The “F” word: why are we so afraid of using it?


Today being International Women’s Day, it seems a good time to talk about the “F” word.

Why is it so controversial to discuss something so natural, something that happens every day of the week? Much of the world has embraced it, and the rest would do if they truly understood what’s at stake.

I mean, we’ve had proponents of the “F” word for centuries. And there have been times when it has been more widely used than today – at least in Western culture. In the 1960s, for example. The 60s was all about fun, and freedom and the “F” word.  Remember the ads by the famous tobacco company saying we’d come a long way, baby?


As it happens, neither do I, I’m a little young to remember some of those things first time round – but I did hear about it. I live in a quiet part of the world, where, frankly we’re a little behind on the times. Our advertising has barely reached 1940s standards let alone the flashy freedom of the 60s. (Though it must be said, there’s an 80s thing going on here too – sigh.)

And before you get too excited about what this blog will reveal – and raise your eyebrows as its casual tone – I’m not talking about that “F” word. I’m talking about feminism.

When I was growing up the word “feminist” conjured up images in my head of muscly women with crew cuts who slammed doors in the faces of men who held the door for them politely or asked if they could help them carry a heavy suitcase up several flights of stairs. Feminists stood out. They made a scene. They were rude. They went round in packs, hungry for a fight and belittled women who looked too attractive or were the least bit shy. I certainly didn’t want any part of that – heaven forbid!

No, while I completely embraced independence, feminism was a whole other thing. And like many people, I accepted the ridiculous stereotypes I had in my head as complete fact, and didn’t actually think about the issue – or question any of the assumptions I’d made – for years.

So while I have no intention of making a scene, getting a crew cut, or rudely slamming the door in a polite man’s face, I do tend to lug my own suitcase as needed, do simple DIY tasks (I admit when it comes to plumbing and major electrics, I’d rather call in a professional). When I got married I kept my own surname and thirteen years later we still have separate bank accounts. And that’s the way I like it. (By the way my parents have separate bank accounts – and they’ve been happily married 50 years, so it’s not a deal-breaker by any means!)

But I carried on for years thinking that my fierce independence, and undying belief that women are equal to men – had nothing to do with feminism. I was quite frankly blind. Sexism was everywhere, but in my compartmentalized mindset, that had nothing to do with feminism either. I had no end of  sexual innuendos and comments from random men who passed me as I walked around the city – and some even seemed to find it weird that I didn’t take it as a complement or a joke. This made me feel really shy and embarassed and I would wear baggy clothes and try to make myself as invisible as possible. It was also baffling  – I couldn’t understand why this was considered acceptable behaviour – I  would never walk down a street in city eyeing up all the men and telling them exactly what I thought of their reproductive bits – it’s intrusive and creepy. The thought of it makes me shudder. How anyone could think that would be a complement is deeply mystifying.

And in the job world, it was a similar situation. My boss in at London law firm told me to stand on his desk (when I was wearing a knee-length pencil skirt) during a meeting with another male client, presumably so he could enjoy the view (up my skirt). I was tour guide for a while and the coach driver kept propositioning me and seem genuinely surprised that I wouldn’t comply, even though he was 25 years older than me, and then of course he kept telling me that there must be something wrong with me as all the other girls found him irresistible. Then he wanted to show me photos of his escapades to prove it! No thanks!

I was relieved when I finally joined the corporate world as I thought that men and women who had the same qualifications, skills and experience would have an equal chance of being awarded a top executive job. Of course I realised – unconsciously – that I would have to work twice as hard as the men in my office – not just at the office  – but also most male suitors would also except me to take care of all domestic chores too. I’ve never been afraid of hard work – I was a bit resentful about the domestic chores, I’ll admit -but I love working twice as hard as anyone else in the office. But it was always such a battle to have your opinions taken seriously at the office, and it was frankly much easier to shut up and work even harder. So that was my main strategy – and it carried me through until I joined senior management. At one company I was proud to be offered the position of Director of Communications – the only female director out of 8 – and I almost signed the contract even thought it was a pay drop from my previous work. But then I found out that I was being offered less than half the salary of my male counterparts, and when I raised this, very diplomatically, with the human resources manager (who was a woman), the contract was withdrawn.

And still I refused to embrace the “F” word. It was only last year that I realised that I can only hope to achieve the change I’d like to see in the world if I stop hiding away. If I dare to speak up. It’s not all or nothing. To be a feminist, I don’t need a crew cut or to rabidly attack anyone who offers to help me, or makes a thoughtless sexist remark out of social conditioning. I can just assert myself in my way – which happens to be gentle, but firm – and be proud of who I am.

Feminists are not man haters, or woman haters, or people hellbent on making a scene. Anyone who believes that men and women deserve an equal chance in life is a feminist.

It’s really that simple. Don’t over-complicate it. Just realise you already are one. After all if you believe in fairness – in equality, if you believe that no one should be oppressed and we all have equal value, then you are a feminist. Yes you. Even if you are a man. Or a woman who used to be scared of the “F” word.

The good news is that there is growing awareness and support, and feminism is on the rise. When asked to think about, rather than simply avoiding the issue (as I did in the past), most people find they are in favour of giving boys and girls equal chances and men and women equal opportunities in life. UN Women are spearheading a number of campaigns to help men stand up for women (the He for She campaign – sign up guys, we love you!) and to protect basic human rights for women in the Impact 10x10x10 programme.

So, if you want to stay relevant, if you want to get ahead in the world, if you want your life to matter – you’d better make friends with the “F” word.