Feminism is a word that gets me cringing – it’s a label and one I don’t want to be boxed into. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful for what the Suffragettes did – one of the reasons I believe all people should vote even if you don’t think putting a cross in a box will make a difference (my other ‘must vote’ reason is seeing what being able to vote meant to so many in South Africa in 1994. People died to have a say, I can’t ignore that.) Over my short life, I’ve come to realise there are many feminisms and the one I most closely associate with is what I equate to Female Consciousness (taking Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness as a starting point). I don’t have to change my behaviour to be valued or to have my femininity recognised. I am valued because I am true to myself and my beliefs.

An author I value for a seemingly similar view is Doris Lessing. But it is Margaret Atwood who inspired this post. Well, not Margaret herself but rather an article on women becoming feminists because of her. A Handmaid’s tale is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen to the extent that I’m too afraid to read the book. It resonates today, not because of the position of women, but rather because the human race doesn’t seem to learn from the past. We glibly accept what is fed to us through the media, accepting policies in the work place because we’re too scared not to (what happened to common sense?) and giving in to the general hysteria around us.

I know many powerful and strong women who just get on with the job, confident in their belief of what they’re doing: Ruth First and a young Winnie Mandela who fought against colour discrimination; Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Page, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood and other writers who use(d) the pen to comment on social inequalities and unjust actions irrespective of gender; Emily Hobhouse campaigning against the Boer War concentration camps, Florence Nightingale nursing in the Crimea, business women who have broken the perceived glass ceiling because of being good at their job – taxation, economics, education. And crossing into a new culture, watching the documentary of Hooligan Sparrow at The Rights Practice. Ye Haiyan (aka Hooligan Sparrow) is a remarkable person protesting against the inequalities in Chinese society – in this case the use of school girls who are sexually exploited. Although the focus was on Ye Haiyan as the driving force, she could not have achieved what she did (and continues to do) without the support of others.

I can’t help but think that if we stop getting side-tracked by the label of feminism, and just get on and do, society as a whole will be in a much better place. And, I’m reminded of two books different in style and detail but similar in setting and having strong women as the main characters; one written by a woman (Maya Alexandri), the other by a male (Wilbur Smith); the latter makes no mention in the blurb of the women involved – I assume because of the readership Wilbur is appealing to(!).

first published 31 May 2017, updated 2024