‘Bub­ble-wrap­ping women isn’t help­ing lp­ing – it’s op­press­ing us’

Fe­male-only ho­tels and train car­riages? Bub­ble-wrap­ping women does us no favours in gain­ing equal­ity, says Far­rah Storr. We need to toughen up

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

be­tween the ages of 13 and 16, I spent my days locked in a red-bricked tower filled with women. There were smart women. And hi­lar­i­ous women. And mis­chievous women who wore their hair long and their skirts short. We were a funny bunch, thrown to­gether by our sex, our ado­les­cent hor­mones and our shared un­hap­pi­ness at spend­ing our ‘es­sen­tial’ years in an all-girls school, hid­den away from the dark, for­bid­ding world.

But some­times, these young women wanted to test the world. Some would take the bus out of town at lunch time, just to see what was out there. Or, worse still, ‘hang out’ with boys from the school over the road, just to know what it felt like to be de­sired. And al­ways, word would travel back to the tower. The girls were called out, ad­mon­ish­ments de­liv­ered, and the eerie mes­sag­ing that pro­tec­tion from the big wide world was for our own good was dis­sem­i­nated to all.

I grew up with the vague un­set­tling feel­ing that men were not to be trusted, the world was over­whelm­ingly scary, and that the best course of ac­tion one could hope for as a frag­ile woman was to let those in power pro­tect me. And yet, when I hit 16, I had a de­ci­sion to make. Stay and do my A-lev­els at the tower, or ven­ture in­stead to the mixed col­lege down the road and test how the ‘real’ world, filled with boys and temp­ta­tion, would im­pact me. I chose to leave, and I won­dered then if ex­po­sure to the very things we are scared of is what ul­ti­mately makes us stronger.

This is not what the mod­ern strain of fem­i­nism has sadly come to rep­re­sent. We now live in a world where women-only ho­tels, women-only car­riages on pub­lic trans­port and even women-only is­lands (Fin­land’s Su­per­she Is­land, for all those des­per­ate to es­cape men) are now a thing.

I’ve qui­etly un­fol­lowed many so­cial me­dia ac­counts of strong women, whose once em­pow­ered con­ver­sa­tions have turned to crie de coeurs about op­pres­sion and how bad women have it. Only re­cently, I was ad­mon­ished by one of my peers for us­ing the age-old term ‘post-coital hair’ ( had she ob­jected to the use of a cliché, I’d have been far more will­ing to lis­ten). Why? Turns out that she found it ‘of­fen­sive’ to wom­ankind, an overly sex­u­al­is­ing term, and that bet­ter things were to be ex­pected from the ed­i­torin-chief of Cosmopolitan. Re­ally? I’d hoped read­ers were too busy fig­ur­ing out how to get ahead in life to suf­fer pal­pi­ta­tions over a word de­scrib­ing the désha­billé French­girl hair we all lust af­ter. (Oops – hang on. Doesn’t ‘désha­billé’ mean ‘scant­ily dressed’ in French? Crikey. I’m a haz­ard to the health of del­i­cate women ev­ery­where.)

Shout­ing about our woes (then do­ing noth­ing); telling one an­other there’s an evil pa­tri­archy at work that will al­ways keep you down; feed­ing the idea that there is an imag­i­nary start­ing line that puts us 10 feet be­hind men… While some of this may be true, it is not al­ways help­ful. It cre­ates a nar­ra­tive of vic­tim­hood that isn’t right for all women. Imag­in­ing there is a wicked con­glom­er­ate of men plot­ting how to keep women op­pressed is a sim­plis­tic view of the world. Most of us who have stud­ied the research know that the gen­der pay gap is a com­plex is­sue that takes into ac­count ev­ery­thing from moth­er­hood to the sort of pro­fes­sions women are drawn to. (A bet­ter fem­i­nist ar­gu­ment is: why don’t we pay the car­ing in­dus­tries, which cater more to women’s nat­u­ral in­stincts, prop­erly?)

A tough world needs tougher mind­sets. Study af­ter study shows that the hu­man mind and body is made not for com­fort, but for dis­com­fort. It copes stag­ger­ingly

i grew up with the un­set­tling feel­ing that men were not to be trusted

well un­der pres­sure. It is why ul­tra-run­ners have larger hearts than or­di­nary folk and why, af­ter hours of training, bal­leri­nas are re­warded with feet that can turn at al­most su­per­hu­man an­gles. Com­fort and cod­dling is not what we are de­signed for.

And yet, this is not some­thing that new strains of bub­ble-wrap fem­i­nism un­der­stand. As well-mean­ing as it may once have been (all ideals be­gin with a good premise), it is what ul­ti­mately keeps women op­pressed. Bub­ble-wrap fem­i­nism nour­ishes the con­cept of gen­der in­equal­ity by per­pet­u­at­ing the myth – for it is a myth – that women need pro­tect­ing. It makes oth­ers re­sent­ful, be­cause it de­mands ex­cep­tions are made for us. It puts it out there that women are frag­ile be­ings who need pro­tec­tion from male com­pany, be­ing looked at and even lan­guage. At best, it feeds gen­der stereo­types by ad­mit­ting that women are weaker. At worst, it strength­ens ar­gu­ments for big­oted pa­tri­ar­chal minds out there to keep us back.

The fem­i­nism that I know, that my mother knew, and that my mother’s mother started to see the dawn of, was one that put men and women on an equal foot­ing. It was a fem­i­nism born from prag­ma­tism, not ide­al­ism. It was one that pre­pared women for the world, rather than try­ing to pre­pare the world for women.

And here’s the other thing bub­ble-wrap fem­i­nism does – it ad­mon­ishes its own. Just like the teach­ers in the tower. The sis­ter­hood will call out any woman who chooses to feel dif­fer­ently about the cause. Just as, no doubt, I will be called out for writ­ing this very piece. En­joy be­ing wolf whis­tled at? You ret­ro­gres­sive mis­sus. Choose to cover up? How dare you play into out­dated no­tions of op­pressed women. (Af­ter I wrote about how I choose to dress mod­estly, for no other rea­son than I feel more com­fort­able in lots of fab­ric and elas­ti­cated waist­bands, a list of prom­i­nent fem­i­nists called for my res­ig­na­tion.) It is pa­tro­n­is­ing. It is in­fan­tile. And it is of no use in build­ing strong women who rely on them­selves to make it.

Over the years, I’ve had the priv­i­lege of meet­ing many high-achiev­ing women. The most suc­cess­ful are not pre­oc­cu­pied with of­fence and the polic­ing of oth­ers’ be­hav­iour. They’re sim­ply tak­ing on the best of men – and winning spec­tac­u­larly. Far­rah Storr is au­thor of ‘ The Dis­com­fort Zone: How To Get What You Want By Liv­ing Fear­lessly’ (£13.99, Pi­atkus); out now

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