‘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
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