A journey through modern day feminism, and recognising the domestic ties that women still carry today.
By Katherine Stainton
Thanks to the good work of our foremothers over the past decades, we have moved forward hugely in our fight for equality as women, so why does it still feel like we have so far to go?
Sexism has to be far more subtle in order for it to survive in today’s society and so at times is harder to call it out. It’s so satisfying to see our next generation of young women pushing things forward and maintaining the momentum that has been building for the past century and a half.
With the advent of social media and its powers to connect like-minded people quickly, more of us than ever, from all generations are talking openly about our experiences and the subtle injustices we have experienced. The power of hearing another woman’s story, her discomfort and often her journey to overcoming that situation has personally helped me verbalise experiences that I once just felt plain confused by, this has therefore assisted me in understanding why those situations made me uncomfortable in the first place.
I think that confusion often came from my own conditioning as a woman, seeing the females around me doing the very things that confused and concerned me. I’m sure most of the men that I have been connected to throughout my life to would disagree but sexual discrimination is fed to them as subtly as it is to us women.
They are taught to fear females that grow ‘too’ strong and naturally feel threatened when presented with one. Whilst listening to a podcast with Nichola Sturgeon recently, she spoke about in her early days as an MP she would be continuously criticised because she didn’t smile much, coincidently at the same time Gordon Brown was in power who very rarely smiled either, however, his sombre presentation was not once commented upon because as an unsmiling man he is not seen as a threat.
This subtle message is laid upon us from an early age, even in today’s children’s clothing lines, there is a huge imbalance between the messages written on girls v’s boys clothing. Boys clothing generally leaning towards the ‘go get em’, ‘action’ messaging and girls towards the ‘smile, be happy’ messaging.
Only recently giant retailer Primark came under scrutiny with regards to this type of labelling being portrayed on children’s clothing. Parents are also constantly expressing concerns about the lack of availability of age-appropriate clothing for girls, with necklines getting lower and hemlines higher the older a girl gets, whilst boys clothes remain largely the same. This just affirms the programming in young girls, that their worth lies in their sexuality. Embracing your sexuality as a fully grown woman is your right but should never start from your self-worth.
Growing up in the ’90s, I see myself as part of a sandwich generation in the evolution of feminism. The women of the ’70’s started questioning norms, they decided enough was enough and began to speak out more and more with a bit of bra-burning thrown in for good measure to grab headlines and be heard, it was, unfortunately, a very small percentage of women who joined in, probably due to the fact that they were entirely under the control of the men in their lives with patriarchal laws still in place, such as women being unable to open a bank account in their own name until 1974 here in the UK, so it is no wonder we were afraid to upset them. Topped with the fear of being associated with hairy armpits and man-haters, was the message instilled to quell the surge of unhappy females taking to the streets to protest and speak out.
The ’80s saw a new evolvement in the fight for equality, with the rise of the working woman, with her shoulder pads and all the glamour that went with it, men seemed to be warming to the idea of a little more equality in their lives and by the ’90s many women were working, attending university and feeling they could do it all, except sadly this lead to a new culture in its own right and doing it ‘all’ is exactly what they were doing.
Although most men seemed to have finally accepted the working woman and were quite supportive in the majority. It’s no surprise really, women were out working and then returning home to all of the domestic duties and child care that had always been expected of them. In essence, men were having their cake and eating it, more money coming into the household, therefore releasing them of some of the financial responsibility and still getting a home-cooked meal and clean washing at the end of the day.
The ’90s and ’00s was indeed a great decade for men, perhaps the best. Of course, there were exceptions but for the most part, this is what I saw. The odd trailblazing relationship where you saw the man sharing domestic burdens would find the man labelled, ‘under the thumb’ or ‘emasculated’ by their wife, reverting men to the victim position in order to avert any requests of their services towards the household chores. I was definitely a child of this generation. My father was a very supportive empowering dad, who championed my abilities and always instilled nothing but self-belief in my equal power and intelligence to all men in me.
I adored my father and do to this day, God rest his soul, but looking back now as a mother and wife myself, I see that my mom was carrying the huge majority of the workload for our ‘modern’ ‘90s family, working full time as was dad, but then also coming home to all the domestic work every day. Since becoming a mother myself I have developed a huge respect for all that mom gave to us and sacrificed of herself. She was often burned out, turning out home-cooked meals day after day, piles of washed and ironed clothes weekly and a consistently clean house. She was often a little vacant I remember and it’s only now I understand how she must have been constantly running on empty. But because pretty much all women did it, they felt they should never complain… Keep that smile on your face girl. The saddest thing is, there is still a percentage of women that feel this pressure to be responsible for keeping all the plates spinning on the domestic front alongside their careers.
My experience of being a young woman and emerging into adulthood was compounded in a painting I painted for my GCSE art final piece, It completely encompasses to me what my idea of the perfect woman was. The centre figure was the head of a beautifully flawless woman, glossy locks piled high on her head, emerging from a giant pile of washing up with two teacups balanced carefully on top of her, whilst maintaining an air of steely control and contentment. She was a goddess in my mind, a silent manifestation of the woman I felt I should probably become if I wanted to get on in life. She hung proudly above my bed throughout my late adolescent years, titled ‘Piled high’. On reflection now some 25 years or more later I think a more fitting title would have perhaps been ‘Beware!’.
Luckily my artwork lead me on a more positive journey through life and helped me process my feelings about being a woman. Within my portrait work, you are much more likely to find me pencilling in Maya Angelou or Harriet Beecher these days. People I can learn from and draw healthier empowerment from, each character takes me on a new journey and helps me find honesty in myself and help me stand firm in my beliefs and values. My portrait work coupled with my art company, ‘Saltbox Arts’ has challenged me to draw from my strengths, stand firm in the presence of men, brush off belittling attempts and above all let go of the ideals of being a perfect homemaker.
With two sons it’s important to me that they see that my career and aspirations are as important as their father’s and I am not simply a domestic workhorse. We must all support one another to achieve our goals and that means everyone helping domestically. It takes many conversations, but we are making progress and I now don’t feel the guilt and inadequacy that I once felt when the domestic side of life wasn’t to standard because I don’t see it solely as my responsibility anymore and with that comes a great sense of peace.
I can’t imagine what it was like for the women of my mom’s generation and before, all I can say is that I recognise it and feel the responsibility to keep pushing the shift in their name, to be unapologetically myself and to ruffle as many feathers as is necessary to make sure the next generation of women never have to question their worth and importance in this world, none of us deserve to be piled high.
By Katherine Stainton – www.saltboxarts.co.uk