How I lost feminism, and myself, and found my way back to both

Had feminism changed or had I?

Artillery Row

In her recent column charting the rise and fall of fourth wave feminism, Hadley Freeman wrote, “it is hard not to feel total despair at the signs both big and little that the movement utterly failed.” I felt desolate when I read her words, because I was there. I was a fourth wave feminist.

The London Slutwalk took place on 11 June 2011. In pictures of the event, I am wearing a lilac minidress, “SLUT” is written across my chest in lipstick, and I am clutching an A4 piece of paper with “It’s a dress not a yes” scrawled on it in felt tip. I am shouting, joining in with a chant that rings in my ears as I write: “whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” I was seventeen, I had discovered feminism, and suddenly we could say it out loud. Living in this world in a female body, even in 2011, even in the UK, was shit. The work wasn’t done. In fact, it had barely begun.

I regarded my privilege not as a reason to stay silent but as a reason to speak up

I inhaled Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman as if I had descended from a high altitude for the very first time. Entire paragraphs would float through my head as I walked through the world, which wasn’t very far as I was stuck in an all-girls boarding school, revising for my A-levels. One Monday night after a weekend away, I was summoned to a meeting with a senior teacher, who asked why I had taken the morning after pill; the IT staff had shown her an email I’d sent to a friend from my Gmail account.  “I just need to check you’re alright. Don’t worry, I won’t tell your parents.” I was incandescent with rage at the invasion (I was eighteen, and had been nothing but cheerful in my offending email) but a dose of Caitlin calmed me down as usual. Soon we would be free — from school and from The Patriarchy™.

That September, on an interrailing holiday with my best friend, waiting for our very first train to leave Budapest Keleti station, we found ourselves trapped in a compartment with a glass door — with a man on the other side violently masturbating at us and laughing. Even as we climbed up the wall and tried to call out of the window, even as the train left the station with him still on it, and even as, two hours later, the train guard shouted at us for locking the door, I was sure that the world for women was changing, and that I was part of that change.

A few weeks later, as a first year at Cambridge reading Philosophy, I revelled in my own all-inclusive pop brand of feminism. We dressed as vaginas to watch a performance of The Vagina Monologues and read the Vagenda magazine obsessively. One lunchtime we leapt at the chance to write our reasons for needing feminism on a whiteboard and pose for a picture on King’s Parade. I wrote “PUBIC HAIR IS COOL!”; no subject was too superficial for scrutiny. When I found out the Facebook page for the Cambridge Men’s Feminist Discussion Group had been shut down by feminist women, I wrote a furious column for the Huffington Post blaming “man-hating” feminism for feminism’s “image problem”. Caitlin Moran said men could be feminists, and she was right about everything. (My article was subsequently celebrated on the Men’s Rights subreddit — whoops.)

A piece I’d written was accepted by The Vagenda, and I nearly passed out with excitement. Although it was published anonymously, I impulsively emailed it to the subject of the article, a man I’d accused of “coercive sex”, hoping to teach him some kind of lesson. His response was to threaten me with legal action from his family lawyers, insisting I change the story so he was entirely unrecognisable. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett emailed me to tell me not to worry — “he hasn’t got a legal leg to stand on” — but I rewrote the piece just to be safe, pretending it had happened in another country. I didn’t mind; I could only think about how grown-up I was, a real feminist writer, making a difference.

I was deeply aware of the privilege that had paved my way to Cambridge, of the myriad advantages that further education would give me, and I regarded it not as a reason to stay silent but as a reason to speak up. I was privileged not only above disadvantaged young people in the UK, but above millions of girls and women globally who weren’t deemed worthy of an education in a patriarchal world. I also had privilege over previous generations of women. For the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “when you can take a step as a free person, all your ancestors present in every cell of your body are also walking in freedom”. I think he meant free from worry, not the patriarchy, but if I could take a step as a free woman, maybe the women who came before me would be free too.

Then in November 2013 I left Cambridge for mental health reasons. When I returned two years later, my friends had graduated and the landscape had changed. Trans activism had displaced feminism as the popular cause, and the campaigning approach was entirely different, with a distinctly negative understanding of human nature. In a Facebook mental health group for Cambridge students, I suggested with trademark optimism that a tutor’s “transphobic views” might be due to ignorance, questioning a mission to get him fired. My message was deleted and I was given a warning. After continuing to suggest education as a solution, I was evicted from the group for the crime of “excusing transphobia”. After a term I left Cambridge again, and this ended up being permanent.

I was adrift without a movement. My confidence was almost entirely depleted due to years as a mental health inpatient, and it was easy to internalise a narrative that I should avoid broadcasting my opinions because of my advantages in life — the exact opposite of what I had previously believed. The greatest of these advantages was being female; because I wanted to use the word “woman” to describe myself, I was “cis” and thus a privileged oppressor over those born male who also wished to use that word for themselves.

Any problems I had with this concept were felt in my body: a tensing of my shoulders, a racing of my heart, a sick feeling in my stomach. I never thought the contradictions through logically; I had shut down the critical thinking and philosophical skills that had been so integral to my sense of self. It terrifies me that I was capable of this. I stopped writing about my opinions, even privately — you can’t write critically if you can’t think critically, and you can’t think critically if you are scared to do so.

Sex-based oppression is no fiction; it is all around us

During this time, the socially acceptable meaning of Western feminism shifted and then calcified. “Feminism”, the unproblematic kind, now refers to a movement to protect those who identify as women, whatever their sex. Those who maintain that female humans (including trans men) have their own specific rights and needs, even when they agree that trans people have specific rights and needs, are referred to as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”, or TERFs. This shift in meaning is exemplified in the current Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) Women’s Campaign document “How to spot TERF ideology”, which explains what trans-inclusive feminism should look like.

In 2012, the feminists who shut down the Men’s Feminist Discussion Group explained that male feminist allies should be silent, centre female voices, and take on the labour of childcare and cooking to give women more time for activism. Today, the Women’s Campaign advises that those women step back, “centring the voices of trans women” and “taking on the labour on trans women’s issues (e.g. admission to women’s colleges)”. Translation: if you’re female, sit down and shut up. Will it be our turn again in 2033, or is that it now?

Ten years ago, our female bodies, and how the world treated them, were the main topic of feminist discussion. I knew other people had gender identities that contrasted with their sex, and needed protection on this basis, but nobody suggested to me that all women were oppressed based only on their gender identities, rather than their female bodies. Now, according to CUSU, mentioning “biological sex” is a “dogwhistle”, a seemingly innocuous phrase that is actually code for hatred of trans people. This is because “the sex binary is a colonial fiction created to oppress trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming-people (esp. of indigenous genders), and people of colour as a whole, as well as women”. Oh, please. Talk to the tampon.

For many, today’s female rights activists are yesterday’s men’s rights activists, shouting when they shouldn’t and dementedly demanding things they already have, to the detriment of the truly vulnerable. Feminists who insist on the reality of sex-based oppression are self-obsessed bigots parroting dangerous “colonial fictions”. Their (or rather our, if I understand correctly) alleged crime is so severe that threats of extreme violence are routinely smiled on, or were until this week. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has banned anyone female from attending university. Roe v Wade has been overturned in the US. Reuters recently reported on a secret mass enforced abortion programme by the Nigerian military, affecting at least 10,000 women and young girls, which was ignored by most UK news outlets. Every three days, someone female is murdered by someone male in the UK. 

Sex-based oppression is no fiction; it is all around us. Regardless of whether we talk about it, it will continue, but it will not end if we cannot name it, because without naming it we cannot fight against it. Wanting words to define ourselves and our liberation campaign is not hatred. 

Leaving school, so full of hope and excitement — women had never had it so good; we had so far to go but we were getting there — I could not have known that a decade later, in October 2022, I would be sitting alone in a cafe, heart pounding as a group of people on the next table decried the very views I had as a teenager — views about my own body and my own life — as hateful. Whilst it scares me to write about this publicly now, I am glad that I am doing so. For in reconnecting with feminism and writing critically, I am also reconnecting with myself.

Since writing for The Critic about New Scientist’s denial of biology, I have felt far closer to my 19-year-old self than to the person I have been in the intervening decade. In the book Sum, by David Eagleman, we witness forty possible afterlives. In one manifestation, all the ages of our earthly self are able to meet. Some get along; some don’t. Some have lots to say; others are a little awkward with each other. Reflecting on this, I decided that 2023 me and 2013 me would get on better than all my other selves so far. Then I went back another ten years. Aged nine, I founded a newspaper at my primary school. The first of six issues was published in January 2003 and raised £40.65, which the committee donated to Mammals Trust UK, “because we really feel the red squirrels deserve it”. I was eccentric and enthusiastic, and nothing in the world was out of reach. I lost this self for a while, after being bullied at my next school, but I have found her again. As I move beyond fourth wave feminism and seek new feminist icons to read and learn from, I intend to carry with me the hope, the optimism and the passion of my younger selves.

I am a feminist and a writer, and I am only just beginning.

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