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Society 03/05/2017

Different from a doormat: why we still need feminism

Elizabeth Moss as Offred in Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s tale

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” You’ve probably seen Rebecca West’s century-old pithy summation of feminism on a postcard – that’s certainly where I discovered it, one of the first “feminist” texts I’d ever encountered. She was writing for the Clarion in 1913, during the global debate about women’s suffrage, but her words still hold true – and hold power – today.

What is a doormat? It’s an ugly but hard-wearing object on which people wipe their dirty feet. What a brilliant metaphor for the status of women. They were expected to be at once the angel (very much) in the house, and a receptacle for dirt, both literal and moral. A doormat is the lowest of the low, expected to endure all ordure without complaint.

Feminism thus springs from the same ethical imperative as the anti-slavery movement: the insistence that there is not, and cannot be, a hierarchy of human being. No human being is an object to be owned or used. Being subjects, all human beings can express sentiments, and those sentiments should be equally attended to.

Those sentiments might – and did – include questioning how some human societies had come to turn some people into chattel that other people could exchange or sell. That is, feminism – like its coeval Marxism – is interested in questions of power. Power does not like to be questioned: and therein lies the source of feminism’s long century of trouble-making.  


Of course, there have been women making gender trouble for as long as men have assumed power. Why else would Western culture be littered with stories about troublesome and troubling women who got their come-uppance? Wicked (or perhaps knowledgeable) witches, devouring (or perhaps depressed) mothers, murderous (or perhaps bereaved) queens: 20th and 21st century feminists have often expressed their sentiments by re-visioning fairy tales, classical myths, or the Bible to hear the other, unreported side of the story.

And for as long as men dominate politics (71% of UK MPs elected at the 2015 election are male), law (the UK has the lowest proportion of female judges in the EU: 30%), academia (22% of UK professors are female, and a 2015 survey found only 17 black female professors), the media (in 2011, 78% of newspaper articles were written by men), women’s stories will continue to be under-told, untold, erased and disbelieved.


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – the first longform feminist text that I, like many people of my age, read – was written in 1985, in the era of Reagan’s “moral majority” politics. The Handmaid’s Tale was a dark fantasia of the return to a society and politics prior to the civil rights movements of the twentieth century – a time when women had no ownership of their own bodies, or even their own names. In the 1980s, The Handmaid’s Tale seemed a cautionary dystopia, the tale of Offred, the woman who belongs to Fred but was once free, the daughter of a feminist activist mother.

The 1990 film adaptation omits Offred’s memories of the pre-Gilead past – but the new television adaptation does not. in 2017 The Handmaid’s Tale “couldn’t feel more fresh or more timely, dealing as it does with reproductive rights [and] the sudden accession to power of a theocracy in the United States,” as Naomi Alderman writes for The Guardian – but also in the need to remember the ways in which feminists changed history. Now, more than ever, we need a complex, complete story of feminist history to inform our feminist present and hope for the future.


Because of course, history can change back.

Sometimes I wonder how newspapers would look if they used gender-based violence and oppression as a category instead of “National” or “International” (and rather than having a section called “Women” under Lifestyle, as if it were a consumer choice). Today it would look like this:

The vice-president of the United States voted in a rare tie-break to pass a bill that will allow individual states to withhold federal funds from Planned Parenthood and others that provide abortion services. In Mexico, a judge cleared a wealthy teenager of abducting and sexually assaulting a schoolgirl on the grounds that the defendant did not enjoy himself. The Indian government’s new maternity bill only offers maternity leave for the most privileged 5% of the workforce.

It’s not just the numbers that need to change, it’s the whole story: how it’s told, and who gets to tell it. That’s what feminism still – because it needs to – argues. Because certain people are still shocked to discover that women can be differentiated from doormats.

Sophie Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love. Her most recent poetry collections are (O) (2015) and kaolin, or How Did a Girl Like You Get to Be a Girl Like You (2015). She writes regularly about gender, sexuality and culture for Sight & Sound, The F-Word, Literal, the Verso blog, and elsewhere.