I have been thinking about feminism a fair bit recently, and particularly so since reading “The World According To Garp”, an outstanding novel by John Irving. It’s as moving and beautifully written a book as I can remember, and examines the relationship of Garp and his mother, who raises him alone and is one of the world’s foremost feminists.
Irving’s work was resonant in so many ways. Like Garp, I grew up around women who had the guts of iron. Like Garp, I knew all too well the many ways in which men failed them; and I promptly became afraid of failing them myself. For that reason, I had for some time been cautious of calling myself a feminist. A feminist, as far as I can see, is someone who consistently upholds the autonomy of women, and in a society where I was being force-fed their objectification every day I was not so sure that I could claim that title.
In time, though, I relaxed. Now I see being a feminist a little like being a poet. It’s a lifelong process, at which I may never be great, but the important thing is to keep working at it. That may not seem like much, but for me it represents significant progress. After all, it took me several years to describe myself as a poet, as opposed to someone who merely wrote poetry: being a poet was something more than writing verse. It was educating myself about the field, it was humbling myself by learning from those who had gone before, and from those around me.
And being a feminist means exactly the same to me. As in poetry, I cannot claim to be an academic in my chosen area, or even impressively well-read. But, in both cases, I am struggling towards something better. And so I should. Feminism, as the lust-addled Garp discovered, is work at which he was far from diligent. Yet my anxiety that I may not be perfect is no excuse for not trying. It was once the case that I would read of sexual discrimination or sexual violence against women and numbly shrug my shoulders, overwhelmed at the oppression of it all. But that was an unacceptable response. Those women were my sisters and my mother and my aunts and girlfriends and my grandmother. And if an army of men came to the door against those women I loved, or sneeringly converged on them in the workplace, then I would defend them with all the fury I had in me.
I must remind myself that I do not have to fight or understand every battle. All I must truly do is listen, and call out my fellow men when we slip into sexism as many of us do. I will stop there before I begin to put myself on a pedestal from which the plummet will be painful: and will state that feminism, like poetry, is a discipline to which I commit.