Lucy Kellaway is pretty smart. She went to Oxford, makes programmes for Radio 4 and is an associate editor at the Financial Times. I am a fan: like the flake in a 99 Whip, I save her columns for last, looking forward to her straightforward, witty style as I trawl through the less sprightly items of the day.
It is therefore a little astonishing to read that it has taken 54-year-old Kellaway her entire life (minus a week) to realise that she’s a feminist. In her latest column she relates that until an advertisement for shampoo prompted the revelation last week, she ‘had thought that women who did professional jobs were a privileged group who should stop complaining’.
Granted, Kellaway gets marks for self-awareness and her nod to what the academics term awkwardly ‘intersectionality’ – the notion that gender cannot be considered in isolation from other aspects of our makeup such as class, race and sexual orientation. But she falls into a trap that snares so many professional women (including myself): that of either misunderstanding or simply forgetting that the basic principle of feminism is equality.
Yes, professional women are often privileged. Educated, employed, given choices. Yet quite frequently our male colleagues are more so. Think the UK’s 9.6 per cent pay gap in favour of men, laws which make women responsible for childcare and Kellaway’s own observation that cultural expectations of their sex mean that many women waste more time on their appearances than do their male equivalents. Kellaway need only have looked round the FT office for clues. Among the paper’s 20 heavyweight columnists, for example, there is a single woman, Gillian Tett. The men and women of the privileged professional class are not equal.
Like Kellaway, it took me years to acknowledge my feminism. I too saw the opportunities I had and was grateful. Calling myself a feminist seemed not only unnecessary, but an act of self-sabotage. I heard ‘feminist’ and thought ‘troublemaker’. It wasn’t a word bosses and colleagues wanted to hear. It wasn’t a word men wanted to hear. And why did I care? Because these people held the power, and behaviour which disrupted or threatened that probably wasn’t a good idea.
My gratitude for the chances which I have remains. Yet by stopping to understand that the essence of feminism is equality, it seems blindingly obvious that professionals can and should be feminists. Life might be pretty good for the professional woman – but that doesn’t mean it’s as fair as it could be, for women or men.
In moments of doubt I remind myself of a conversation between mother and daughter, overheard on a train, and relayed via Twitter (so long ago that the precise source escapes me, alas). It presents feminism’s drive for equality – and suggests that you don’t have to wait until adulthood to recognise it. It goes like this:
Daughter: ‘I’m not a feminist.’
Mother: ‘Do you want to own stuff and choose who you sleep with?’
Mother: ‘Then you’re a feminist.’*
*11.2.14 I’m pleased to report that my Twitter feed has just coughed up the source: @MirandaKeeling, to whom thanks and apologies for a slight misremembering. Keeling’s original reads thus:
‘Teenager on train: I’m not a feminist. Mum: Do you want to own things and decide who you sleep with? Teen: Yeah. Mum: You’re a feminist.’