From the X case to Pussy Riot: why I'm still a feminist, 20 years on

Tue, Sep 4, 2012, 01:00

As a teenager, ANNA CAREYwas told her generation had abandoned feminism. Twenty years later she refuses to make the same mistake about today’s young women

I’M TRYING TO REMEMBER the first time I was told that young women weren’t interested in feminism. It was probably about 1992, when I was both a very young woman – I turned 17 that September – and a feminist, and I remember being both surprised and annoyed. It kept happening, so I soon stopped being surprised, but I continued to be annoyed.

On both sides of the Atlantic the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s had apparently decided that their daughters’ generation were apolitical ingrates with no appreciation of or interest in the women’s movement, and they were keen to tell us how disappointed they were. It felt particularly unfair because every young feminist I knew was not only keenly aware of what that generation had done for us but also grateful. But some of them weren’t listening to us.

I am no longer particularly young, but I’m still a feminist, and for the past 20 years I’ve had to hear both older feminists and anti-feminists of all ages telling me that feminism was dead. According to the anti-feminists, this was because feminism was no longer necessary, as we were living in what was either a paradise of equality or a terrifying matriarchy; according to the feminists, it was because lazy young women were complacent and cared about nothing but Sex and the City and vajazzling.

But young women have never stopped embracing feminism, because they, and I, believe it’s still necessary. Girls were discovering it when I was a teenager, at the beginning of what became known as feminism’s third wave – the first was the women’s suffrage movement, the second the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s – in a flurry of riot-grrrl zines and bands and of declarations that you could still like make-up and be a feminist.

Twenty years later, as the huge popularity of feminist books such as Caitlin Moran’s hilarious, exhilarating How to Be a Woman and the rise of feminist blogs and campaigns from the Vagenda to the 5050 Group shows, they’re still discovering – and embracing – it.

THERE WAS NO thunderbolt moment in my feminist awakening in the early 1990s. In a way it was was probably inevitable. Having been brought up in a household where we were always encouraged to question gender stereotypes – throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Irish classes in our primary school would often include a small Carey asking, “Why are Máire and Mammy always in the kitchen and Seán always helping Daddy with the car?” – I began to take feminism seriously when I was about 16. This was partly thanks to riot grrrl, the musical movement that encouraged girls to get together, grab guitars and change first the music world and then, well, everything else. As a music-loving teenager I found the likes of Huggy Bear’s rowdy Her Jazz electrifying and inspiring.

Then there was Susan Faludi’s 1992 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. A brilliantly argued, compulsively readable critique of the political and cultural backlashes against women’s social and economic progression, it changed the way I watched television and read newspapers and magazines forever, and it remains the best guide to critical consumption of media I have read.

And then there was X case, which broke in early 1992. The treatment of that 14-year-old rape victim – she was banned from travelling to Britain for an abortion – both horrified and politicised me, helped by a Youth Defence-member classmate whose attitude to Miss X pushed me even more firmly in the other direction.

It was as if my eyes had been opened. Once I started looking at the world more politically I started paying attention to the fact that I lived in a world where women were constantly viewed as “the other” and the default human being was assumed to be male, where issues that concerned men were viewed as universal while those that concerned women were a minority interest.

The “othering” of women in almost every realm apart from parenting – where it’s men who are still often, patronisingly, viewed as the exceptions – is still the fundamental reason I’m a feminist. That and the fact that women make up just 15 per cent of the Dáil, a third of State boards and less than a quarter of local and regional authorities. The vast majority of senior civil servants are male. (On the hand, more than 75 per cent of clerical officers are female.) Even in professions dominated by women they don’t get the top jobs. Women do, however, do the vast majority of housework.

The feminism of today’s teenage girls and young women isn’t always the same as the feminism that my generation experienced as girls, but then feminism has never been a monolithic entity (though in the western world it has always had a regrettable tendency to focus on the concerns of middle-class white women).

Judging purely from personal experience – and here come some sweeping generalisations – today’s young feminists seem more politically active and aware than we were at their age. With some notable exceptions, such as the abortion debate, young feminists 20 years ago had a tendency to concentrate on pop-culture analysis and the personal rather than the political. (Yes, we knew they were sometimes the same thing.) Today’s feminists, of all ages, seem to have re-embraced political action on a grand scale, actively campaigning for everything from better political representation to reproductive rights.

In the 1990s it was common for young feminists to point out that you could be a feminist and also wear make-up and shave your legs and armpits. There was a lot of reclaiming going on: of girliness, of supposedly unfeminist words from “lady” to “bitch”, of traditional female pursuits such as knitting.

Many of us argued that there was nothing intrinsically unfeminist about these things, and I still believe this is true. But this attitude gradually got watered down into the idea that feminism was simply about choices and that if a woman chose to do something it was automatically a feminist act – an attitude brilliantly parodied by the satirists at the Onion in the headline “Women now empowered by everything a woman does.”

“Choice feminism” still exists, but it does so in a culture that allows women to disagree with each other and, yes, judge each other if necessary. As Moran wrote in How to Be a Woman, “When did feminism become confused with Buddhism?”

Today’s young feminists, pushed to their limits by a culture that expects young women to devote much more time and effort to personal grooming than we did at their age, seem more likely to advocate rebelling against the rules than to reassure girls that it’s okay to conform to them. The Irish writer Emer O’Toole wrote a brilliant and hilarious post for the Vagenda ( vagendamag.blogspot.ie) about growing out her body hair.

I’M CONSTANTLY IMPRESSED by the wit, activism and enthusiasm of teen and twentysomething feminists, but if I was being kind to my younger self I’d argue that it’s much easier for today’s girls to get organised, share their views and, indeed, find each other. In the early 1990s, around the time that Tim Berners-Lee was creating the world wide web, the only way to find kindred spirits was through zines or gigs. But that wasn’t easy. In 1993 my sister Jenny and I put together one issue of a zine that included a list of things we liked (Her Jazz, Brookside, the 1950s sitcom Hancock’s Half Hour) and didn’t like (poor old Richard and Judy were on the list, which seems a bit harsh now), but we never did anything with it.

So it’s not surprising that wider access to the internet coincided with the resurgence of feminism. Over the past decade feminist blogs and websites have sprung up all over the world. This feeds into real-life activism. Groups such as Ireland’s own 5050 Group, Irish Feminist Network and Cork Feminista could have existed in a pre-internet age, but the web makes it infinitely easier to co-ordinate campaigns and attract followers.

Twitter has been particularly good for raising consciousness of feminist issues, with the likes of @EverydaySexism, where women share stories of ordinary humiliations, and @Siren_Magazine, a spin-off from a feminist magazine produced by students at Trinity College Dublin. (I don’t remember many feminist magazines being published when I was a student there.)

I think today’s thirty- and fortysomething feminists are generally on the same page as our younger sisters. We share both a sense of humour and a love-hate relationship with pop culture and traditional femininity, and the internet has helped all of us become more politically engaged. We questioned our privilege and made an effort to engage with women traditionally excluded from mainstream western feminism – Muslim feminists, sex workers, transgender women – and younger women have continued this.

I think feminists of all ages will evolve together, even as my early-1990s youth becomes part of feminist history. The Russian feminist activists Pussy Riot were heavily influenced by riot grrrl, and Tavi Gevinson, the inspirational 16-year-old feminist behind the wonderful, and hugely popular, teen girl website Rookie, has often spoken of her love of early-1990s feminist pop culture. At least my generation can’t pretend today’s girls weren’t paying attention.


Anna Carey is the cofounder, with Sinéad Gleeson, of the feminist blog and podcast the Anti-Room, downloadable on iTunes and at theantiroom.com/podcasts/antiroom.xml. Her second book for teenagers, Rebecca’s Rules, is published on September 24th