Ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday, Sadie Hasler explains what feminism means to her.
Bing bong IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: FEMINISM CAN BE FUN. I REPEAT: FEMINISM CAN BE FUN. THANK YOU. Bing bong.
Hey girls, did you just hear that announcement? Holy manfat – who’d’ve thunk?
Apologies for the whimsical introduction but I’m feeling rather revved up (and I don’t mean goosed by a vicar). I’m spending my International Women’s Day at the Southbank Centre checking out the Women of the World Festival, now in it’s fifth brilliant year. The line-up is pretty overwhelming. I’m torn between debates about sexist language and a performance piece about being butch. I don’t know where I’d fit in best as I can say the word ‘cunt’ in an empowering way and I have kick-ass Doctor Martens. Maybe I’ll take in the workshop on afro hair instead, in case I ever wake up as a different woman.
I’ll mainly be hanging out with some gal pals: author Syd Moore and artist Heidi Wigmore who are running a stall called Super Strumps where they invite women to tackle feminine stereotypes and come up with alternative contemporary sheroes. I want to be a shero with excellent props like a pub on wheels whose superpower is profanity and whose weakness is not being able to eat less than five chocolate hobnobs or she’ll die.
Whatever I end up doing, I’ll be wandering around being an awesome open-minded feminist who loves the world but who will hit it if it’s shit to other women. That’s my brand and I’m sticking with it.
On a more serious note. I feel spending International Women’s Day at a kick-ass celebration of female art and debate will charge me up. It is nice to spend a day thinking about what ‘feminism’ means to me.
Like most women I’ve shaped my approach to feminism from my own experiences. As an actor I’ve frequently been made to wear costumes that were either overtly sexual or ‘pretty’, I’ve been assigned lines that are less funny, clever and plot-driving than those of my male cast mates and I’ve endured scarcely-hidden surprised looks when people find out I am also a writer and that I don’t just sit at home adjusting my cleavage.
As a teacher I had a wake-up call to the dangers of female obliviousness when I discovered that some girls who I was teaching had never heard of the suffragette movement. I almost vomited and stood in clammy silence waiting for them to shout “JOKING, MISS” in my horrified face. Through a tight mouth I gave them a potted history. I smacked a desk to make my points. I hurt my hand. I used a voice even more fraught with intent than when I told them to respect their bodies and not have kids too young.
I told them they were only walking around in scanty wisps because they were at the end of a long line of women who had slowly modified their own restrictive, health-ruining clothing – throwing off an inch at a time for more than a century like the inches were individual fingers in the iron grip of men. I told them the reason they could swear at their male classmates was due to the work had gone into changing the way women were allowed to approach men in even the most trivial of ways. I told them they can drink cider with the boys on park benches because women chanced disreputability in a bid to be allowed into male-only bars. I told them that women suffered at the hand of backstreet abortionists’ knives before the stigma began (and continues) to be slowly removed along with the unwanted cells.
I told them we had pushed to be equal in all of our glories as well as our social ugliness.
They rather sweetly reassured me if a man ever told them they couldn’t do something they would ‘end him’. I told them the only reason they could express that fact was because a lot of women had had a pretty miserable time.
Looking at my own life I also realised that I’ve been unfair on women clamouring for equality, unfair on the word ‘feminism’ and have let myself become clouded by the wrong connotations. I have been blessed with strong women in my life. I went to a grammar school for girls run mainly by women. I was educated about strong women by strong women. I was told I was a strong young woman and was to never believe less. I didn’t have to fight for these things, I was given them.
For all his many faults the central male in my life, my father, validated and fortified all this by always telling me he wanted me to be strong and independent: he was a feminist. He bought me Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, The Whole Woman, a book called Feminine Power and the works of Dorothy Parker for any time I needed a laugh. I wish I could go back and thank him properly now I realise just how awesome that was. I was not held back: I was thrust forward.
History is full of women just getting on with it and not making a fuss. We’re not all strident campaigners who are articulate and confident enough to go out and make a difference. We’re bloody busy with the overwhelming business of life.
I grew up thinking women didn’t need to ask for anything, let alone clamour for it. My mum did such a bloody good job that I didn’t realise how hard it was to be a woman sometimes. I was perhaps – in my blessed, blasé attitude – guilty of undervaluing women. The Spice Girls’ gauche brand of Girl Power had little impact on me as a 16-year-old because I didn’t feel like I needed it. I was devouring plays by Caryl Churchill in the school library and going home to a single mum who never let me know how hard it was to keep putting chicken kievs and mixed veg on the table with a smile. I only saw her strength and it wasn’t pouting in a Union Jack dress. When I look back I realise I had one of the healthiest possible starts in life: cultural privilege and financial modesty.
I’m changing all the time as a woman and, therefore, as a feminist. I regularly look to older, greater, more intelligent women to teach and inspire me and I am aware that younger women in my life look to me too. It’s a responsibility that we all share and one I take seriously – to become the best woman I can be so that I can be a good friend to other women. That, in short, is what International Women’s Day means to me. It’s a day when we can stop the world for a while and say: “Here we are, fuckers”.
I love that I’ll be doing that in my favourite place on Earth: the Southbank.
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.