Some words exist quite happily on their own. Most of us are probably familiar with the mainstream idea of “love” – a word associated with hearts, roses and sappy album covers.
The theme that surrounds this word is unlikely to change, whereas other words are more active and transient – particularly when they relate to identity. Feminism is a term which has been used so frequently in recent years, that to the uninformed its meaning might seem confusing.
We know the textbook definition: equality across the sexes. But what does it look like to regular people?
I spoke with four individuals from four generations to find out.
Our first interviewee, Rachel, is a 63 year-old musician from the UK.
How would you define feminism?
The chance for women to be on an equal footing with men, and to not in any way be held back by the fact that they’re women.
I enjoy having a car-door opened for me by a man, as long as it doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. You can’t get rid of the difference between the sexes. And neither should you, I think. We are different. We have different strengths. We can’t necessarily do the work of a man physically, but then again, some women can! It’s just a question of not being held back..
I’m a great believer in that the best person gets the job, whether or not they’re male or female.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Yeah! But without thinking about it. I’m lucky to have been born when I was, and I’ve also been lucky to be a part of a profession which has been predominantly female. It’s less and less now, but you can look around an orchestra and there’s still a lot of women.
I have to say – in all my career, which is what, over 40 years – I have only been conducted by a woman about 3 times. Which is quite interesting.
It’s also interesting that some musicians aspire to become conductors. They want to stand in front and tell people what to do, and think they know more than anybody else. I have to say there is not a single woman I know, during the course of my career, that has had that ambition. It has always been men. That also says something.
What are your earliest memories when it comes to being aware of the sexes?
I suppose one of my earliest memories was being with my grandmother after church. The vicar asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up; I said I wanted to be a vicar, and he laughed. Like “What a preposterous idea.” Well…. He got proved wrong, didn’t he? Things have changed a lot since then.
What is your knowledge and/or experience with women’s rights?
Zilch, really. I mean, I follow things in the newspaper, like the salaries of BBC employees being different between women and men. And I suppose Thatcher was one of the biggest events. The fact that we had a female prime-minister… That was quite unheard of.
I know that I had to fight my mother – this is more of a personal thing – when I was going to have children. She made it very clear that I was going to have to stop my career. Which didn’t happen. That was just because of her viewpoint.
How has feminism changed in your mind, up to the present day?
Women have more opportunities. And it’s more accepted if you’re a woman that you can do certain things; whether or not you’re paid the same of course is another matter.
There are some great women who have done a lot of great things, like JK Rowling, for example.
Our next guest is Chris, a 27-year old American expat living in Berlin.
What is feminism to you?
I think feminism is a movement, or a way of thought, that primarily focuses on creating equality. We live in a society where most things have generally been set up to the advantage of men, in all aspects of life. So it’s trying to make that more equal.
For instance, men can feel safe in more places, both at night and in general. There are several double-standards, where a certain characteristic in a man is appreciated, but in a woman it might not be appreciated. I think feminism is just the movement to correct that.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
I mean, in regard to everything that I said just now, I believe in that. I don’t know if I would ever use the label, because that’s not something I believe in. With the label you feel like it’s something you have to be responsible for. I’d rather just try to embody that, rather than join a group.
Does it need a new definition?
I think it’s different for different people because some feminists might have different goals.
How do you feel about the #metoo movement?
I think for the most part, I agree with that. Obviously it’s a very difficult topic for women who’ve been abused to talk about it.. Especially if it’s happened within a short time-frame. So many of the cases go unreported and so many people, especially people who are living with abusers, feel like they can’t say something.
A lot of it’s in Hollywood. Men in positions of power are usually the people that are using sex and the threat of violence as a way to control people… There have also been instances with women being bribed jobs and if they say no, they get blacklisted. It’s good that this is coming to light, because it’s terrible.
How has feminism changed over the course of your life?
I was born in 1992, so when I was younger, the internet was barely a thing, I mean it was a small thing. Then social media became popular when I was in late middle school and high-school and each year it became more and more of a big thing.
When I was younger, you would maybe read about feminism in a history book, and hear about people getting the right to vote. It seemed like just a group of people or an activist group. Not in a bad way, but a feminist might’ve been somewhat like a hippy, or one of those groups that would wanna talk to people and reach out to them.
I wasn’t so conscious about feminism in society that much, it was just something you’d hear about once in a while. The conversation has become more vocal. It’s a way bigger thing in society now, and it’s also a bit more confused. Because people are always having to define it all the time!
Our penultimate interviewee is Colin, a 77-year old librarian from England.
What does feminism mean to you?
It depends, do you mean feminism being sort of abstract, or are you thinking of a cause? I don’t have a lot to say on that. I just think that the sexes should have equal rights and equal opportunities.
I support equal rights and opportunities for women, but I haven’t had to defend them.
The obvious area is my work, where it is very equal. On the whole, if it’s a matter of someone having a permanent job, that has traditionally gone to the man. I know it’s contentious.
On the whole, now it’s up for grabs who does that. It’s an equal right. It could equally be the man who stays at home nowadays, and it frequently is. But, certainly in my professional life, it has been very equal.
When did you become aware of the differences between the sexes?
I had very equal parents in that respect. They were both always working equally – it didn’t really impinge on me at all when I was growing up.
Then of course I went to a boys’ boarding school. What a bad idea that is nowadays. It was bad enough then! A single-sex boarding school inevitably gives you a slightly-warped relationship with the opposite sex, because you spend so much of your time in a male world. I don’t know how the professionals would analyse this, but… it would seem to me to be almost impossible for you to emerge from that and be unaffected by it.
Can you link your experiences to any particular movements or events that happened in your lifetime?
One event I can think of was in 1968, I went on tour in the United States with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and there was a big fuss – they managed to get newspapers onto it and things, because it was the first time they had women in the orchestra. And this orchestra had been going since 1946, so it was sort of a big deal. In fact, it always has been with orchestras who are stuck in the tradition of the previous century.
The Vienna Philharmonic – one of the greatest orchestras in the world – for years they were remarked on by critics that the only women in their orchestra played the harp. And then finally, much later than 1968, they started putting women in it. That caused quite a big stir.
What is your knowledge and/or experience with women’s rights?
My knowledge and experience of women’s rights. I don’t have any really. I haven’t been swept up in a cause. Not having sisters was a shame.
Our last guest is Gosia, a 23 years-old Polish expat living in Berlin, Germany
What is your definition of feminism?
I think it used to mean equality. If you would ask me this five years ago, I would tell you it’s about equality, women opening up about their rights, and fighting to be equal to men. But due to the internet and how extreme things can get – things have gotten blurred. It’s not as clear to me as to what is feminism now.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Considering that I grew up with a single mum and an older sister, I don’t think it was really an option not to be a feminist. It was something I not only believed in, but witnessed on a day-to-day basis.
There was no-one to tell us that women could not do something, because I witnessed my mother, my sister and I doing everything.
When did you become aware of some of the societal differences between the sexes?
Probably school, or at the earliest kindergarten. I can’t exactly remember my first memory of that.. But no matter what people would tell me in school or on the streets or whatever, I would always know that that’s not true because the family life that I led was the complete opposite of the norm, and it still existed. Female empowerment was something that I never questioned.
How has everything improved, from women’s rights to the state of being a woman?
It did improve drastically. Every change starts off from having a conversation about something. So it did change, and it’s still growing and progressing.
Do you have anything to say about social media, the #metoo movement, etc?
I’m a kind of different 20-something year old. I decided not to involve myself too much with it, I chose to kind of step away from that because it’s not necessarily something I feel is needed in my life. However it is a beautiful place in bringing people together, and in relation to feminism – bringing women together to create spaces for themselves where they feel comfortable sharing their journey as women.
How do you feel about more extreme feminists – like Chanty Binx – being anti-men?
Personally for me, there are aspects of it that went too far, but just in our generation. Obviously there are women who are fighting for equality, there are certain groups on the internet that went far and beyond that, to hatred and exclusion. In reality, men and women can learn from each other. I think there’s so much knowledge that can be exchanged between us.