Practical Feminism: Sexual Equality and People I Know

Any fairly liberal-minded person can convince themselves that they’re a feminist. They preach sexual equality, advocate that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies, and champion female role models in politics, sport and science. Great. But what about the everyday choices that shape our modes of self-expression and our interpersonal and intimate relationships?

It’s here, in the unwieldiness of life that feminism is really put to the test and can fall through the cracks.  We end up with dazzling contradictions: the female rights campaigner in an abusive relationship; the man who devotes his career to Gertrude Stein, but is stringing two women along in his personal life; the housewife who supports her daughter’s career in astro-physics. Are people living out these contradictions by choice, or have they fallen into them by chance?

I decided to ask my friends and extended social network how feminism played out in their daily lives and whether they thought they were living up to their ideals. What I ended up with, was a diverse collage of experiences from both more evolved (diehard) feminists and less evolved (newbie or reluctant) feminists. Despite their differences, everyone agreed that in the context of centuries of patriarchy, feminism is hard. For some it’s definitely not second nature. Even for those who identify themselves as feminists, it’s often the brave, controversial choice rather than the easy, instinctive one.

When it comes to matriarchal civilisations bees have an edge. 'The Historie of Bees' by Charles Butler, 17th century
When it comes to matriarchal civilisations bees have an edge. ‘The Historie of Bees’ by Charles Butler, 17th century


Self-expression is a key area of feminist debate. For the most part feminists advocate that women should be judged on what they do and say, rather than by how they look. Iris*, who works at a Montessori nursery school told me that everyday she is faced with girls as young as three who want to ‘advertise’ and ‘define’ themselves by how they dress. She feels dismayed that her young pupils are already copying an image of decorative rather than active femininity, and says that her challenge is to break this stereotype ‘without making it a fight. Every day I chose to ignore their comments and mention what they are capable of, not what they look like.’

There can be no doubt that Iris and other early-years educators like her, play a vital role in shaping girls’ self-perceptions and mitigating the tide of feminine stereotypes coming from the media, families and friends. However, some women  feel that their sartorial choices are part of their self-expression as feminists. They have said that dressing: androgynously/for comfort/ modestly/ eccentrically etc. means that they look as they wish, rather than satisfying the male gaze. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with such statements, because they create divisions amongst women, indicating that some are more procurable than others just because of how they look and express themselves. Differences in how women relate to their body and sexuality should be respected, rather than overly scrutinised and judged.

Clothes... it's what you do in them that matters. Notting Hill Carnival
Clothes… it’s what you do in them that matters. And where they come from. Notting Hill Carnival

Instead of obsessing over hem-lines, if you would dress like a feminist, consider the provenance of your clothes. Garment factory workers are overwhelmingly female, but the majority in today’s globalised fashion industry struggle to earn a living wage. This means that despite working long hours, with few breaks and draconian discipline, many do not earn enough to feed their families. Shockingly, the majority of high-street retailers underpay their factory workers, and even the most progressive still have a way to go before all their staff receive a living wage. Ethically-produced garments can be prohibitively expensive, but the tide is slowly turning, and we’re not completely powerless as consumers.  Two ethically-minded friends have recommended the website  for helpful information on different manufacturers’ human rights credentials. If enough of us boycott the most exploitative manufacturers and continue to campaign for workers’ rights, then perhaps we’ll reach our most feminist sartorial state yet.


Those I spoke to were conscious that feminism is achieved in our everyday acts and interactions, and not merely in theory or activism. Diana, defines herself as ‘a whistle blower of feminism,’ who makes a direct stand against inequality when it directly affects her or those she knows.  Diana feels that her sense of justice was instilled in her from a young age by a family who raised her to ‘believe that as a woman’ she was ‘entitled and allowed to have all things that are available to men’ such as an ambitious career-path and sexual freedom. She anticipates that if she has a child, she will negotiate arrangements for childcare with her partner, depending on both of their career needs. Crucially, she believes that ‘what is feminist is the platform for discussion, open mindedness and hearing each others’ needs without making’ one partner’s ‘perspective superior or righteous based on traditional gender norms.’  Personally, I feel that Diana has hit the nail on the head – feminism is not a solution to inequality, but an ongoing discussion, the ability to critique established models and come up with a workable solution.

Natalie has been challenging established norms in her male-dominated consulting firm. She has been vocal in pointing out that the established practice of taking on too many projects in a short amount of time results in missed deadlines, mistakes and employee exhaustion. While a male colleague acquiesces to the client’s every unreasonable demand, is willing to plough on until 3 am on a regular basis, and claims he gets sick if he has more than 4 hours sleep, Natalie’s sense of balance, and perhaps even pragmatic common-sense,  rebel against the system. Her unofficial protests against the sometimes austere sausage-fest that is Workaholics Anonymous, have included wearing pink at interviews and presentations, collapsing into tears of exhaustion and eating chocolate by her boss’ desk. However, when she recognised that her rare skills were essential to the firm’s success, Natalie used her negotiating power to request a more humane work schedule, and organised a meeting to put this in place. Natalie’s crusade, if it pays off, won’t just benefit her, but her colleagues and the firm’s future employees. Though Natalie’s protest isn’t directly about women’s rights, I consider it a feminist intervention because it’s a challenge to the patriarchal prioritisation of profit and results over the staff’s sense of well-being and pride in their work. She’s bringing previously under-considered factors into the equation, and thereby envisioning a new model of work.

Beware the head that wears the flowery diadem... she's coming to transform your enterprise
Beware the head that wears the flowery diadem… she’s coming to transform your enterprise


The men I spoke to related that they had to challenge their biological biases and time-worn assumptions, when interacting with women at work and in non-relationship contexts. Joseph, a self-described ‘straight guy with relatively macho traits,’ who works in the female-majority environments of tourism and teaching, finds the ‘totally male focus’ of sports a refuge from ‘thinking about girls.’ Joseph’s use of sports as a niche for homosocial bonding, where he can drink, swear, banter, etc. with a liberty that he feels isn’t available to him in the co-ed world, isn’t unique amongst the men I know. Nevertheless, Joseph’s recent experience of watching the Women’s World Cup, which he enjoyed no less than the men’s one ‘confirmed to me I’m a feminist, as I all but forgot it was women I was watching- they were just footballers and I got as tensed up watching them as I do the men!’ I have to confess I didn’t watch the Women’s World Cup. I hated PE at school, and my jolly hockey-sticks PE teachers even more: I would have happily busied myself with an embroidery sampler over being forced to pay a repetitive game of ‘fetch’ in the cold, any day of the week. But Joseph’s genuine shift in perspective after he witnessed the female footballers’ skill and drive at the Women’s World Cup, reinforces how important media exposure of women’s achievements and activities is as a counter to the vast swathes of material focusing on their appearance.

Male niches... fast-dying sanctuaries where a bloke can feel like a bloke!
Male niches… fast-dying sanctuaries where a bloke can feel like a bloke!

Phillip classes himself as a ‘sexist feminist’… Raised by a working mother and stay-at-home father, Phillip considers that his wife, Laura’s career is equally important to his own, and maintains that housework and childcare should be divided equally. When Laura pointed out that his porn-watching habit was at odds with his support of fair-trade and human rights because porn-actresses were objectified and often demeaned, he went cold-turkey. (Don’t read into that metaphor)

Nevertheless, Phillip says that he struggles to be fully a feminist, owing to his extreme heterosexuality.  He had virtually no latency period, and from about the age of four, ‘did my best to get laid… I think I failed more than I succeeded.’ He still feels ‘like a predator’ every time he sees an attractive woman: ‘everything completely disappears, only the cleavage or butt.’ (When Phillip told me this, I couldn’t help but think he saw women like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, which periodically disappears, all but for its toothy grin: so I’m calling this Cheshire-Cat syndrome)  Phillip is aware that this response ‘must colour my first interaction with women,’ and he has to physically remove himself from the situation, diverting his eyes, or making tea.  He’s not sure whether his Cheshire-Cat syndrome is biologically or culturally determined: probably both. ‘I wish I wasn’t so much a man!’ he exclaims, conscious that his initial objectification of women stops him being a feminist to the core, and truly relating to them as equals. But he’s consciously making an effort. A pragmatist as well as an idealist, Phillip recognises that Laura may also be attracted to other men- it’s only natural- and he’s fine with it, confident that they can both stay ‘disciplined’ if they’ve come from a happy home.

Cheshire Cat by John Tenniel. The Cheshire Cat disappears part by part, until only its smile is left.
Cheshire Cat by John Tenniel. The Cheshire Cat disappears part by part, until only its smile is left.


Practical feminism is most put to the test in intimate heterosexual relationships, where biology and feudal-era customs dictate that attraction is based on gender difference. Some women I talked to openly expressed the need to feel ‘feminine’ as well as equal in relationships. They want their partner to value their opinions and intelligence, and also recognise that they are different from him, and prefer him to take the initiative, making them feel ‘special,’ ‘protected,’ and even ‘small’ or ‘delicate.’ Interestingly enough, these women felt that the old-fashioned ‘masculine’ qualities of decisiveness and integrity were in short supply amongst the men they  dated, whereas modern ‘metrosexual’ attributes such as versatility, interest in arts and culture, and flakiness were pervasive. None of them thought that feeling feminine and being a feminist were mutually exclusive.

Diana went a little further, arguing that ‘one of the “safest” and perhaps the only appropriate instances where gender inequality MAY exist, is in the arena of sexuality… if we are just talking about sex, ergo fantasy (or a platform for fantasy and fulfilment)…It’s all about communication.  If a woman likes the idea of a hyper-masculine male, and that turns them on, then go for it!  I believe that same woman can then look at other realms of her life and say, the inequality is exciting and satisfying here, but doesn’t have a place in these other areas.’ Diana referenced the psychoanalyst Esther Perel, who posits a ‘European’ model of gender complementarity as opposed to the ‘American’ model equality, which apparently results in ‘boring sex.’ I question how far a couple’s sexual and non-sexual communication can be diametrically opposite. From my experience, elements of the sexual relationship inform non-sexual communication and vice-versa. I can’t help but think that if you wanted a relationship that was equal in all areas but sex, you might have to draw up a virtual Fifty Shades style contract, complete with terms and conditions.  Some people might find that a turn-on, I suppose…

Dreams of complementarity, mid-century romance, the works... A garage in Russian Hill, San Francisco
Dreams of complementarity, mid-century romance, the works… A garage in Russian Hill, San Francisco.

What I’m curious about, is how this culture that still idealises notions of masculine strength and feminine delicacy, and consciously unequal relationships ( albeit relegated to the arena of sexuality ), feeds into the lives of women who find themselves there by accident, out of a mistaken feeling that passes for love. Inequality can take many forms, but includes: physical or emotional abuse; verbal put-downs; being objectified, strung along, or used for sex; your partner engaging and disengaging with you on a whim; being treated as though your opinions and feelings are irrelevant. Of course women can be the perpetrators, and men the victims of these malpractices.  But in the context of centuries of feminine subordination, and continued media and social preferences for yielding, seductive peacemakers, women sometimes struggle to stand up for themselves in relationships with men, and to leave situations that are depleting them. Regardless of her successes in other areas of her life, no-one can be truly empowered when she’s accepting to be treated as though her thoughts, feelings and well-being are irrelevant. I don’t believe these unequal relationships benefit men either, because by denying their partner’s full potential, they’re stunting not only the relationship, but their own human growth.

Some women, whether as a result of nature or nurture, have a built-in bullshit radar and precise mode of expression that commands respect and leaves anyone who would mistreat them quaking in their boots. They take the initiative in leaving situations where they’re being treated unequally.  Others of us, who are less assertive, and perhaps witnessed our mothers take the guileless, gentle role, are getting there by practice. Just as Phillip has to battle with the Cheshire-Cat syndrome that compromises daily interactions with women, I’ve had to challenge the primitive part of me that softens in an argument and strives for easy reconciliation, and listen to the small voice that says: ‘Speak up, it’s important, I’m important.’

'To the other maidens, he gave a white rose.' Try winning Pictionary when you have to draw that!
‘To the other maidens, he gave a white rose.’ Try winning Pictionary when you have to draw that!


Feminism is a struggle, and exists amongst many contradictions. But it’s encouraging that so many people have spoken up about their difficulties and triumphs in feminism on both macro and micro levels. What’s interesting is that everyone I talked to related some kind of vision for a fairer, better world within the stories of their everyday feminist challenges. Just as theoretical feminists talk about feminism being the alternative to accepted patriarchal norms, the practical feminists I interviewed were committed to doing things differently. Feminism isn’t a blanket solution, it’s a discussion, and it begins with all of us.

* All names have been changed.

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