Review: Fifty Shades of Feminism, Various Contributors

This book was composed in response to a certain trilogy which was slightly popular last summer. I did not read said trilogy, not for any moral reason but because I understand that Twilight inspired it … in case you haven’t read this blog before, I hate Twilight and all associated media.  Still, there is a word in the title of this book which has an even greater potential to be inflammatory than a mere allusion to erotica, so I feel that I should have a disclaimer before I actually review this book.  Here goes:

I write about the books I read.  It’s been over two years since I started doing it, it’s been a year and a half since I started publishing it on here, which I only really set up because the Word document was making me feel depressed and Blogger had some interesting template options – I am still astounded and deeply grateful that anybody actually reads what I write and even more so that so many people have contacted me to say some really lovely things.  So I hope that now, since I’ve been doing this for a little while, we know each other well enough for me to say how much I loved this book and explain it was that I read it in the first place.

I have been a feminist for as long as I remember, even back in those heady pre-school days when it just involved running around a lot and knowing that being a girl was better than being a boy.  I remember telling my adored grandfather kindly that he was just as good as a girl, this was around about the time when my aunt got married which means that I had just turned three.  Obviously, I have matured since and I can appreciate and be thankful for the male members of my family without thinking that they are worth less but I have also come to realise that in my childish innocence, I stumbled into the mirror image of the prejudice which millions of women have suffered under every day for thousands of years.  I have tempered my views.  The flip side opinion does not seem able to do the same.

I have mentioned before that I have always received more trouble from my confessed feminism than about my Christianity.  People have smiled indulgently about my ‘religion thing’ but I have been sneered at by people I counted as friends because I am a feminist.  Interestingly, this has only ever convinced me more that I need to keep on admitting to it, speaking up and whereever possible to live up to it.  The closest I ever came to persecution for my Faith was being asked to leave a pub because my friend started evangelising.  Feminism has been a land-mine in conversations – yet none of these friends who have expressed their disdain for it plan to eschew maternity leave, the ability to leave the house showing one’s hair, the right to vote or the Equal Pay Act (which hasn’t totally kicked in but let’s keep dreaming).

This book made me happy.  I was in West Hampstead last weekend visiting a friend, who is lovely and who kindly advised me to ignore my Book Buying Ban when I spotted this book in West End Lane Book Shop.  It offers fifty women’s views on feminism – fifty women’s voices in support of other women.  The wide diversity amongst the contributors was what made this truly amazing.  Women from all across the globe, women from all walks of life, women with completely diverse agendas and interests.  All of them preaching feminism for the twenty-first century.  The Book Buying Ban was forgotten – the Hardback Book Buying Ban which I do actually stick to was discarded – I bought.  And I don’t regret it one bit.

There are many reasons for this book to be written, not just because Fifty Shades of Grey broadcast some dodgy messages about the role of women in relationships.  Let’s face facts – we need feminism as much now as ever.  A few weeks ago, Julia Gillard was forced from office this week, apparently having gone into a political tail-spin following an article where she was pictured knitting a toy kangaroo for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby.  This really disgusted me.  I admit to not  following Australian politics in detail but I found her speech on misogyny last October absolutely electrifying.  A few days ago, Wendy Davis and a crowd of angry Texan women had to literally shout and scream to shut down a bill that would have virtually removed their rights to abortions.  The videos and the photographs were truly inspiring – the situation though was horrific.

I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression – I am not a bra-burning militant.  I am an old-fashioned girl.  My housemates tease me when dirty jokes pass me by and if anything living with four boys has only made me more girly.  I recently took up knitting and have been ridiculously excited about it so I understand completely why Julia Gillard is a fan of it too.  Yet in this book, there were women such as Lindsey Hilsum in Essay 18, speaking of Marie Colvin the front line journalist who broadcast from the battlefield but still liked to wear pink when at home.

Marie Colvin

I loved Fifty Shades of Feminism for including women who proclaimed that it was ok for to like all of these things and still to believe that I should be paid the same as a man if I am doing the same job and we both have the same level of experience.  As Lindsey Hilsum pointed out, being a front line journalist is a dangerous job for a woman but the shell which killed Marie Colvin last year also killed a male photographer – the risk was the same notwithstanding their sex.

I do not believe that I was disadvantaged because I was brought up by a single mother and although I am a Christian, I know that I will never be happy in a relationship if I am expected to submit.  I do not believe that it is acceptable to ask part a rape or abuse survivor had in her assault- they are victims, we should celebrate their survival.  And the fact that I always feel awkward and defensive inside whenever I am asked about feminism tells me that we have not yet arrived in a world that does not need people to speak for women.

I work with children.  I am a teacher in an area which came bottom in the government’s happiness survey and consistently has one of the highest rates of child abuse and domestic violence.  Several of the children in my class are at high risk.  I try not to take it home with me but sometimes it is very difficult.  Several of the families have very violent fathers and their mothers choose the ‘stability’ of remaining married over their children’s emotional and physical well-being.  I looked at one woman who was explaining to me that her son’s behaviour was because of factors at school and couldn’t help thinking, Do you not get that your son loves you?  Do you not understand how frightening it is when he hears his father beating you?  Do you not see that he is losing respect for you with every day that you let this situation continue?  I know that she feels that she has no other option.  I know that culturally, she does not think it possible for marriages to end.  Fortunately for me, my feminist mother was able to take a deep breath, have courage and walk away from my father when she knew he would do us no good.  I am grateful every day that she put my welfare before his.

Now that would be impressive.

Feminism gets an ugly name.  I have a postcard with that appalling quote from Pat Robertson that it “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, overthrow capitalism, practice witchcraft and become lesbians“, while that is hilariously ludicrous, even ‘normal’ people can have a fairly hair-raising perception of it.  You’re supposed to cut your hair, spell women with a y and curse boys out when they hold a a door open for you.  About the door thing by the way – I have no objection in principle but let’s be honest – it’s just good manners.  I don’t think that you should have to stop and applaud a boy every time he’s just been vaguely polite.  Oddly enough, the boy who I remember being the most up-tight about always opening doors was also the one who called me immoral and walked away from me after a nearly-decade long friendship … as far as I can see, a little less attention to doors and a little more to other people’s feelings would make him a far more pleasant human.


Helena Kennedy

I was particularly struck by Helena Kennedy QC in Essay 24; when we are asking for rights for women, really all we are doing is demanding basic human rights.  Studies have shown that better educated mothers make for healthier for children – we should be investing far more in the adolescent girls of this world.  Many of the writers shared stories of women who had inspired them while growing up.  Perhaps they didn’t even need to use the word feminist – you don’t need to, ‘ism’s are often problematic – it’s the idea which is important.

I really liked Essay 22 by Jude Kelly when she talked about going to see football with her partner even though it was not her favourite thing not because she wants to show ‘girly compliance’ but because it was the right thing to do in a relationship. Next time, they would do something she felt like doing. It’s called compromise. Being a strident feminist does not mean one goes around demanding one’s own way.  Earlier this year, I read A Year of Biblical Womanhood which said the same thing – we don’t submit because men are better, sometimes we do what the other person wants because we love them.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Another essay I loved was number 34, when Bee Rowlatt rhapsodised about the wonderfulness of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women … shockingly, I had never really known much about her except that she was Mary Shelley’s mother but it transpires that she was awesome and I need to find out more!  Rowlatt helpfully explains how Wollstonecraft’s teachings can be applied to our everyday lives, for everything from careers vs babies (Mary just tucked the baby under the arm and did as she pleased) to how to respond to sexism in the workplace.  Still, the best quote comes from Mary herself, “I do not wish for women to have power over men, but over themselves“.  Precisely.  Precisely.

So, I really recommend this one.  It reminded me a bit of going to see The Vagina Monologues, which I saw two years in a row but while I don’t plan on going to that again for a good few years (it didn’t have the same impact the second time), I can tell already that it’s going to be a book that I will be looking at again and again.  The issues will shift and some of the things discussed will date but the passion behind it is an eternal one.  The final quote included was one from Caitlin Moran – “You can tell when some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, “And are men doing this as well?”  If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as “some total f***ing b******t”.  Word.

As a child, I believed that women and men had equal opportunities and had led too sheltered a life to know that there were those in the world who thought otherwise.  I have experienced sexism now myself, I have also grown up in the Christian church which sadly still supports some distinctly misogynistic messages.  I will not stay silent, I will not obey, I will not set aside my intellect and live as a child.  I have seen what happens to women who do that.  Equally though, I feel sorry for the boys who grow up in these attitudes, who believe that reading is for girls, who ‘deprive themselves of knowledge of the world’ lest they seem unmanly (Essay 21).

So, I will continue to be the girl who knits, who wears pink cardigans, who annoys the four boys she lives with by listening to cheesy music and Radio 4 loudly in the kitchen.  I will continue to be my own kind of feminist.  This book made me believe that both sides are possible – there is no such thing as a bad feminist, because from Fifty Shades of Feminism, we see clearly that there are no two feminists who are exactly alike.  I will probably never read Fifty Shades of Grey, I don’t really see the point but I am so glad that I read this – it is uplifting, encouraging and inspiring – this book celebrates the best of being a woman.

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Fifty Shades of Feminism by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes, Susie Orbach, Sharon Haywood, Tahmima Anam, Joan Bakewell
Published by Virago on March 28th 2013
Pages: 324
ISBN: 1844089452

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4 thoughts on “Review: Fifty Shades of Feminism, Various Contributors

  1. It's fascinating that almost every day for the past couple of weeks – fake women have been posting about a Fifty Shades of Grey on this entry. Kind of sums up why people thought that this book needed to be written … artificial avatars of women created to promote soft porn. Bizarre.

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