The Moment I First Realised I Was a Feminist

After publishing my fabulous Lifestyle Writer Johanna's article on feminism on Vilda yesterday, I started thinking about the first time I felt like a feminist - not because I knew what feminism was. I just instinctively felt that something was wrong, like the first time I realised where meat came from. It wasn't the first time that I questioned authority, but it was the first time that I felt that women, as a gender and a collective group, were treated unfairly.

Rewind to 1995: I'm 12 and on holiday with my family. As my parents, grandma and two younger sisters all doze off in the sweltering afternoon heat, I am supremely bored. I never want to sleep during the day. It's too hot to go to the beach or pool. I have already eaten everything there was to eat. And let's remember this was before smartphones and the Internet...and obviously there is no TV in our rented bungalow. 

So when an acquaintance of my mother's comes to visit with a pack of Russian Cosmopolitan magazines, I am elated. All of a sudden, I don't care if it's raining. All I want to do is curl up anywhere, be it on my bed or a towel on the beach, and delve into the mysteries of womanhood, flipping hungrily through page after page, taking in information I didn't know I needed: how to walk comfortably in high heels, how to apply lipstick that will last all day, how to decipher mysterious male behaviour...the 12-year-old bespectacled nerd with frizzy hair revels in the shiny, perfectly polished female-ness.

Until this one thing happens.

I reach the "Ask Cosmo!" advice section. In the upper corner of  the page is a small photo of a woman with dyed brownish red hair, slight wrinkles around her mouth and a stern look on her face: she is, apparently, capable of solving every reader's problem in a few succinct lines on the glossy page. I read about her telling women to move on, to let go, to hang in there, to be innovative, creative, patient. And I agree with her...until I reach the letter that changed my view of women and society.

I stumbled upon a letter from a woman who'd gotten married too young, despite her parents' concerned advice to wait. She'd been swept away by the rose-hued illusion of romance and sported a white dress to wed a man she hardly knew. Furthermore, she'd given up her own budding career to live her friends' dream - being a kept wife (this is a Russian magazine, let's not forget that). And now, a few months into married life, she felt trapped. "I feel so empty inside", this young woman wrote. "At 23 years of age, I'm a prisoner of a marriage where I'm left to my own devices all day, feeling bored out of my mind, until my husband comes home and scolds me because dinner isn't ready and since he's providing for us, he feels entitled to coming home to a spotless house and a hot plate on the table. It makes me feel so humiliated. Where did my life and my dreams go? Am I doomed to years of dreary domestic life where the height of excitement is washing his socks?"

For some reason, twelve-year-old me felt incredibly sorry for this girl. I could picture her walking around in her huge, cold apartment with the humming of the washing machine as her only company, feeling lost and aimless. I could imagine that when her husband got cross with her, it felt like a slap in the face. And she had nowhere to turn - her friends all thought she was living the dream and her family were ready to shove "I told you so" down her throat. I instinctively wanted to comfort her, and trusted in the reddish-haired lady's ability to do so.

But the agony aunt's answer left me cold to the core. Her icy tone was the cherry on the cake, but the horror lied in her words: "my dear, you chose this for yourself. Inevitably, the rosy dream of a wife-to-be came to an end and was replaced by everyday life, as happens to every married woman. Your husband has every right to expect dinner on the table - he IS providing for your family, and that is truth, not humiliation. I think you're just bored with your routine. Try to find a hobby. And as for his socks, I advise you use a washing machine."

Today, 18 years later and armed with better knowledge of Russian and east-European mentality, I realise the agony aunt was simply envious of the fact that, at 23, this lady had managed to score the ultimate lottery jackpot: a rich guy. But back then, I was taken aback by this answer. Why was she dismissing this woman's misery as mere boredom and treating her cry for help as if she were an annoying spoilt brat? Why wasn't she advising the girl to tell her demanding, oppressive husband to shove it? Why didn't she include tips on where this woman could get advice on getting her CV together to get her career back on track? And most importantly, why was it a given that she should conform to old, stale, offensive traditionalist ideals - just because she's a woman? I bet a reader of a men's magazine would never get this advice. He'd be told to "get off your butt and get yourself a job! And throw that nagging b--ch out". If he ever even expressed his feelings - guys aren't trained to do that. But that's a different story. 

As I shut the magazine and went to take a walk, the condemning words of the agony aunt stayed with me. I felt that there was something terribly wrong with the way society put a certain stamp on women. All my life, I've had little tolerance for traditionalist attitudes that attribute housework to women (I'd say only animal abuse makes me angrier than this). I madly love the work I do and no amount of money falling from the sky would ever change that. Aside from my lack of understanding of why you'd ever want to live off someone else's money, there's also the notion that a stay-at-home husband is somehow less acceptable than a stay-at-home wife. This is exactly what makes me angry. 

Other occasions to question gender roles followed through the years: when my mother remarked that my passionate hate for housework, my total inability to cook and my reluctant attitude towards motherhood made me unfeminine, when I moved to Italy and saw job ads where the company openly stated that they were looking for a "good-looking female" for admin or restaurant positions, when a former supervisor of mine was so badly harassed by a top manager at the company who wouldn't accept that she didn't want to sleep with him that she cried in the kitchen. I always felt that it was wrong, not only from a human perspective, but from a gender-equality point of view. A thought kept popping up in my head:  in today's society, would a man ever get treated like this?

It saddens me that so many people mistake feminism for something it's not. When used correctly, feminism is as good for men as it is for women. As my fiancé noted, if women are encouraged to use their sexuality and looks to get ahead at work, how is a man ever going to be able to compete? David knows what he's talking about: in his younger days, both he and his friends were sometimes overlooked for bar and pub jobs in favour of tightly clad, busty blondes. Feminism is the attitude that says talent and determination should come first, whatever sex you are. It also promotes equality between parents, equal pay for the same job and no objectification of anyone. If you agree with this, then you are a feminist (if you don't...what's wrong with you?).

Caitlin Moran said it best: "To find out if you are a feminist, put your hand down your pants. 1. Do you have a vagina? 2. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations, you are a feminist."  I don't fully agree - you can have a penis, want others to be in charge of their own vaginas and still be a feminist, but it's still a great quote. 

Why isn't it called something like "equalist" then, some ask. Well, that's a fair question. The answer would probably be that until now, women have been the gender that's repeatedly drawn the short end of the stick, and if we change that, we'll achieve equality. When that will happen? No idea. But I have complete and total faith that it will.

Picture from Pinterest.

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