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Bad Women, Good Feminists?

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Ahead of the next instalment of his Shoreditch House LIterary Salon, tonight, Damian Barr wonders which men it is that apparently don’t buy books by women, and whether men can be good feminists too.

Author Geoff Dyer with Damian Barr, at the Shoreditch House Literary Salon (photograph © Daisy Honeybunn)

I was the only man in my women’s studies class – isolated in a one-man gamete ghetto, avoided by my so-called sisters. Treated like a peeping tom in the changing rooms at a convent school, stared at whenever the patriarchy was mentioned as if I personally represented thousands of years of misogyny. I was the oppressive Adam to their emancipated Eve. It was not cool.

Starting an answer with ‘As a feminist...’, I was told I was not a feminist and never could be, because I was a man. I was eventually permitted to call myself a ‘pro-feminist’, and slunk to the back of the class. But this wasn’t feminism. This was man-hating.

A similar thing happened to me aged ten when I abandoned the knot-tying, camping Boy Scouts for the baton-twirling, campy majorettes. I pleaded to be allowed to join their glittery ranks and on that occasion was allowed to march with girls in miniskirts. Finally, I was given pom-poms and knowing looks and told to get on with it. I lacked the coordination and conviction necessary to make it as a majorette in the end, but I was at least given a chance at equality.

I am a feminist. I actively support the rights of all women to equal pay, to reproductive liberty, to love whom and how they choose, to all the freedoms men currently enjoy. And I don’t care who knows it. I’m out and I’m trying to be proud.

I am, apparently, in a minority. Marketing departments continue to claim that men won’t buy books by women (hence George Eliot, JK Rowling and SJ Parris). Judging from my bookshelves, I am not one of them. Of the 542 books crowding my flat, 350 are by women. It took me quite some time to do that bit of counting so I’d like you to appreciate it.

I am a feminist reader; I identify more with women than men. Like most women, I also sleep with men. This, I believe, gives me a useful insight. So I was excited about Granta’s ‘F Word’ issue. The only flaw I can find in 265 pages is the total absence of men. It’s not that men are under-represented: they aren’t represented at all.

Now you see why I staked my feminist credentials up front. Men can be feminists too and surely there’s value in hearing from at least one of us? Otherwise it’s like having peace talks with only one side present.

Surely castrating men from the pages of ‘The F Word’ is counter-productive and a kind of sexism? Can we not be trusted with pom-poms? Must we be banished to the back of class?

I decided we would explore this issue tonight at the next instalment of my Shoreditch House Literary Salon – where I am always careful to balance male and female voices. Rachel Cusk will read from her powerful and intensely personal piece on divorce. In it she tells one side of an all too common story in which ‘feminist’ is almost a dirty word. Would she have invited men to contribute? Or has she heard enough from us? Maggie O’Farrell has described the family as ‘a crucible of stories’ and it is from the family – or rather, families – that her finely wrought stories spring. Women are at the centre of these families and not always beneficently. Can bad women be good feminists? We’ll find out.

Tonight’s event is sold out, but visit the Shoredtich House Literary Salon’s Facebook page for more information, and to be notified about upcoming events.

***

‘Then by flame-light I see: I am burning/ his old easel’: read a new poem by National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Sharon Olds.

Also online: an interview with Urvashi Butalia, in which she talks about her essay on the hijras, communities of transsexuals in India.

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