A flicker of feminism

I’m relatively new to feminism. Always left-leaning, my political convictions for some reason did not explicitly extend to the rights of women until recently. I’ve been known to write letters to the Prime Minister (as a pre teen) protesting animal cruelty. I dabbled in student politics during my first stint at university over ten years ago, always on the left. I marched in Glasgow against the Iraq War, for what it was worth. Total belief in social justice led me to choose work in the community sector, starting first in disability working with both male and female clients, and then moving into drug and alcohol, mental health and homelessness working with mainly male clients.

After several years, uncomfortable with my fledging career’s focus on men, I went for a job in a solely women’s service, and in the interview I was asked to explain why women who are homeless might have a more difficult time than men in the same situation. I couldn’t fully answer the question. Violence, I said, and the risk of being raped. This I knew. The interview panel of one woman (the director) and two men (board members?) nodded, but they wanted more. Why might working with women be different to working with men? I sat there in my dress and suit jacket with low heels and thought frantically. There’s a different dynamic, I said, pathetically. I left feeling like I’d just done an exam and was wondering why I had finished before everyone else, only to realise later that I’d missed a whole page of questions. Years later I now know what they were looking for. An understanding of the oppression of women. Patriarchy. Sexism. Misogyny. An understanding of this and of women as second-class citizens, subhuman.

I didn’t come to feminism until some time after that job interview when I went back to university in 2008 to study social work, something I had wanted to do for several years. Even then, vaguely aware that some of the lecturers at uni were (gasp) feminists, I determined not to be “brainwashed” by them. I write that now with shame but also with an understanding of where it came from. Because I came to feminism not through books or through education or through a mother who passed it down, though all of these things I was privileged with. I came to feminism the way I guess most other women come to it, through the female experience, in my case the experience of a relationship with a violent, abusive and controlling man.

As stated by feminist psychiatrist Judith Herman, people who have experienced trauma (such as political prisoners and women experiencing domestic violence) sometimes take on the views of their captor. This is a survival strategy. I was with a man who did not trouble himself with speaking to a woman unless there was a chance he could have sex with her, and who surrounded himself with men who felt the same. Who watched degrading pornography and used emotional manipulation to coerce me into sex. Who was rude and derogatory to my friends he didn’t find attractive, and compared me ruthlessly to the ones who were. Who stalked and harassed and threatened me when I tried to leave. This was a man who would rather destroy his girlfriend of eight years (yes, eight) than let her go. I was fighting to survive and to free myself from this man, and my views on the lecturers at university reflect how deeply I was under his misogynist control. Not only did he stamp out any flicker of feminism I may have had prior to meeting him, he saw to it that my sense of self and my sense of my identity as an Australian were also nicely shamed and decimated.

Somehow, under this duress (which I hadn’t yet realised was domestic violence), I dragged myself to university. Though I am an atheist (another story), my prayers to my grandmothers for help were answered. Without realising, I had enrolled myself in a social work course taught by some of the leading feminist academics and teachers in the field of violence against women. Over the weeks and months I learnt that domestic violence is not just physical violence, but is a pattern of tactics used (mostly by men) to control a person (usually a woman) and keep them in fear. I learnt that domestic violence is about power and control and is a product of patriarchy. I learnt that best practice responses to DV come from a feminist perspective and focus on safety, rather than an expectation that the woman will leave the relationship. I finally believed what I had suspected for some time, that I was experiencing domestic violence, and eventually I was able to escape and become safe. Now looking back I’m still embarrassed that I was ignorant of the reality of violence against women even as I was living it myself. So you might say I was indeed brainwashed by the feminists, and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.