comments 38

In which I clean my house, and ponder on what it is to be a feminist

I’ve got a new dustpan and brush! It’s so cute – it’s baby blue. And metal, with a huge brush to go with it. It cost about twice as much as a plastic one but because it’s metal, I can scoop warm ashes from the stove into it and dump them on the garden, which is so much better than the previous scoop-them-into-a-cardboard-box-aargh-aargh-it’s-started-smouldering routine that went on in our house before.

I also have a new Leifheit Rotaro sweeper(£59.99 new,  £15 second hand!)  I must admit I hadn’t intended to go so totally low-tech, but was really looking for an alternative to the big hoover, which was hurting my back. I also find sweeping and brushing really therapeutic and it’s helping polish my terra cotta floor, with which I have a love/hate relationship, up to a shiny finish.

I have to say I really like cleaning.  The only problem with cleaning is that it takes time.  And if I had the choice I’d rather be reading or writing than cleaning.  And since my life priorities to go: work/kids -> school governance -> writing/blogging/reading, and since these things take up almost all my time, cleaning gets pushed right down the line.

But yesterday, I did make space for a bit of therapeutic me-time.

After having to take time off last week for OFSTED, and also because each of the Lovely Daughters had an appointment, I had to leave for work super early in the morning each day.  On Wednesday I was practically falling asleep driving in.  Thursday was my first normal time start for about a week, so waking up and not having to get up straight away was bliss.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been all week, at work, trying not to fall asleep.

Although I’ve not been reading or writing, I have been thinking about various things.  One of them is this post here: “Men can be feminists but should they?” from the ever thought provoking Leif.

Firstly, my own thoughts are that although I sympathise with and support many feminist causes, I can’t call myself a feminist because to me, being an anything “-ist” implies a total philosophy and orientation of your life style. It implies to me more than the passing interest in feminist theory and literature with feminist themes that I have, my interest being no more urgent than, say, literature on a multi-cultural theme.

Of course I could be wrong on this definition.

Secondly, I do not think that you can call yourself a something “-ist” unless you have lived and experienced that life for yourself.  Life as a woman is more complicated than I thought it would be when I embarked upon it aged thirteen/fourteen.

I was reminded of this last Friday. Amongst all the fun and laughter, a common theme emerged among the women there, and that was one of adaptations we had made to the way we lived our lives on behalf of our families in order to have children.

This isn’t true of all of us, of course. In some of our local families, mum has the main job and dad does more of the childcare. But I have found that usually, there is a “reason” for this set up, which is often that mum has the greater earning power. Where a man and a woman have shared a comparable level of education and previous job experience, it seems that the woman by default tends to give way for the good of family life.  To them man, it does not usually seem that there is a decision to be made; he just carries on with life as it is.  And to what extent do women limit themselves and their career ambitions, through cultural conditioning?

This isn’t supposed in the least to be a moan; trends aside, we all do what we think is best for our lives and our families. It’s just an observation, and I am interested to make this observation because when I was growing up, with all my hopes and future before me, I did not see why we could not all forge an equal society together, where legislation and logic would allow women to have a totally equal chance to compete with men in the job market.

I used to think that I could think my way to the solution for a better society. But now I have been through this realisation that lives look different when you experience and live through them, I have moved towards the opinion that you cannot truly understand something unless you have experienced it. Knowledge, even a very detailed knowledge, is not enough. It’s why, when you meet someone and you come from a similar background or past as they do, you feel affinity, even though you don’t know each other.

So, this is my argument why men can’t be feminists. Because they haven’t experienced the issues around what it is to be a woman.

What do you think? Have I just moved from one over-simplistic view to another?

[I want to say thank you to everyone who has been posting over the last two weeks.  I’ve not been able to keep up with everything but all your thoughts have been spinning around in my head with, amongst other things, the above results.]



  1. I have a different take on this and it’s one I got from the British feminist, Caitlin Moran, in her book “How to be a woman”. Good book btw.

    She’s of the view that if you believe in equal rights for men and women, and doesn’t everybody??, then you’re a feminist. So we’re all feminists, even men!

    I’ve just found one of her quotes:

    We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”

    I never thought of myself as a feminist until I read her book.

    • Aaaahhhh, Caitlin is great! She is one of my heroines, as she’s made so much of her life but most of all writes with such humour, verve intelligence and great arguments. I am really glad that she is there as such a great advocate of feminism. I think that feminism is a good thing. I just don’t equate wanting equality with being a feminist. Also I don’t equate having feminist leanings and sympathies with being a feminist. But I guess that’s just semantics and how we see things.

      You are right, maybe I should read the book and see how I feel after that!!

  2. amediablogger

    Nice post Denise. Nizar qabbani (a syrian poet) described his work as being feminist. In fact Arab scholars have often described his work as the female voice. In context, he wrote about women as though he was a woman or believed he was. He also wrote poetry about topics that were considered taboo but was able to do so because he was a man. Arab women have given him a lot of attention because many believed he was voicing their views and opinions.
    Now to cleaning. I Love cleaning. How to get shiny terra cotta floors is steam cleaning. It’s amazing 🙂

    • I’ve just read a bit about Qabbani. It’s really interesting to think about writing from a female viewpoint when you are a male. For example, I’ve seen work by eg Terry Pratchett, Mark Haddon and Julian Barnes which I think really illustrates how women see the world. They all collaborated with or consulted their wives in their writing.

      It’s interesting to know that Qabbani’s sister committed suicide as a result of pressure put on her to marry. I’m really interested to see whether there are counterexamples to what I think, and I wonder if real closeness to a woman’s experience, for a man, is enough for a man to know what it is like to be a woman. I’ve never been close enough to another person to know whether that is possible, but would be interested to see the conclusion I’ve drawn from my experience disproved by someone else’s experience.

      • amediablogger

        Hi Denise, I just saw your reply. Qabbani’s work is fascinating. His life was very interesting. I think these lines can be so blurred. many female writers used to pose as men (in the middle east and the West) and somehow managed to convince their readers.

  3. I think being a feminist is believing in the ideal.(equality on all levels) But the ideal does not fall into practice. So you can be a feminist without being happy with the results you see in society. I have thought about hiring a young (ahem, another one) man to “be me”, to pretend he is me. And I would create this massive body of artwork. He would have to be very quiet, so as not to blow my cover. He would say little. But appear as if he did my work, appear at openings, etc Then….we would see how successful “I” would become!

    • That would just be a totally awesome conceptual art project.

      I think it’s difficult to define equality. Maybe the problem with equality is: I think more than half of people want more than half the pie. I think society programmes most men want to be “successful” because it’s a great insult to the male psyche to be “unsuccessful”. But more and more women are wanting success too. I think this is fine and achievable until you bring children into the equation. And then I think things break down because somewhere someone has to give up some of their vision in order to accommodate this.

      As you say, you can still be a feminist despite this problem and it’s interesting to debate how this could pan out. Even though I think it’s a fundamentally insoluble problem.

  4. Interesting to hear your thoughts, Denise. I have to say that I am of the same mind as Rachel above. Not that I’d ever thought deeply about the word “feminist,” but somehow I have just always taken it to mean someone who believes in equal rights for women. So I have always called myself a feminist. But you make a very interesting point about anything with an “-ist” at the end – it does make it seem extreme. I’d always wondered why it made people uncomfortable, and why I would hear my female classmates say defensively, “*I’m* not a feminist.” I didn’t know if the reaction itself was sexist – that we don’t like women who are “too” outspoken, who fight back, etc. It is helpful to understand your reasoning.

    About the cleaning, I dread it, but recently I am so stressed out by all the clutter in my house that there is a great satisfaction in going through things and stuffing them into a big garbage bag. It helps to think of it as therapeutic.

    • I used to define myself as a feminist when I was younger. I don’t agree with someone not being a feminist because they don’t like the image of it, which seems to be the reaction of lots of women. That’s disappointing. 😦

  5. Cultures and traditions take a long time to change, don’t they? less than 100 years ago, as soon as a woman got married, she gave up her job, regardless of kids. You might say that particular tradition has evolved a little in that it’s the woman who gets to keep her job at least until the kids come along. As there still appears to be a gender-to-salary imbalance, the default practice continues.
    Our kids were born in Canada — when I worked at a certain place, I think the paternity leave was a risible couple of days. I’d have stayed home, but my job paid more, so on I continued. Although I think I would have gone crazy if I did stay home; probably because the male ego sees itself as provider, not carer. Like you mention, there might be some conditioning involved. Things were fairly black and white in some aspects of my upbringing. Like cultures and traditions, our self-image takes time to carve.

    • I think we can kid ourselves that our self-images are more fluid than they are. Really I think we are generally fragile in that respect and prone to self-doubt. It’s that question of our place in the world all over again. Not just kids but aged parents too… it’s women who have evolved in society to be the carers and this self conditioning has a huge impact on salaries.

      It would be interesting to see into the future. As you say, it’s only been 100 years, a small proportion of the length society has been going on for. Still, a lot more men would have to accept a more caring role and a lot more women would have to be harder and more focused to make a significant shift towards true equality in the work/pay gap and it’s different to picture that happening, because people’s own ideas of themselves are entrenched.

  6. What we have to hold on to here girls is that we KNOW we’re just as, if not more, able than men on virtually every level. I don’t care what that is called, I’d just like the same pay for producing the same results at whatever job I’m doing. Obviously women are more efficient than men as they multi-task naturally. The secret is, to know when to capitulate to the ‘ism’ and let a man do the service on your car, even if you might be perfectly capable yourself. I’d have no qualms whatsoever to let a man do all the catering in my house – but however much I hate that aspect of housekeeping, I do it so much more efficiently than the two males available to me 🙂

    • I’m trying to multi task less and be more focused. I think that is part of why women are paid less for equivalent jobs. Because sometimes when there is a job to be done a woman will just take it on because she *knows* she can do it well and also “for the good of the whole” while not asking for any recognition for it.

      I think we get brought up in a world that values conformity and we learn “if you do this you will be rewarded with that”. Whereas in the real world, being good at stuff doesn’t necessarily equate to proportional remuneration.

  7. By strict definition, if you say that feminism is the support of equal social, political and economic rights for women, I’m a feminist. And by that definition, I have trouble carrying on a polite conversation with anyone who isn’t a feminist.

    But I don’t like the label. It carries so many strange connotations with it–especially when one gets into feminist theory. I wonder if it’s time to come up with a new term for “people who support equal social, political and economic rights for people.”

    • You are right about feminist theory, Tracy. That’s part of the problem for me – once you get into “isms” and strict definitions you bump into other people with “isms” and then find yourself colliding because you don’t define yourselves in the same way. I guess when people really *believe* in something you get strong feelings and arguments.

      I do think “sympathies with feminist arguments” is a good start to equalling “people who support equal social, political and economic rights for people”. The irony is the more precise the definition of this becomes, the woollier the wording.

      • Exactly.

        I’ve found that trying to nail down beliefs, creeds, dogma is, in the end, mostly about political power and can only lead to factions, divisions, heated arguments and abusive battles. I understand the desire for clarity, but while words/language can bridge understanding, when carried to the extreme of “I insist that you must understand exactly what I mean/believe/want/intend-to-do” words often cause more harm than good.

      • I suppose we can never do total justice to what things are or even what we feel with language. If we didn’t have language, we would have nothing, but there must be an optimum. I guess that is called giving each other some leeway.

        In the end, I usually go back to the intention. I think that’s the important thing for me.

        I think you make a very good point, very clearly and succinctly.

  8. I have to agree with Jenny. I do a much better job at cleaning than my partner. I’ll take 20 minutes to vacuum the master bedroom and he’ll take 5 minutes…obviously it doesn’t take long to give the carpet a couple of swipes. I do some of my best thinking on my WIP while cleaning, so I figure I’m multitasking.

    • I admire this as I’m not a good multi tasker. I get confused! I have started to combat this by becoming more focused in what I take on. I guess, more like a man…

  9. I’ve never considered myself a feminist – and personally think it’s yet another term that causes arguments and divides the sides.

    I am with you whole heartedly on not fully understanding a situation until you’ve been through it yourself. Life experience can’t be learnt from books, but some folk still feel they know all there is to know about matters they haven’t actually lived through themselves. I find this bizarre… But people are bizarre!

    Fab dustpan & brush. I also agree with your analogy of cleaning: therapeutic and necessary, but so time consuming!!

    • I agree that opposite – people thinking they understand a situation when they don’t – is so so common! I’d love to meet someone who really felt able to convince me that they understood what it was like to be in another person’s situation just by knowing them and being close to them. I think that would be an amazing person. Just because I haven’t met them doesn’t mean they don’t exist… but I find it difficult to imagine.

  10. Firstly, so far as cleaning goes I just don’t get to it near as often as I should but I do like a clean house so this drives me crazy. I’m learning to ignore it though!!

    Secondly, I agree with you Denise about this ‘feminist’ issue. Yes, equality for all, of course, but this ‘ist’ thing is what throws me too. I don’t like the idea of being labelled like this as it seems immediately to cause tension. I would say I’m not a feminist yet as I read what it is described as here then by definition I guess I am, but I’m really not and would never say that I am!!!

    Thirdly, and finally, again, I totally agree. If I’ve learnt one thing in this life, that is that we can’t possibly know what it is like to fully understand something unless we have actually experienced it or gone through it. Life experience is not to be underestimated!!

    Very thought-provoking post Denise. Hope you are having a good weekend and I’m thinking of your lovely shiny terra-cota floor and I’m very jealous 😉

    • It’s a fine line isn’t it – there’s movement and action in numbers, but only if everyone more or less agrees!

      I’d love to be surprised (I always like to be surprised!) with a counterexample of how experience and theoretical knowledge can be one and the same, but when I read your accounts of your life, which are so complex and genuine, I just think that each person has very unique experiences that can’t even begin to be conveyed without actually having the experience,

  11. CatLadyJennie

    Sweeping calms me down and I often do it to procrastinate.

    I identify as a feminist. I know a number of men who identify as feminists and I feel like it’s not my place to police the term. Most of the men I’ve met who do identify as feminists (seem to) fall outside of dominant representations of masculinity. Since I understand/ practice feminism in a way where I try to understand the complexities of gendered power relations regardless of gender, but I identify as a woman, I feel like someone who does not identify as a woman could feel/ practice feminism.

    I am interested in hearing about why and how men come to identify as feminists, and (from stories) it seems like many are dissatisfied with expectations about masculinity or have had experiences of a loss of freedom or control of their autonomy–similar to how many women (that I know, at least) get involved with feminism.

    All that being said, I have a tendency of privileging experiential knowledge, so listening to a man who identifies as a feminist talk about an issue that disproportionately affects women can make me uncomfortable if I’m not sure where their knowledge comes from and I can become suspicious of motives. That may seem contradictory.

    Side note: I know the proper definition of feminism is believing in equal rights for all, but I don’t really identify with rights-based feminism since liberal governance requires inequality. Though “equality” is a nice word, it’s not a practical goal. My identity as a feminist comes from how I see the world: made up of unequal power relations, where the personal IS political. A feminist perspective allows me the space to make these connections, I guess.

    • I’m definitely interested in men identifying as feminists. It takes me back – in my theoretical, pre-adult world, more of these people existed. I didn’t see why they shouldn’t, because for me, as a woman, I thought what pressure it must be to feel that you had to be strong and successful all the time. That’s an example of my experience being too limited for me to begin to understand another point of view.

  12. Denise I have bellied in equal rights for women before the phrase was coined when I was growing up. For the first half of my marriage and all of the relationships since I have had different rolls, sometimes I cooked and cleaned, sometimes I worked. I think in todays world it is more like you mentioned that the earning potientional may play a big role in the arrangement.

    • I think you are remarkably easy going on the equality front! I am wondering if it is a bit different in the USA than it is here. Do you think you are unusual in that respect?

  13. I don’t know about the UK, but the concept here has changed a lot. There are more women in universities than men now. That is in the high paid professions too.

    • I think we are a bit behind you here in the UK Ron, although I don’t really know why that is. I certainly get the impression that there is a greater proportion of women in high powered positions in the USA than over here.

      • Actually, the biggest complaint of career women here is the glass ceiling. There are lots of successful women who are physicians and lawyers but very few at the top ranks of large corporations.

  14. I suspect that you have opened up a Pandora’s box here.
    I used to think that ‘feminist’ was a bad word – that feminists were these militant women, hell-bent on belittling men to make their point. And I thought we lived in a pretty equal world. Fast forward a number of years and I know we do not. We still don’t get paid equal money for equal work – I was just at a job where I earned less than my male counterpart doing the same job. STILL.
    But I’ve still been hesitant to label myself a feminist for the same reason that you point out here – it feels hypocritical if I don’t live it all the time.

    • It’s interesting we have all responded in a very similar way regardless of how we label ourselves.

      That must have been frustrating with your job 😦

  15. Great post Denise, I agree with you on the point that to understand you have to have experience. This is what makes a great coach or teacher.

    Regarding the term “feminist” I don’t agree with it, as too many women demand things of men but aren’t willing to learn how to do a simple thing like change a tyre, many expect men to do it for them. My point being putting a label on people opens a minefield of debate.
    When asked what my thoughts on life are; just live life the best way you can, learning as much along the way, don’t make comparisons between you and others, be kind and never give up on your dreams.

    • I like your description of how to live. It’s straightforward, but it covers most of the things we need to co-operate with and live alongside others and get the best out of life.

  16. Just to make a counterpoint to Ron, in Cambridge there are more female academics than there used to be (I was the 9th woman to join my college fellowship out of a total number of 122 fellows, and this was in 1999) but only 2% of professors are women. I also read a very interesting book about how few women were making it to the top of the professions – medicine, law, business and academia. Essentially this was because, if they had children, the average number of hours a week they worked (including hands on childcare and cleaning) was well over 100. Few could keep that pace up, especially not in working cultures that are based on visibility (ie despite all this fabulous communications technology, the insistence that people show up in a work place has never lessened). I’m a feminist, but then I never thought it was a ‘bad’ word (as lots of women do) or meant I had to do anything other than push for my right to be treated as an equal.

    I used to give the graduate lecture on feminism, as it turns out, in which I said that if one of the first things feminists wanted to do was challenge a set of fixed qualities supposedly attaining to women – that they be loving and nurturing and gentle and sweet, etc – then it made no sense to swap that for another set of characteristics – strong, powerful, determined, active, whatever, even if we liked them better. The point had to be the most flexible of definitions for feminism, so that all women felt included, whoever they wanted to be. It was important they could choose.

    However! Post-having children, I’ve called motherhood the land that feminism forgot. That old shopping list of female qualities? They have never gone away as far as motherhood is concerned. I felt tremendously conflicted about all that, as I wanted to be the best mother I could for my son, but realised it involved bending myself out of shape and sacrificing myself more than I was comfortable with. I promise you my husband did not bend or sacrifice at all, and he was not guilty about that! I still think there are huge inequalities in parenting we haven’t begun to address. Great post, Denise!

    • I think the difference between how successful men and women are is more marked in academia. Academics are considered successful solely on the criteria of what they have published. This rewards selfish behaviour. Unselfish behaviour, things done for the good of the department, gets in the way of success. Men are conditioned to be happier with the idea of being selfish (the bending or sacrificing).

      This is even before the problem of children, which seems insoluble in my lifetime (weird to say that…) because the attitudes are so entrenched in us, as you found when you became a mother.

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