And how it felt growing up through those years.
My grandmother was an active suffragist in her youth and very politically minded.
And then the 2nd world war came and changed everything.
Women’s rights was just becoming an issue ‘again’ when I was about ten or eleven, but in seemingly very shallow areas of discussion by comparison with the basic right to vote. I remember having serious discussions with school friends, whilst walking back from school, on the issue of mini skirts and whether it was ok for women to dress how they wanted to and not how it was deemed socially acceptable. We also talked about the appeal of op-art dresses in those alternate blocks of colour, often made of disgusting crimplene fabrics as they later appeared in the shops where I lived.
Fashion emerged as an expression of female freedom to make their own choices. This is such a huge leap in significance when you think of women’s bound feet in Chinese culture and any other place where men have dictated what women should wear, and how that labels them, categorizes them into saintly wife/ mother, or whore, or slut, or any of the other boxes we were being squeezed into back then. No, choosing our own clothes styles was an act of rebellion just as fashion has been ever since that war or even the last one with my grandmother's styles such as being flapper girls (she was one, too).
After the second world war, I think some women felt relieved to go back to being domestic slaves once more, as a return to normality. The genie was out of the bottle though, in terms of thinking or being conned into believing this was their only possible role in life. Nevertheless, they were convinced that it was their duty to give up the jobs they had done during the war so that the returning soldiers had jobs to return to themselves.
I was born in 1955, ten years after the end of that war and thus life was still influenced by the aftermath of its destructive forces across Europe. But I had little sense of what had befallen my parents in their teens let alone anybody else. Like most children, I only knew what was relevant to me, and fashion and the then radical new model image of Twiggy were very hot news indeed. This was a shocking state of affairs and such a drop in moral standards!!!!!!
Our concerns at that age were ‘would we wear miniskirts’ and ‘would our parents allow us to wear what we wanted’. That battle became an ongoing issue with all school-age girls for the following decade at least, the right to wear skirts as short as we wanted to wear them, regardless of authority pressure to reject such ‘unladylike attitudes and attire’.
I remember being made to kneel on the floor at school and our hems were measured from the floor. The skirt conformed or a letter got sent home. So we all rolled up our skirts at the waist and had extraordinarily thick waists for the sake of a shorter shirt. Sometimes the act of rebellion could only come as we walked away from the building at the end of the day, but we were going to rebel, come what may.
Yet as I got older I realised these issues of identity and rebellion were not totally irrelevant to the bigger issues, but they were, and are just the easy parts.
We were told that the Pill would give us sexual freedom to choose. No such luck. There was little or no guidance about relationships, just censure. For so many young women coming into their legal age of consent at the same time, all it meant is that you no longer had fear of pregnancy to use to say ‘no’ with. You were made to feel bad, guilty, afraid of the labels you would get for upsetting males who were horny and just wanted access to as much sex as they could manage. But we girls were clearly marked as either prick tease or slut, with little in between unless you were in a longer term relationship that validated your sexual activity and gave you male protection at the same time. And that is all we were at sixteen, very overprotected naive children who had grown into young adults physically without any preparation from our parents for whom this new world of sexual freedom was also a complete mystery. All we had was control, repression, and judgment, with false values as the parental establishment influence.
The current era has not moved on enough to say we have achieved very much at all really. #ME TOO has demonstrated how much ground we still have to cover. In the USA, Trump and Brett Kavanagh is just AAAAGGGGHHHH — it’s in his name after all. Donald Trump is just beyond belief and yet he only sums up what most of us grew up with during that era of the swinging sixties. In UK, we had Jimmy Saville whose sexual offences went to children in hospital and the disabled. We potentially have Boris Johnson as a future leader, a promiscuous misogynist who treats wives and women as conquests, not as real people to be cherished. We also have Philip Green whose exploitation of his staff went into every possible avenue, work conditions, financial and now sexual harassment accusations as well. Too many men have still not learned that sexual predation is not appropriate or acceptable and that notches on the bedpost for them can mean ruined lives for someone else.
So many men seem to believe that feminism is all that is wrong with the world. They are angry with women’s rights and also with where they believe that women have it all and men do not any more, that women are in fact the ones who get all the breaks. I am not going to disagree that sometimes women are just as manipulative and untrustworthy as some men are. Of course they are, but overall the tables are slowly turning history back. And it is scary for those men.
The purpose of this reminiscing is to demonstrate how hard it still is to break ground for women. It is only a few decades since these laws of gender rights and equality were reviewed. Of course, there are teething problems, but such deeply embedded anger and resentment against women comes from deeper roots than some men are willing to consider. That’s part of the problem.
In the end feminism for me isn’t about what we do or do not wear, or what equal pay really means. It is that underlying anger between the sexes that still drives such hostility between us. And yet we need each other implicitly. My husband is my very best friend. He is also intrinsically a feminist. He has no anger against women-kind but he does have anger against a system that systematically oppresses any people anywhere, including men’s right to express their full range of emotions. Like some other equality-minded great men, he recognises how utterly unjust it all is and how he was brought up to accept it, to assume it was normal. He has had to ‘wake up’ to understanding the insidious long term undermining effect this had on us women.
But the tide is turning back again once more and we must keep the momentum going towards equality and justice for absolutely everyone.