Rather than put our palm to our face when people say blow-dried hair precludes their being a feminist, let’s listen and make the movement more inclusive.
“Absolutely not: I definitely wouldn’t call myself a feminist,” began Angela Epstein on Newsnight on Tuesday. Answering a question from presenter Emily Maitlis about whether she’d describe herself as a feminist, the journalist and broadcaster offered up a wistful eulogy to the ghosts of feminism past and bemoaned the deterioration of the movement. Apparently one woman under the king’s horse was more than enough to secure feminist victory for all time. Women, she reminded us, now have the vote! Some women have even got the vote, a career and shiny hair. This is great news, but someone really ought to pass it on to the “grumpy women in bad clothes” who, according to Epstein, have bastardised feminism and committed the even graver offence of being poorly coiffed in the process.
There’s no need to defend feminism from tired arguments such as this. Epstein was invited on Newsnight alongside Mary Beard and Natasha McElhone to provide the obligatory counterpoint to the feminist strand of the debate. And she is patently wrong. The imbalanced distribution of wealth and power between men and women is proof enough of feminism’s legitimacy. And for those who still need convincing, personal testimony – via movements such as Everyday Sexism – paints an even more vivid picture of the prejudices that today’s feminists have to combat.
From within a feminist bubble it’s tempting to imagine that Epstein is just hollering into the void from her little soapbox and that her pointless polemics about being “disqualified from the sisterhood” for having a career, are falling on deaf ears. But if we think this way we’ll be sabotaging our own cause. Epstein’s views reflect a wider neurosis about the meaning of feminism. Rather than just shouting her down, we need to ask why such distrust still persists and what we can do to dispel it.
In an article she wrote after her TV appearance, Epstein paints a picture of a feminism set on taking from her the things she holds dearest: her husband, her pride in being a mother and her daughter’s right to play with dolls. As early as the first sentence she notes that her blow-dried hair should be evidence enough that she’s no feminist. It’s the kind of remark that make women up and down the country collectively facepalm. We mustn’t laugh, though: these sorts of imagined dichotomies are more common than we might like to believe.
I have heard young women say that they wouldn’t be a feminist because they love their boyfriends, or because they like to look sexy, or because they want to be a mother. Feminism apparently has been kept at arm’s length by those for whom it’s a pejorative term and shoehorned into the twin cones of Madonna’s pointy bra. It is seen as limiting by as many women as find it empowering.
Rather than ruing the fact that so many seem to have missed the memo which explained how feminism is necessary and liberating, we need to take responsibility for hand-delivering its message. We need to understand women’s reasons for recoiling from the word feminism, listen to their concerns, and see what we can do to be make the movement more inclusive. I’m not suggesting that we dumb down the message, abandon our demands or compromise on our principles, but we do need to take time to listen and to explain.
In the meantime, Angela Epstein has unwittingly exposed herself as just kind of person she abhors: the woman who thinks that career and family shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, the woman who wants to achieve on her own terms and who expects the freedom to dress as she wants without being reduced to a stereotype. Sorry to break it to you, Angela, but I think you might be a feminist, too.
By Ruby Tandoh