Feminism: The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.
Reading the above definition, you would be hard-pressed to object to feminism as a concept. It is clear from reading the 2012 “Global Gender Gap Report” that this equality has not yet been fully attained. Perhaps surprisingly, the UK ranks 18th on the list and has closed 12% less of its so-called “Gender Gap” than the highest ranking country: Iceland. As an extreme example of a country where women’s rights are being denied, Saudi Arabia (131st on the rankings out of 134 countries) was the only country to score zero in the category of political empowerment for women. This is unsurprising when you consider that 0.0% of women are in parliament and only 17% of women are in the workforce.
The small improvement for women in Saudi Arabia for “economic opportunity” between 2008 and 2012 is encouraging, but many commentators have claimed that international intervention is necessary in order to close the “Gender Gap” in Saudi Arabia. They argue that these gender policies constitute a “crime against humanity” and criticise the US in particular for its focus on oppression by the Taliban, when Saudi Arabia has similar policies and is denied the same level of media attention.
In this case, and in many others like it, feminism and feminist ideals definitely have a purpose. A quick trawl of the internet can give you countless examples of where advocating women’s rights is necessary to try and combat inequality. I do not deny this as a fact. What I do object to however, is the presumption by certain women that female writers born after a certain date hold feminist views by default and will therefore write from a feminist viewpoint. As a notable example of this, the poet and critic Ruth Padel said in the introduction to her 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem that when she was younger:
“I believed….that you could handle words on their own without any luggage of attitude and belief. Male poets can still think that if they like. Since the seventies, women cannot. Feminism made them realise they couldn’t.”
Personally, although I accept that feminism can play a crucial role in defending women’s rights worldwide – and I fully recognise the contribution of women’s suffrage in the past – I also believe that pigeonholing female writers is demoralising and discouraging. As someone potentially attempting to enter writing as a career, the idea that women can’t write just for the sake of writing without political “luggage” strikes me as generalised and “sexist” in its own right.
The combination of feminism and writing is not always a successful one. The utopian novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is undeniably feminist – with an idealised all-female society where women reproduce via pathogenesis – and was the most tedious, didactic novel I have had the misfortune to read. The depiction of this society by a writer who seems representative of an extreme form of feminism – Separatist Feminism – is also unrealistic due to its portrayal of women as beautiful, wise, peaceful and robotically identical in personality.
There are, of course, examples where feminism and writing do compliment each other. Although I am not the biggest Carol-Ann Duffy fan, I can accept that she presents feminist ideas in an engaging manner. In particular, her 1999 collection The World’s Wife challenges her reader to reconsider their preconceptions about women’s position in history and has been hugely successful. As Charlotte Mendelson wrote in The Observer:
“In The World’s Wife, her exhilarating collection of flights of fantasy, Duffy sex-changed the heroes of high and pop culture and made old stories shiver with life.”
Margaret Atwood is another example of a so-called “feminist writer”, with her novel The Handmaid’s Tale usually cited as evidence of this. However, if you were to read her other – far superior – novels such as The Year of The Flood, it would quickly become evident that she writes far more interesting and complex fiction than the label “feminist” might suggest. In answer to the question asking whether she is a feminist writer, Atwood herself said that:
“Feminism can mean anything from people who think men should be pushed off cliffs to people think it’s okay for women to read and write”.
Although the majority of women would accept the latter part of Atwood’s definition, it is foolish to presume that all women must write with feminism as a major influence in their work. There does not need to be an ideological or political point to every piece of writing. In summary, I firmly believe that art can be made for art’s sake; writing can be written for the love of words alone.