Real feminism is common sense. It is neither angry nor man-hating and much of it is common sense. Real parenting is mostly done without a script, often a bit terrifying and entirely amazing. But growing up in the 1970s, neither Allison Vale nor Victoria Ralfs reckoned they needed feminism. Years later, in an effort to raise happily flawed, robust sons and daughters, they both found that feminism was at the core of their parenting. In celebration of International Women’s Day, they share their story.
The following article is extracted from How to Raise a Feminist by Allison Vale and Victoria Ralfs.
What is a feminist?
Feminism needn’t be radical. It isn’t necessarily strident, angry or hairy. It’s about justice, self-awareness, guts. It’s about respecting the authority and experience of others but it’s not always about accepting it. Certainly never at the expense of what you know to be true and just. And it had been the missing link in my story.
I wasn’t able to see any of that until I was a mother myself.
Feminists aren’t a niche interest group – they’re decent, courteous, respectful members of your community. They party hard, work hard and know better than to dish out any shit, or to take any of it from anyone.
That’s everything I want for my children.
Mothers and Feminism
Recently I read a blog entitled ‘Why More Mothers Aren’t Feminists’. It took me a while to get past the title. The tsunami of twentieth-century radical feminism carries sentiments like this in its wake: motherhood, with all of its domestic drudgery and career breaks, is death to feminism. As lately as 2012, French feminist Elisabeth Badinter published a book called The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, in which she condemns attachment parenting for ‘tethering women to the home’. Babies are one thing, but stay home a while to raise them? Unthinkable . . . Badinter is entitled to her point of view, naturally, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s bollocks!
That kind of stuff is damaging, divisive and disruptive. Strident judgements such as these can leave us all, mothers and childless alike, with a nagging sense that our lifestyle choice is somehow less than acceptable. It can put too many of us on the defensive, convinced we are somehow in conflict with other women over our lifestyle choices.
And none of that’s OK.
Before we go any further, let’s throw out the old Feminist Rule Book. It no longer applies. The new rules are: there are no rules. All that matters is that you’re kind to yourself and that you step up whenever you sense that others aren’t showing you, or anyone else, that same kindness.
Now that you’re heading into parenthood for the first time, take a moment to remind yourself what’s great about you. Not to satisfy any flaky, hemp-clad, inner-goddess urge, but because it matters. Once that baby drops into your world, there’s a fairly hefty chance it will take over your every waking thought. A swell of emotion, a tortuous, elongated spell of sleep deprivation coupled with enforced gin-prohibition means you’ll be at significant risk of sidelining the things that make you you for a while. What takes over is baby. It’s useful upfront to remind yourself what matters to you, what makes you a thinking, feeling, vibrant person, and keep a tight hold.
So, what are the mantras by which you live?
First, let’s get the mood right. Don’t be tempted to hit Charlene for a bit of ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’ or Christina Aguilera’s ‘I Am Beautiful (No Matter What They Say)’: we need something celebratory. She can keep her ‘discontented mother’/‘regimented wife’ thing to herself. Let’s step it up: Chaka Khan, ‘I’m Every Woman’. And turn it UP!
Try answering these questions honestly:
- What earns your respect?
- What fires you up, makes you feel most impassioned?
- What motivates you?
- What pisses you off?
- What gives you the biggest sense of pride?
- What makes you cry?
- What makes you intervene, step up, shout out, help?
- What fascinates you?
- What absorbs you?
These are some of the things that influence how you feel about, respond to and behave around others. They also shape how you treat yourself: they are what’s you about you.
Knowing what matters to you is important because right from that little blue line, the societal pull to begin motherhood perfect and get better from there on in is ENORMOUS. We all do it: we get sucked in by all the other voices – the mothers, sisters, medics, guidebooks, Oprah . . . And we end up in exhaustive pursuit of the perfect diet, or of the Mozart concerto most likely to have Foetal-Me hit genius from the off. A million different voices, all of them expert, all urging you to dampen your instincts and do it their way.
The unavoidable fact is that you won’t be the perfect mother – who is? But listen: you don’t need perfection. And more to the point, your baby won’t need it from you either.
Think about the people you treasure most in the world. Invariably what keeps us anchored to these people is their gloriously flawed, complex, real selves. We don’t keep them in our lives because of whatever version of perfect they let the world see on their Facebook status. So keep a hold of all that about yourself. Keep liking that about yourself. And keep working on all that. Because that’s all our kids need from us too.
Allison Vale has written more than a dozen books, many of which betray an unhealthy curiosity with obscure and unsettling aspects of the lives of women in history, such as The Lost Art of Being a Lady, How to Push a Perambulator and Amelia Dyer: Angel Maker, a biography of the murderous, 30-year career of Britain’s most prolific baby farmer. She lives near Bristol with her husband and their two children, and though she has not yet read anywhere near enough of Virago’s backlist, she’s desperately hoping her Caitlin Moran obsession more than compensates.
Victoria Ralfs discovered a borderline inappropriate ease in discussing life, love and relationships with her secondary school students early on in her career. This gained momentum in the field of learning disability, where she wrote, spoke and trained nationally and (occasionally) internationally on Sexuality & Relationships Education. Her husband and two, now adult, children have happily and healthily survived the Velcro penises in their study in Bristol. Victoria’s wider family would probably describe her as an‘annoying, gobby do-gooder type’, hence her desire to include them unflatteringly in this, her first book.
Together, Allison Vale and Victoria Ralfs are the authors of How to Raise a Feminist, which was published by Robinson in February 2017.