E&M’s author Friederike Sandow has sat down with three women to talk all things feminist. The conversation was recorded and has been transcribed by the author, some answers have been abbreviated for clarity.
E&Me (Friederike): Thank you for meeting with me on the day an iconic feminist has passed away. (*Ruth Baader Ginsburg had died the night before recording the conversation.)
Sarah: Yeah, I felt this was somehow… timely.
E&Me (Friederike): But I don’t want to talk about sad stuff.
Noëmi: …which we will, though, presumably?
E&Me (Friederike): Oh god, yes fair. We will. That’s a great opener actually. Let’s start! Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Sarah: Easy one to start with! Yes.
Noëmi: My mouth is full of cake but yes. No hesitation there.
E&Me (Friederike): Did the meaning of the word, or its connotation, did that change over time? What is feminism for you?
Noëmi: It definitely changed its meaning for me. I think it started out being defined by this idea of feminists, a militant group of men hating women. It’s a specific society-media-family-friends kind of narrative that I grew up with. You know – as a feminist you had to have hairy armpits, burn your bra and essentially hate men.
Sarah: Yes, I agree, that’s the story your are being told. And, wanting equality for women didn’t necessarily mean that you were a feminist.
Noëmi: I feel like there was just this one narrative and growing up I can’t remember any educational narratives. At no point in school, when we talked about activism, at no point did anyone say: oh, by the way, equality for women – it’s just “on this date women were allowed to vote” but nothing about the struggle – who achieved that? Do we have equality now? It’s not talked about.
Sarah: Maybe when we were younger, we might have been growing up between two waves of feminism?
Noëmi: We had the Spice Girls, come on! You as a Brit should know!
E&Me (Friederike): What do you mean with now? Because of #metoo? Or maybe feminism was there all along but we didn’t have a reason to look into it until we really experienced it first hand. I certainly know that my focus changed or my interest in feminism was sparked when I started working. In an office environment. Not even at Uni was I aware of the differences and being treated differently.
Noëmi: I grew up with a single Mum so I knew there were differences and hardships for working women. It wasn’t specifically labelled feminism, but women’s right were a constant topic between my mum and her friends. So, from an early age on I knew it was harder for women in this world than for men. And I was being treated differently early on as well – as a woman, and especially as a black women. I started to get unwanted sexual attention from men from age 12 onwards.
from an early age on I knew it was harder for women in this world than for men.
E&Me (Friederike): OMG. You should have been allowed to stay a child for at least another 2 years. Menphy, how was your experience?
Menphy: Ok, so, I am from China. I would not have called myself awake up until two years ago. feminism has never been a thing in China that I am aware of – I mean, #metoo got some attention but that’s about it. Before when I heard of feminism it was talked about as if it’s women wanting to steal money and property and rights from men and wanting to get rid of their ‘obligations’ – child bearing obligations. Can you imagine! So everything I have heard about feminism was bad. I would be so ashamed if someone would have called me a feminist. There was no icon in China as far as I recall. I learned about feminism on Chinese twitter. And it changed my mind completely – nowadays I feel proud of claiming my feminist self. And I am done explaining. I am not saying anymore: Heeey now now, I just want the same as you. I am at a point where I say: Give me, it’s MINE. I am done explaining. I want equal rights goddammit.
Here the conversation took a brief break because a child started to cuddle Noëmi’s dog. (We totally understood, he’s a cloud on four legs.)
Menphy: The Asian culture is very patriarchic. I think in terms of equality we are 100 years behind Europe and the US. I consider myself an extreme feminist. I don’t want to be calm anymore. I want to be extreme. I am anti-marriage right now as well – in China marriage is the thing to keep women bound to families. Also, the surname in China is a really important thing. The children automatically take on the father’s name no questions asked.
I consider myself an extreme feminist. I don’t want to be calm anymore. I want to be extreme.
E&Me (Friederike): Is your Mum a feminist? Would you be a strong feminist if you hadn’t left China? I am aware that this sounds very white savior-y and that I am asking this from a White feminist Western pedestal.
Menphy: I think yeah, my Mum is a feminist. Not a strong enough one from my point of view, but yeah, I think she is. Regarding your other question – Asian feminism and Western feminism are very different. In China we are trying to fight our way out of marriage. If I’d have stayed in China – would I think differently about women’s rights? I don’t know. I feel like because I have ‘made my way out of China’, I fermented my decision and my feminism.
E&Me (Friederike): You said before your anti-marriage, yet for clarity purposes, you are indeed married – you married a European man. How did that go down with your family?
Menphy: My Dad still can’t fathom that I decided to marry someone who is not Chinese. If I would have stayed and not have left China to study abroad, my family would have pushed me to marry a Chinese husband. My Dad is very much of the opinion that a wife is the husband’s property.
Noëmi: My Congolese grandma actually forbid me from dating white men. If not a Congolese men then at least a Ghanaian. (*Audible laughter at the table for a little while because Noëmi has been in a relationship for a good couple of years with a lovely south German who loves the German Alps more than anything.)
E&Me (Friederike): Different topic – Do you feel like the clock is turning back on female rights? I saw so many tweets today after RBG’s death where women were voicing their concerns and desperation about what’s to come.
Noëmi: I mean, as far as I know, compared to the US our laws here are so much better and the equality for women is so much further ahead. In the US I do feel that the clock is turning back. I mean already in terms of health insurance – no one blinked an eye when I got the pill when I was 14, you know? I don’t like the whole comparing game, but I really do think we have it so much better here in Europe.
Menphy: Oh girls you have no idea. Back in China, on a job announcement, for example, they would never put all genders welcome as you have to do here – in CHINA, they’d be very specific and say: Only men allowed.
Noëmi: Here you can sue for that. Thank fuck. I think we are starting, or at least I am starting, to divide people I talk to into “people who work within and for the patriarchy – men and women” and feminists who try to fight for an equal society. It’s still more women than men, because women are the ones suffering from the inequality, but I do feel there’s increasingly more men who realise that everyone, every single one, benefits from an equal society.
Sarah: I think that’s the crux. We should all be working together, globally, towards a shared goal. Yes, some countries have other problems to tackle, while as here in Europe we are quite far ahead. It also makes it way harder if you compare, doesn’t it. Everyone has different priorities. The European feminist agenda might seem laughable to others, but that shouldn’t make it less valid. That should not stop us from pursuing it, just because “we have it better” already. But it makes it harder to have a collective feminism. You end up having sometimes competing instead of cooperating agendas.
E&Me (Friederike): Yeah, we are privileged. Really, really much so. And it’s frustrating that people elsewhere are fighting for fundamental, basic human rights.
Menphy: I mean, it’s so basic in China. If you want to apply for the military for example, they have a gender limit, only certain percent of females should apply. Which means – women are always in the minority, and in the worst case are competing for scarce jobs. The job market in China is so sexist. I can’t even. Also when you look at media portrayals, the backbone of essential jobs consists of female workers, but they aren’t mentioned. If a guy does something – doesn’t need to be amazing – in a predominantly female job though he is celebrated.
There’s this tendency that when we talk about women though as well, that we talk about them as a minority. What a male gaze we’ve adopted, thinking about ourselves as a minority. We are not a minority!
E&Me (Friederike): Ah, yes, the ‘hero’ content that media perpetuates. Like, a minority has done something great let’s make them a hero. It’s so insulting.
Noëmi: There’s this tendency that when we talk about women though as well, that we talk about them as a minority. That is so funny, sorry. What a male gaze we’ve adopted, thinking about ourselves as a minority. We are not a minority! There was this guy I went to school with who always joked that being in the same group as me was great for him, because I was always ‘one minority more than him’ – he was Black, and I was Black AND a woman and so there’s more reasons to discriminate me and he was ‘safe’. He labelled me a double-fold minority and even when I was young I was like “wait a minute” – how can women be a minority, that’s bullshit. But you know, we are often treated like one. Even though, with our reproductive systems, we are literally having ALL THE POWER. What is this perfidious narrative we’re subjecting ourselves to.
Menphy: Yes!! We create life.
E&Me (Friederike): Slight sidetrack, but Trevor Noah has a great segment about that on one of his Netflix specials – he talks about the word pussy being used as a derogative term and retaliates and goes on this fantastic ramble about how strong pussies are and that he is calling for an end to use the word pussy to describe something weak, but to start using it when something needs to be called strong.
Noëmi: Pussy is power! Pussy is fucking power. That’s what men are afraid of, I think. Systematically men have undermined the power we hold – turning words like cunt and pussy into something weak, dirty, something to be ashamed of, hidden away – only objectified to their will, to the male will.
Menphy: Oh you know what my favourite thing is that I recently found out? The whole story of sperm racing and fighting their way towards the eggs is not true – very little sperm make it this far and then the eggs are very picky and actually choose the sperm, they are not being conquered by it. Eggs allow sperm to come in, or they don’t.
E&Me (Friederike): Ooooh, I like that!
Menphy: Sometimes it feels we just need to strip our society of all the lies to reach equality.
Noëmi: Ugh, there are so many other challenges we need to overcome. Feminism is so academic and upper class, it’s such a privilege to think about it, no? If you have a fucking hard job and you barely get by, you don’t simply have the time to think about feminist agendas, and thus it means you’re not part of the conversation, it happens without you. It is a class thing to be able to sit here with you and talk about our feminist hopes and dreams.
Sarah: Totally. Yes. That’s what I meant before when I said we need to cooperate globally and that sometimes we end up comparing and leaving people behind in doing so.
Menphy: Yeah I mean I feel so lucky to have gotten the chance to move out of China. I could not be the woman I want to be if I’d still live there. I know it’s not perfect in Europe. But I feel blessed.
E&Me (Friederike): That’s true, it is a privilege. I am trying to make myself aware of that when I go too far down a rabbit hole. Still, I wanted to ask you guys what are things that you are still struggling with in your daily life now?
Noëmi: Haha, I struggle with my daily life.
E&Me (Friederike): I mean, we’re millenials. Life is hard. But I mean more – for me, for example, my parents or my parent’s generation often says stuff like “oh but women are their own worst enemy” and yeah, I have had horrible female bosses and my female colleagues have not always looked out for me or I for them, you know, but what I am trying to explain to my parents is that this in itself is the face of patriarchy, that because women have to compete for scarce opportunities, we are being forced to get our elbows out.
Menphy: If there’s a male majority in your career environment and if you want to get ahead, male traits get you there.
Sarah: I don’t like this automatic assumption that you need to be a bad boss bitch to get ahead.
Noëmi: Is it that the only women who get to that positions are the ones who males don’t see as a threat? The woman who will laugh at a sexist joke? I mean, it’s not the case with everyone, of course.
E&Me (Friederike): Horrible female bosses ruin me more than shitty male bosses. I always feel I am being let down even more, like – you should have my back! When actually, everyone should have everyone’s backs. Right, let’s end on a positive note: Who are your current role models?
Menphy: I mean… AOC.
E&Me (Friederike): She’s a queen.
Noëmi: Omg 100%. I also really like the podcast the Guilty feminist. It’s quite intersectional and it let’s me grow and learn from my mistakes – and their mistakes!
Not to sound cheesy, but I do think my role models are also my friends and colleagues. I learn so much from them and conversations like this, knowing we support each other.
Sarah: Not to sound cheesy, but I do think my role models are also my friends and colleagues. I learn so much from them and conversations like this, knowing we support each other.
Noëmi: I agree. I am surrounded by so many great women, we challenge each other and we support each other and we remind each other to take care of ourselves. I feel very blessed, like when I asked my grandmother if she had anyone to talk to, ever, about female pleasure or relationships or her struggles and she said she didn’t have that. Imagine.
Menphy: We’ll be alright, won’t we. Pussy is power.
E&Me (Friederike): Thank you so very much. For existing. And kicking ass.
Cover photo: by Friederike Sandow.