Feminism, Aprons and Manicure Sets
Carmine Rustin tell us about the day that feminism morphed into pretty aprons and manicure sets
A few short years into our democracy, when I started as a researcher at the Parliament of South Africa, I supported the then Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of Quality of Life and Status of Women. As a young, black feminist, it was an exciting time to be working as a gender researcher contributing to our constitutional democracy. My role was to support the legislative and oversight work of the Joint Committee. It was a role that was enriched by the fact that an amazing older black feminist woman led the Committee. Yes, old black South African feminists do exist and they have much to share with the young feminists of all colours.
As a gender researcher in this euphoric new democracy, I felt that in a small way, I was making a difference in the lives of many women. I was proud to be part of processes that reported on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act. It was gratifying to be part of a body that looked at the impact of HIV and AIDS on women, when the political climate at the time didn’t allow for open and honest engagement on the issue. And then there were all the many other initiatives that were aimed at celebrating and honouring women, which I loved.
But sometimes we got the manner in which we celebrated women wrong. At least I think so, but I may be wrong.
I recall one such event. It was at an event in Parliament to celebrate Women’s Day with women members of staff. A full programme had been arranged with speakers, lunch and gifts. Noble indeed. But then the time for the handing out of the gifts arrived. To my horror, the gifts included an apron – with the picture of leaders of the 1956 women’s march printed on it, together with a manicure set. I was flabbergasted and mad as hell for obvious reasons or so I thought.
The fact that I protested and indicated that this was inappropriate resonated with some women only. For the majority of women, the gifts were great. There was a near-riot to get hold of the aprons and manicure sets.
The question that I was asked is why was this such a big deal? Why had I reacted in the manner that I did? I think that the intention of the organisers was good and the majority of women appreciated the gesture. But I thought that these gifts were casting women in stereotypical roles and reinforced a problematic message about what Women’s Day was about.
Many years later, a male colleague could still recall his first meeting with me, which was the moment where I expressed my indignation at being presented with what was perceived as inappropriate gifts for women. It was also the last time that I participated in a Women’s Day event at the office.
I was puzzled back then – and ten years later it still puzzles me – why women were so excited by these gifts. Perhaps it is because many women are uncritical about the way women are portrayed in society and how these gifts reproduced stereotypical portrayals of women. Perhaps some women are happy with their assigned roles in a patriarchal society. Perhaps the aprons were very nice and practical. And who cannot use a good manicure set?
It is more than a speculation that many of the women were more than happy with the Women’s Day gifts because indignation can be exhausting, some of us are wary of feminism, and many have not had feminist conscientisation. As for men, they are even more scared of feminism, and often anti-feminist. Feminism is a swear word for many women and most men in our society.
In light of the apparent lack of wide appeal of feminism, in the context of a free world led by the misogynist Donald J. Trump, and my country led by patriarch Jacob G Zuma, do we need feminists?
There’s no denying that since the advent of democracy in South Africa, the lives of women, especially for black women, have been so much different from their grandmothers’, mothers’ and aunts’. There have been many opportunities available to women – in education, the workplace and politics. No longer restricted in their aspirations to being married, mothers, nurses, or teachers – important as these positions and careers are for many women and society – women can be happily single, childfree, surgeons, or professors. They can be director-generals in government, chief executives and public representatives. Women can be found in every decision-making position in society. This difference in women’s lives was brought about through the collective struggles of women. It was through groundswell mobilizing that the equality clause, which protects everyone against discrimination based on gender, race, pregnancy and sexual orientation, amongst others, was included in the Constitution of South Africa. What a feat.
But whilst there have been many new opportunities brought about by women’s activism in the post-apartheid dispensation, new challenges have arisen. These challenges include balancing demanding and often competing roles as partners, caregivers and professionals. This can be exhausting.
Then again, it’s clear that some of the old challenges remain. Patriarchal culture and violence against women and girls are two of the main challenges. Even though in South Africa we have constitutional rights and opportunities to aspire to the highest office, our country remains culturally gender unequal, as well as violent. The rates of rape and murder are very high. A 1999 study found that the overall rate of female homicides in South Africa was 24 per 100 000, six times higher than the global rate of 4 per 100 000. Is this not enough reason to continue to be a feminist?
Clearly, we need feminism more than ever before. Feminism is the recognition and the belief that we need to end sexism, the patriarchal oppression of women, we want gender equality and gender justice and to ensure that women and girls enjoy their freedoms unhindered. We need feminism because the struggle is far from over. An intersectional feminism is vital. This feminism should recognise our multiple and often contradictory sites of oppression. A feminism, which recognises our races, cultures, disabilities, classes, and sexualities, is essential. We need an inclusive, dynamic and nasty feminism.
As feminists, we draw strength from our collective stories and actions. Feminists, especially young feminists, need a space to share their everyday ordinary and not so ordinary stories; a space where we celebrate our collective and individual experiences, offer support and encouragement, play, grow and nurture action.
May this space grow into one where our voices and stories are heard and celebrated.
 Abrahams, Jewkes, Martin, Mathews, Vetten, Lombard, 2009. Mortality of Women From Intimate Partner Violence in South Africa: A National Epidemiological Study. Violence and Victims, Volume 24, Number 4, 2009.