opinion

'For 27 years, I didn't realise I was a feminist. One word changed that.'

I’m going to come out and say it: for the first 27 years of my life I wasn’t a feminist.

At least, I didn’t know I was one. I also didn’t know that most people around me were feminists – because they didn’t know either, and I’m sure many still don’t.

It was something Caitlin Moran said in her brilliant book How to Be A Woman that changed my mind:

“When statistics come in saying that only 29 per cent of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42 per cent of British women – I used to think, ‘what do you think feminism IS, ladies?’ What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’, by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES?”

It was ‘jeans’ that woke me from my life-long reverie at the age of 27.

Listen: Mamamia Out Loud discusses famous women who refuse to call themselves feminists. (Post continues after audio.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never rejected feminism.

I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, in the home of two liberal-minded artists where equality wasn’t a theoretical dinner-table debate – it was life. Feminism, though, felt like something in my mother’s distant past – something to do with her hairy armpits and dislike for laundry – and it felt tainted by an inexplicable negativity that the pages of Dolly never addressed. Women’s studies were never offered at my high school nor during my design degree, so I’d never thought too deeply about what a feminist really was, nor if I cared to call myself one.

Then I read Moran’s quote, was taken by how simply she defined the term, and felt incited and regretful that the term had become so mired and undermined that even I had largely ignored it.

After I read Moran’s How to Be a Woman, Tina Fey released Bossypants, Vagina by Naomi Wolf arrived, Lena’s Girls aired, Amy Schumer landed, Rebecca Solnit coined ‘mansplaining’, and I realised I was in the middle of feminism’s third wave and that it was about to change my writing forever.

Lena Dunham addresses key feminist issues in her TV show, Girls. (Image via Getty)
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I write stories about women, or as some call it: ‘women’s fiction’ – a term that suggests both genders enjoy male stories, but only women enjoy female ones, and is a term that insults men as well as women by implying that women are broad minded enough to read all stories whereas men care for and understand only their own. Labelling aside, women’s writing has long been entangled with our gender – to the point we sometimes pretend we’re men.

So when I read Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, I was struck by how confidently and passionately she embraced the feminine and its counterparts. In our quest for equality, women have often shunned what differentiates us from men, and as a result, it can sometimes feel confusing to understand the rules of being a modern woman.

Me? I like a lot of things – one being love stories. I like beauty and escape, and strength in men. But I also like empowered female characters, and the wildness of women, and their complexity and unpredictability. So when writing, I’ve often questioned how I can marry themes that are at odds politically, and how to reconcile womankind’s enduring primal wants with her modern-day ones.

'I’d never thought too deeply about what a feminist really was, nor if I cared to call myself one.' (Image via Facebook: Sunni Overend)

Is vanity anti-feminist? Can a woman be considered independent if she seeks security in love? How can one fairly portray female characters who don’t embody the feminist ideal? Can a woman want to be saved? If a protagonist admires a man’s physical strength, will it trivialise her? Will my character seem weak if she cries? Does she cry too often? Does she care about love too much? Doesn’t she care about work too much? What does a liberated woman look like and how exactly should she behave?

In ways, the freedom bestowed by feminism has made women akin to inmates released from a lifetime in prison: we’re staring around wondering how best to assimilate in a world that has long been built and run without us. We want to fit in, to take part, and because a key cause of rejection is difference, many of us have sought to be like them: the men. So when I ask how much can a woman cry or care for her looks I’m actually asking – how feminine is too feminine? What’s not feminine enough? Why on earth am I even asking?

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Then this is what modern feminism taught me: as women we won’t truly be free until we’re allowed to be as imperfect as those who ran the world before us. As Roxane Gay’s ‘bad feminist’ tag alludes – perfection only impedes freedom. So how should a liberated woman look and behave? However the f*ck she wants.

Tina Fey released  her feminist memoir Bossypants in 2011. (Image via Getty)

There are so many battles women have not yet won, but some of us are lucky enough to have won the right to be as varied and flawed as our brothers.

In life and art, women have long served to play narrow roles – harlot, wife, mistress, victim, virgin, mother – while men have enjoyed the freedom to be complex and undefined. I speak of feminism from a privileged white, Western perspective and that is hardly perfect or fully representative.

But in the spirit of feminism’s third wave, I extend to myself the freedoms I extend to women I meet in the street and to those I create with my pen: the freedom to be flawed and undefined – be it real or fiction.

Sunni Overend's new book, The Dangers of Truffle Hunting, is published by HarperCollins Australia and will be available from December 19. You can order Sunni’s book here.

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