I get asked that question a lot. I usually answer with some vague rant about sexual harassment or rape culture or those bloody magazines and their unrealistic standards of women, but the question always seems a bit ridiculous. For me, feminism wasn't a question of why but of when; it seems inevitable that any woman living in a patriarchal society without blinkers over her eyes is a feminist, though maybe without calling it that. I know that's not the case, and maybe feminism requires a certain state of mind to begin with, but for me it is far more a perspective than a set of beliefs. It's looking at the world and knowing that something is very wrong.
I'm not sure when it dawned on me, but it was probably quite early. I was definitely a feminist by the time I was fifteen and receiving careers guidance. I said I wanted to be a journalist. He assumed fashion and told me I didn't need any qualifications or experience for that. Maybe I should read some magazines, though. I was definitely a feminist while I sat at the back of the class with the other girls while he talked to the boys about the army and engineering and law, pouring over pamphlets with men on the covers. But it was much earlier than that, I think. Maybe when I was seven or eight and two of my friends were raped, or when at eleven it happened to another. I heard of more in the years that came after. Rape after rape after rape. Never any justice. Never any understanding of how a child can be made to testify in a court only to see her attacker set free. Never any words.
Maybe it was before that, at six or so, when my friend was declared a slut because she'd had three boyfriends that year! (And what an uproar when she started holding their hands.) The boyfriends were never sluts of course, but heroes. Or when sat around the table in art class, the boys would use the name of my friend's rapist to shut her up. It always worked. Or when at fourteen the same friend had her drink spiked I tried to drag her out of an alley while a boy groped me. Maybe then, or maybe the next day when they told me I'd ruined the fun by ringing my mum to pick us up. Maybe it was when at fifteen, my ex-boyfriend became a legend and I became a punchline.
Maybe it was when a boy called out to me in class that I should blow him, and everyone laughed, or when a friend had to leave school for a while because the same boy was trying to feel her up. Or when I moved to London and immediately had a man slide his hand up my thigh on the tube, or when every girl I spoke to had a similar story - usually far more than one. It was definitely by the time I tore up all my copies of Vogue to make two collages which still hang on my wall, and definitely by the time I realised that starving myself was a social problem as well as a personal one. I was never involved in feminism then, never used the term or even knew what it meant, but I was one. I was one from the day my birth certificate was filed, without my father's signature and with all the connotations that held for my mother. There was no epiphanic moment when I chose to believe in feminism. It happened, necessarily, because of society.
Since then, since I've become an "active feminist" if you like, it's been more complicated. There are many things I don't agree with and many that make me want to stop associating with the word altogether, like transphobic feminists or those that advocate banning sex work and pornography. There are many feminist issues that simply don't matter to me, like bank notes and page 3 - while I recognise the value in those campaigns, they don't strike the same chord as issues which affect me and those I know directly, viscerally. I've felt disenchanted with feminism as a movement, and I've retreated a bit. We all need breaks. But in doing so I've returned to feminism at its most personal and its most painful. I won't and can't stop believing in feminism as a perspective. That sort of feminism didn't start anywhere, it just is, as long as the world is as it is. I never chose to be a feminist; it was guaranteed.