Saturday, 8 March 2014

Feminist cookies: a celebration of International Women's Day

Hand-painted and printed feminist cookies, as made by EJ
I made these hand-painted and letter-pressed cookies as a celebration of International Women's Day - if you're not aware of it, do check out the link to discover some of the wonderful events and celebrations occurring around the world today. This post, unusually for me, has quite a personal focus - so if you're here for the baking, it's best to just focus on the pictures, or take a click through the archive :) 

At school, I was one of a handful of girls to identify as feminist - I was pleased in sixth form, when we got to study Sociology, to find quite a few of my peers joining me. Now I'm older, I'm also very happy to find feminism featuring more frequently in mainstream media - and that the majority (if not all) of the men in my life identify as feminist too. But it does shock me when people misinterpret the 'F' word, or belittle its need in modern British society.

It's easy to look at the global state of women's issues, the struggle women have in some parts of the world to be granted basic human rights -  and assume that the UK is a nation of equality, that feminism has done its job. But anyone who's been watching the news over the past 18 months knows that acts such as FGM are still very British issues - and that internet trolls seem to think it's ok to dish out threats of rape to any powerful woman to express an opinion in the media. It's also easy to overlook the more subtle acts of sexism that exist all around us, that are socialised into our very beings.  Campaigns such as The Everyday Sexism Project have helped to illustrate that sexist attitudes are still very much ingrained into our culture - to the extent that as women, we very often don't even question these encounters.

Becoming self-employed last year, I naively assumed I'd be able to neatly dodge sexist attitudes. I was shocked, a few months ago when having described my business to a person of local importance, he responded by describing me as 'the perfect housewife'. I'm not sure how he expected me to respond to this. My reply was an unplanned - and slightly awkwardly delivered - unintentional monologue about how I think it's a shame that the skills I have as a baker and craftsperson are still so gendered. He turned on his heel before I had even finished my sentence - small ladies who bake, sew and teach crochet are evidently not supposed to talk back. Really, I should have just reminded him that we had just had a lovely conversation about me being a small business owner. Not to undermine the skills of a home maker either; why should the important job of keeping your family happy and healthy require baking artistry and needlecraft skills?

In other employment, I remember a discussion about a challenging female client, when a male colleague made the suggestion that she needed to 'get some' - jokingly encouraging another male colleague to 'offer his services'. I've also been surprised by some of the sexistly rooted comments I've received from female colleagues over the years - with one memorably suggesting, that as my workload had decreased, I could spend the rest of my time that month 'faffing' with my make-up in the toilets. I'm sure there were no dark intentions to either of these examples, it's just that when you strip comments like these back to their core, what's really being said is very derogative.

Having been in a very committed relationship for 12 years, the most well meaning of friends and family challenge me about my un-married status. On several occasions, I've been asked if my partner is 'just not interested in getting married', or if there's 'a reason he hasn't asked yet?'. I explain that it's a mutual decision - that our relationship is wonderful, romantic - but also pragmatically focussed, based on equality - that we have shared ambitions for our relationship and our lives that currently outweigh the urgency of marriage. Truthfully, we will probably tie the knot one day (we are by no means opposed to this), but we'll do it our own way - and it certainly won't be because one of us alone called the shots. Comments like this - or any of the aforementioned, really don't come from a place of sexist intention - I truly believe it's down to the way we're socialised, that men and women in western society are each 'supposed' to behave a certain way. It can be jarring when someone goes against the grain of social norms - and I really believe that we are all guilty of occasional (and usually unconscious) gender stereotyping - something that the brilliant feminist documentary MissRepresentation pulls neatly into awareness.

Luckily for me, my experiences of sexism to date have been in the form of gendered, derogative or insensitive comments - and never anything more sinister. I grew up in a place where it was not uncommon for men in white vans to shout sexual slurs at school girls; it made me angry, but was something I learnt to accept. No person should ever have to accept objectification like that - it is this 'harmless' objectification that nurtures darker manifestations of sexism - and for that reason we should not belittle the power of even the tiniest indiscretion. Learning to identify these traits in ourselves is surely the spark that ignites a change in cultural attitude? I for one, am making an effort to be more aware of my own application of gender-based stereotyping; I hope that in the future, my own children will be able to avoid the sexism that is still very much ingrained in our culture.

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