FEMINIST literature does not feature on the national curriculum, so after studying at an all-girls grammar school I often question why it was force-fed to us. Growing up without the self-imposed ‘feminist’ label, the only ‘glass ceilings’ I knew were in the realm of my own personal growth and development, rather than the divisive gender-based distinction with which they are now widely associated.
The two most prominent texts studied were Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Angela Carter’s anthology The Bloody Chamber.
The former focuses on Gilead, a dystopian patriarchy controlling female life. Atwood’s accounts of ‘parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash’ at the women’s march is an image widely recognisable and identifiable with the 21st century feminist movement, supporting the author’s claim that these extreme acts lead to a lack of support for the original cause. This is a warning for modern society, and for a novel written over 30 years ago, the message is clear: feminism, at present, does not work.
I believe society resonates with Atwood’s warning that control over women’s bodies via feminist extremes is undesirable, counter-productive and destroys power that women hold in the relationship with males.
A Refinery29 and CBS News poll showed that 54 per cent of young women in the USA agree that feminism has been largely taken over by far-left wing activists. I fear, however, that for many teenage girls this battle cry of ‘taking back ownership’ of their bodies has become such an integral part that the true feminist message is becoming completely misconstrued.
Biological function is the key theme to feminist texts that I believe has the most propensity for divergence of the feminist cause. The Handmaid’s only role is to mother children – to be a ‘worthy vessel’; a woman without children ‘has failed’. This power dynamic subjected women to servitude. However, this simply isn’t true.
More than 43 per cent of college-educated women between the ages of 33 and 46 are childfree, and more women are choosing careers over childbirth.
In today’s economic and employment related climate, women are freer than ever – the choice is theirs. So why are these texts focusing on the negative repercussions of having a family? Patmore’s 19th century poem The Angel in the House focuses on his wife, a model for all women, claiming that ‘man must be pleased; but him to please is woman’s pleasure’. The 2008 US study The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness has shown that as the relative freedoms of women are increasing, levels of subjective well-being and happiness have fallen considerably. Is it possible that the core tenets to feminist doctrine are responsible for the demise of female happiness? Feminism, giving women the freedom to make their own choices without restriction and judgement – but still circulating the apparent dangers of following your maternal desires?
The teaching of such literature seems to revolve around creating stereotypes in an effort to drown out the heroines of our childhood readings. The philosophical feminism that our sisters and daughters are becoming familiar with is becoming an identity; young women are becoming a collective – a tribe.
It is this faction of the feminist movement which is becoming so angry within society – to the point where no real change or developments are being made – feminism is rapidly radicalising, and approaching nothing more than a virtue signal.
To this, I respond with Gandhi – ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’. Feminists of the past worked towards the changes that they wanted to see. Josephine Butler campaigned for the inclusion of women at Cambridge University, Emily Davison died for the vote – yet 21st century feminism seems more concerned about changing society’s perceptions of women, rather than changing women. To change a stereotype, one must not adhere to it. Perhaps, if feminists focused less on the ideas of gender conflict and the perceptions of centuries past, their cause would have increased support from young women such as myself.
The marginalisation of women in eras past was frequently justified by the suggested notion that they were more in touch with their feelings and emotions than they were with education and their motivation to be engaged with business and a professional life. More recently, we have seen the exclusion of women from the movement, including Margaret Atwood – accused of being a ‘bad feminist’. In history’s cyclical nature, contemporary feminists have reverted to the stereotypes once placed upon them – over-emotional and concerned with how the movement is viewed, as opposed to the change that they are fighting for.
In an age where the true nature of feminism has been misconstrued, focusing on literature with a feminist undertone when teaching young girls carries the risk of more danger than fruitful discourse. What we now need to be asking ourselves is: should we be drip-feeding such texts to young women, or should we be focusing on the real feminist issues, and ensuring that the next generation of females is educated and empowered.
Feminist literature does not breed feminists. An understanding of the history of feminism, and a desire to be the change is what will breed successful, empowered young women.