By Friederike Sandow
I got into feminism pretty late. I would have never used the word feminist in my early twenties, even mid-twenties, to describe myself. I probably did not fully understand the term and shied away from it. Because whenever the term feminism was thrown around when I was growing up, it was instantly followed by rolling eyes.
Still, I grew up in a very positive household. My parents were (and still are) incredibly loving and supportive. They gave me the feeling and trusted me that I can literally do anything I wanted. They encouraged my interests and were patient when the interest faded as quickly as they came, they respected my fashion choices and hairstyles, they encouraged my stubbornness to a healthy degree.
I am white, middle-class European woman, I was good in school, I got into (almost) no trouble. The world should (technically) be my oyster. I am aware of my privilege and at the same time I am overwhelmed by the inequalities I see happening in my surroundings, online and offline, in the news and in my daily life. And I am well aware that my experiences as a white feminist are only the tip of the iceberg. Though that does not make me less angry, it actually just makes me all the more more frustrated. Frustrated at how deeply entrenched daily sexism is, how systematic the inequalities, how male oriented our legal system is, our companies, or politics, our understanding of the world.
The word feminism for me still is slightly misleading, I am acutely aware that it still carries connotations – at least it did for me, for a long time. But I have decided that those connotations aren‘t mine, and that people who are attaching them should not be my concern. I have been able to use the word feminism proudly nowadays, knowing that feminism is no radical notion, but valuing human life equally.
Having been brought up so caringly and having been able to move through life, school, friendships and first relationships so effortlessly had rendered me numb and blind to struggles experienced by others outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sexist or anti-feminist, I just simply didn’t recognise the need to fight for my ground. I guess that means that I was pretty lucky.
Feminism just wasn‘t a topic at home or amongst my school friends. My parents did everything right, I had access to books, I watched the Karen Silkwoods, the Thelmas and Louises, the Lorelei and Rory Gilmores, the magnolias of steel. Looking back now, of course I see the chauvinist boys I dated, the sexist university classrooms, the horrors my Mum had do endure at her work, the still classic roles in our family, the jokes I used to be able to laugh about or not get offended by. They have all always been there, but being older I now know better. Where I used to feel flattered, I now feel grossed out. Where I used to laugh, I now ruin the mood. Where I used to not care, I am now very quickly very emotional. And it is as much exhausting as it is empowering.
Until I was in my mid-twenties I was offended by proposals of introducing female quotas for positions in politics, institutions or any company that was hiring, really. See, the small girl in me believed that I don’t need these things. That if I am good, knowledgable and hard working, I will go as far as my dreams and wishes would carry me. And I miss that innocence that I had, I miss the feeling of being convinced that I live in a world that makes no difference between gender, sex, sexual orientation, colour or disabilities. But I am not living in this world.
I don’t know what shook me awake and brought my dreams of a perfect world to a halt. In hindsight, it was probably a combination of work, books, journalistic pieces and conversations with friends. And even though I had to say goodbye to a perfect world, I gained new insights, power, and a ton of role models. I started to pay more attention to how women were portrayed, the language we used, how decisions were made and what decisions I made based on societal gender roles.
I miss the feeling of the jaunty world, but I would not go back in time or trade my awareness and, ultimately, my anger.
Because now I know it wasn’t simply that my life, up until a certain point, was too easy, that I wasn’t experiencing sexism from an early age on. I now know that, to a certain extent, what I experienced, was silence. A silence that was partly self obstructed and partly forced on me. I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough and I believed that my experiences were either too unique or, if not unique, at least too little to talk about. Not special or serious enough to justify an outcry.
Recognising that I have been silent and silenced has allowed me to stand up for myself, to feel heard and seen in conversations with female friends, with female colleagues and sometimes strangers. It has helped me guide my emotions, my expectations and it made me fight harder, it made me find my voice. And I am so thankful for this voice. Now I know that of course we need female quotas for the workplace. Of course women need better representation. Of course women need laws for women made by women. Women need their voice and it not only has to stop that they are actively or passively silenced, they also need to be encouraged to raise their voice.
I had an argument on twitter the other day, where a man explained in a blog post that the gender pay gap is irrelevant and only existing because women choose different things. That even though more women than men are studying these days, women simply ‘study the wrong subjects‘ by their own choice. And I engaged, and I asked what constitutes as a ‘wrong‘ subject, and why he did not factor in the systematic oppression and disadvantaging of women. He asked back what I mean by that and to explain where women are oppressed or disadvantaged. I replied with a list that read: access to education, differences in salaries for the same work, the language we use, the lack of females in higher ranking positions in academia, journalism, politics, management; domestic violence; the unavoidable time-gap when it comes to women‘s working life because still more women than men care for elder family members or children, which leads to difficulties of getting back into work after having had children and finding a part-time job. Meaning that the risk of poverty among the elderly is higher for women because of all that. And all he replied to that with was: do you have numbers that support this or is it a subjective feeling that you‘re sporting?
Don‘t get me wrong, of course one can ask for numbers and statistics. But really, sometimes I am too tired to look them up and to have them handy whenever I get into an online or offline discussion. Honestly, I feel it‘s like looking up if climate change is real. It is, so let‘s move on to the solution. I am furious and angry that I live in a world where the disadvantaged have to prove that they are disadvantaged to the kind of people who do the disadvantaging – or, at least, who have benefitted from it. Because the statistics all are pointing into one direction, and one direction only: women have been screwed over, time and time again.
I am still learning how to manoeuvre in a world where I come across gender-based entitlement on a daily basis, whether it is on public transport, at work, in the media, in advertising, in policies and sometimes in my family and group of friends. But I have become louder. I don‘t let things slide so easily anymore. I talk to colleagues about sexism at work, about our salaries. I speak up and ask for clarification or I explain how that makes me feel, if I hear a friend or family member say something that makes me uncomfortable, even if that means that I make it uncomfortable for everyone for a little bit. I stopped to care for these little moments of harmony if the pay-off means that I have to stay silent. I actively try to read more work by women, to listen to more music by women, to be better to myself, and generally, to talk about it more. Not necessarily to educate, but to exchange experiences, to offer and receive points of views, and to become more aware.
Not being silent anymore takes energy. Often enough, the energy comes back through the network of likeminded women. And often enough I despair at the news. News such as that rape victims coming forward are not believed, news that companies set themselves the goal of zero women in their boards of management, news that the gender pay gap is still persistent, news that abortion rights are being cut down.
I don‘t know how to handle it yet, as it does not feel nice to feel angry, and I certainly don‘t want to become bitter. I just hope I will find a way to channel my fairly new-found feminism, because I am definitely not ready to let it go – if anything, I am just getting started.
Friederike Sandow lived in a lot countries in and around Europe, studied international security and politics at the Universities of Bath and Berlin and used to work as a flight attendant, which made her fall in love with people and their stories. Once she exchanged the clouds for solid ground she worked at a Berlin-based agency on campaigns for the European Commission for a couple of years and is now working for a non-profit. She is an editor and writer for an online magazine for young Europeans called Europe & Me, loves to watch series, read, drink coffee – and has the dream of writing a book one day.