'Finding a way of being a girl that doesn't hurt'

Ford describes her own feminist awakening as 'a trickle of indignation that gave rise to a mighty river'.

Ford describes her own feminist awakening as 'a trickle of indignation that gave rise to a mighty river'. Photo: airportrait

In the final episode of Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the eponymous Slayer defeats the ultimate Big Bad by using magic (stay with me here) to harness her anciently gifted powers and awaken millions of sleeper Slayers poised to take her role in the event of her likely death. In a rousing address, Buffy tells all the Potentials that the patriarchal sorcery which offered a single girl up as protector could be overcome. In a stirring montage, we watch as girls around the world are emboldened by their new power and made suddenly aware of their incredible strength.

These final scenes came to me a few days ago as I discussed feminist awakenings with a friend. She referred to the Riot Grrrl movement as being her entry point into a feeling she suspected may have always been there, but had no way to articulate itself. The image of one woman being suddenly delivered from the slumber of relative ignorance tickled me. If women's liberation is a form of terrorism (as I've often heard it described) could there be millions of sleeper agents just waiting for their trigger moment to wake them up?

My own feminist awakening came about gradually. As a teenager, I argued vehemently with my father over the distribution of chores between my two siblings and I. Every evening after dinner, I'd hear the same words: "Right, girls. Time to do the washing up." Meanwhile, my brother was given leave to head to his bedroom and indulge himself as he pleased. I found this monstrously unfair.

During the now nightly arguments, I proposed a solution that I felt would address the fundamental inequality of our family's domestic arrangement and put an end to the bitter animosity that was steadily growing between father and child. I was prepared – happily! – to do the dishes every night without complaint as long as my brother and sister alternated. It seemed an equitable solution, and I couldn't see how it was less preferable to yelling at each other for half an hour while our food was trying to digest.

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But rather than take me up on it, my father would either storm out or push me aside to do the dishes himself, instilling in me the early lesson that the discord over discrimination will almost never be attributed to the inequality that exists therein, but to the ones who insist on making a problem out of it. He didn't seem to understand that my objection was never to the expectation that I contribute to the domestic workload, but that my brother be excused from it by virtue of having a penis.

On other nights, as my sister and I stood bent over the soapy sink, my mother would try to appease me by saying, "It's just that I know I can trust you girls to do a good job. If I left Toby to do it, I'd have to do them again." Because you make it easy for him to perform badly! I would scream inside my head, unmoved by the meaningless compliment of being handy with a dish-brush. Years before I could properly articulate it in my head, I was experiencing first hand one of the casually pervasive assumptions that continue to divide the sexes – men are good at running the world, women at running the house.

Lest I give the impression my childhood was a 1950s throwback, with girls in ankle-length skirts and mid-19th century chastity belts, let me confuse you further by telling you most of my rudimentary feminist education came from my father. To my sister and I, he emphasised the need to always maintain financial independence and to never rely upon a man for our livelihoods. He was a staunch supporter of reproductive rights, defending a woman's right to choose and letting us know that if we were ever "in trouble", we should never be afraid to tell him. He drummed into us early on that we were never to tolerate a man hitting us, and told my brother that he was never to hit a woman.

It was a confusing time. Because even though I believed in all the principles of feminism, I was so disconnected from the word itself that for many years I would deflect it as if it were an accusation I needed to apologise for. "Well, obviously I believe in equal rights ... but I wouldn't call myself a feminist." I was scared to wear the tag for the same reason many women are scared to call themselves feminists – I thought no one would want to have sex with me.

The thing is, no one wanted to have sex with me anyway, feminist or not. And it dawned on me one day that if I were so frightened of being confused for a man-hating, hairy-legged, ugly shrew just because I expressed the belief that women deserved equality and liberation, then perhaps the time for feminism hadn't passed after all.

I have been fortunate to have experienced the kind of life in which such an awakening occurred free of violence, trauma or pain. Instead, it was a trickle of indignation that gave rise to a mighty river. I grew weary of the routine way I was expected to contribute to my own diminishment, laughing at jokes that positioned women as a punchline in order to stroke the egos of boys whose limited experience of disapproval resulted in gendered name calling and the withdrawal of erectile approval.

The stories I hear from other women show that some of them have been luckier, raised from birth to believe in their fundamental right to exist equally. But many others have come to feminism through painful things that fill me with sadness, and remind me of a friend's words that "feminism is finding a way of being a girl that doesn't hurt".

I come across many women in my line of work who believe in the fundamentals of feminism but are still at the crossroad of uncertainty. All around them, they hear the message that equality has been reached – that anything we agitate for now is just the greed of professional feminists trying to get away with institutionalising misandry.

I can present you factual arguments to discount that, and demonstrate gendered inequality both here and internationally. I can cite statistics that will shock you with into incredulity. But the fact is, only you can answer the question of whether or not you believe yet.

Think of the sexist jokes passed off as humour, the rape apology sites on Facebook, the disparate numbers of men in positions of power. Think of your potential earning capacity, or the fact that only one in four girls in India won't live past puberty. Think of how victims of sexual violence are made complicit in their attacks, or the fact that girls are sold as property in parts of the world only to be discarded or killed when they no longer have any financial value. Have you found a way yet of being a girl that doesn't hurt? Have they?

I realise that for some of you the analogy might be a little too fantastical. But being awoken into a feminist reality isn't really so different because it takes one out of uncertainty and into strength. When Buffy Summers tells her Potentials of the plan to share her power, she leaves them with these words: "From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice.

"Are you ready to be strong?"

Correction: this article originally stated that one in four girls will make it past puberty. It has since been amended. Thank you to those who pointed it out.

119 comments

  • Yet another great piece of writing Clementine Ford. Like yourself, for years I struggled with the "F" word and whether I could call myself a feminist. Maybe it's an age thing, but now I can't see why it took me so long to accept and now I cannot understand why every woman isn't decrying the injustice and inequality of the sexes around the world. Painting feminists as man-hating, hairy shrews is just another way that the priviliged white male rulers are maintaining their feeble grasp of power. Their answer to all the ills of the world is to blame feminism, which is something I would find hilariously funny if it weren't so disturbing and dangerous for the progress of humankind.

    Commenter
    J
    Date and time
    April 23, 2013, 8:10AM
    • I can't walk down the street without being wolf-whistled or shouted at, my CEO constantly asks me to do his typing and make him cups of coffee (I'm a university educated woman in a management role) and I've been called a bitch more than once for politely declining an offer of a drink from a man, but sure, feminism has achieved its goals.

      Commenter
      buttercake
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 10:13AM
    • Apologies J, this was meant to be a reply to SmallTalk below you.

      Commenter
      buttercake
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 10:39AM
    • Another wonderful piece! This resonates so much with me, and gives great context to so many things I, and many women I know, struggle with and talk about. It is great to know that you are not alone, as much as possible.

      I can't possibly know what it is to come to a feminist awakening through many of the more painful ways that you mentioned, Clementine, but I believe that my own did come from a dark place of a different kind. It was to do with a partner of mine whose sexual behaviour with women, it slowly came to my attention, was unhealthy and in some ways perverted. This shook me up very much, and I am still working through it for many reasons. It also opened my eyes to feminism for real, though I had an interest in it before. Now, I don't think there is a day that goes by in which my feminism does not account for something I learn, something I think about more deeply, or something positive that I do. I just really hope that I can support others in this too.

      Thanks, Clem, as always.

      Commenter
      Claire
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 12:42PM
    • Buttercake, there will always be assholes. Always.

      Commenter
      missminute
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 4:38PM
    • Another wonderful piece by Clem, I personally have problems with the F word not because I fear men won't like me, because I dread other women saying "you're not a true feminist because you're wearing makeup..you work out" etc

      Commenter
      Sarah
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 9:49PM
  • Feminism has reached a point in the western world where is has attained the goals it set out to achieve. Now its great that many feminists acknowledge that the third world needs a great deal of work, but talk is cheap and action or support for third world women and girls is rare.

    Just think for a minute of all the charities in the world currently linked to cancer prevention and treatment. Now imagine if a breakthrough is made and a pill is created to cure it (it will happen one day I hope - probably some plant based enzyme or extract). What will all these organisations do? Close down or find another cause?

    This is where feminism is now in the west.

    Commenter
    SmallTalk
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 23, 2013, 9:23AM
    • "Feminism has reached a point in the western world where is has attained the goals it set out to achieve."

      You have to be male and/or a troll to have written that. Have you looked at the representation of females on boards of directors and in the senior managment ranks of companies lately? I suppose you are going to say that it's all the fault of the women that things are so uneven? My 20 or so years in corporate Australia tell me that men still have the majority of the power.

      Commenter
      PP
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 10:11AM
    • Except that it's extremely clear from the enormous amount of social inequality western women experience that it has nowhere near attained it's goals. I genuinely don't understand how people such as yourself can pretend that the inequalities don't exist.

      Commenter
      Erikah
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 10:26AM
    • PP - Numbers by themselves mean nothing. The number I'd need to see is the comparison between the percentage of men that have (objectively) done all they need to do to attain a C level position but have not got it and the number of women in the same boat. There is no particular reason to suggest that the absolute numbers should be the same.

      Commenter
      JTO
      Date and time
      April 23, 2013, 11:08AM

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