense as descriptions of the systematic disadvantage and harm meted out to particular groups. An unwanted arm around your waist would not be a significant problem in itself, but it becomes one against the background power relations between men and women. Those who object to so-called positive discrimination, or political correctness, or identity politics, or “the woman card” fail to see the discrimination, incorrectness, and privilege that routinely stack the deck. Those who deny that sexism exists imagine that men and women exist on some mythical plain abstracted from time and culture, a level playing field where atomised individuals are free to make of their lives what they will, each giving as good as they get, like Beatrice and Benedick. This view ignores the ancient landscape that domination has sculpted, the earth it has cut away. To get a sense of the geography of this place, we might think of the answer Margaret Atwood got when she asked a man, “Why do men feel threatened by women?” Because “they’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. Then she asked women why they felt threatened by men. Because “they’re afraid of being killed,” they said.

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Audre Lorde in the 1970s / Everett Collection Credit: Alamy


One danger with feminism is that it creates a narrative, and an identity, of victimhood. This is a conundrum because the basis of feminism is that women are victimised. If there were no sexism, there would be no need for the movement. But the repetition of the point can itself be injurious to women. It can suggest that they have no agency, nor infinitely rich lives that transcend their gender. It can even encourage a doubling down of aggression, as Kate Manne has explained; “misogyny is a self-masking phenomenon: trying to draw attention to the phenomenon is liable to give rise to more of it.” This is a catch-22 dilemma; as Manne ventures, “there is no way around this.” We cannot not name the problem.

But just as feminism is about calling out injustices, so is it a breaking free of them, a swimming away from abjection towards abundant selfhood and solidarity. It is about every girl everywhere who, in Denise Riley’s words, “is on fire with passion to achieve herself.” It is the train that Simone de Beauvoir and Deborah Levy bought a ticket for. “The destination,” as Levy writes, “was to head towards a freer life.” It is the imagination of other possible worlds—the world, for example, dreamed up by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a Muslim activist and educationalist, born in 1880 in Pairaband, in what is now Bangladesh. She created Ladyland, where men are shut indoors in purdah, while the women live in peace and plenitude, siphoning water from the clouds, and winning a war by harnessing the light of the sun, without a drop of blood being shed.

The history of feminism is as much the history of conflict between feminists as it is the history of conflict against patriarchy—and if feminism is to move forward, if true solidarity is to emerge, it needs to reckon with its internal tensions. It needs, in Audre Lorde’s words, to turn and face “the cold winds of self-scrutiny.” Navigating difference is challenging, especially perhaps for women, who tend de facto to be the world’s experts on merging and connecting. In Between Women, Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach discuss the “enormous misunderstandings” that can exist between women. We need “to unravel, uncover, and speak openly about these difficulties... the hurt, the envy, the competition, the unexpressed anger, the feelings of betrayal and the experience of abandonment.”

We need to think about difference as inflected by power. Lorde reflects on how white women learnt to express anger against men but not how to respond to it from other women. “My response to racism is anger,” said Lorde in 1981, and the right response to that is change—not guilt or deflection or defensiveness. But the change has not come, as Reni Eddo-Lodge noted about white feminists in 2017. “My speaking up about racism in feminism, to them, was akin to a violent attack on their very idea of themselves.”  There is a vast amount of psychological and practical work to be done. As Lorde says, “no woman is responsible for altering the psyche of her oppressor, even when that psyche is embodied in another woman.” But Lorde also consoles: “the strength of women lies in recognising differences between us as creative.” Mutual recognition is exhilarating, and inflexible self-righteousness will not get us there. Feminism is often associated with speaking up and speaking out, but it is as much about learning to hear. As Lola Olufemi writes, “those who are and have always been the wrong kind of woman . . . they have cleared a space for us to understand the political possibilities that feminism offers us. We only have to listen for it to reveal itself.”

This is an edited extract from the introduction to "The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing," edited by Hannah Dawson