Can feminists wear engagement rings?

I recently came across a blogpost (dating from 2010) written by a woman who had recently got engaged but was not going to wear an engagement ring. The post had been linked to on a Facebook group, where quite a lively discussion had developed about the tradition of wearing them. I found it pretty interesting, so linked to it in the Sharing Thoughts & Taking Action forum where a similar debate broke out, which I’ll admit surprised me.

The original blogpost was fairly reasonable. Rather than having strong feminist objections to wearing an engagment ring, the writer seemed to feel a) that it was too much money to spend on a ring, and as a couple they could do more interesting things with it, b) she didn’t like to wear expensive jewellery in general and c) she had ethical objections to diamonds – all of which are fair enough. However more feminist arguments against rings were made on the forum.

In the interests of disclosure, I’ll first state I wear an engagement ring. When it was given to me, I didn’t debate whether to wear it or wrestle any feminist demons. My excitement about it, and love of the ring, may have been coloured by the fact that my (now) husband had spent six months designing it to be something to give me as a token of how much he loved me. I love it, and it’s a daily reminder of how happy I am to be with him.

Not long afterwards a work colleague, who was fairly new to the company and barely knew me personally, asked me if I felt uncomfortable wearing it and did I not see it as a symbol of my fiance’s ‘ownership’ of me. I dismissed the comments at the time and told her that because my fiance could never view me that way, it wasn’t an issue in my relationship. But it niggled. Inside, I was pretty pissed off that someone viewed my decision that way and I felt like she was calling into question my feminist credentials -who did she think she was? She didn’t even know me well enough to know that I would identify as a feminist. I thought it was rude.

However, as a teenager I’m sure I viewed things differently. I used to say that I wouldn’t get married at all. The phrase ‘legalised slavery’ may have been uttered (embarrassing) and I would probably have been horrified by the idea of wearing an engagement ring. But that was at a stage when I’d never had any relationships, let alone serious ones, and didn’t understand that your relationship with your partner is what you both make it. The roles you adopt, whether traditional or not, are up to you. If you feel like someone’s property, or feel like a domestic slave, then that’s because the role you have in that specific relationship has left you feeling that way – not because you wear a ring.

Engagement rings were traditionally given as a symbol of a promise of commitment. It marked the woman out as being off the market and the money spent by the groom-to-be meant that they were not given lightly. It’s in this light, that some of the objections to engagement rings are made now. Only the women wear them and the men are expected to spend a lot of money on them. The woman wears it as a symbol of being ‘taken’ (which could be perceived as belonging to someone else) and the man shows his provider credentials by flashing cash. It’s old school, no doubt. But is it really anti-feminist to wear one? Is it, as one of the forum members claimed, an attempt to ‘cherry pick’ the things we liked about traditional female roles and while fighting against the rest?

Many women I know bought their fiances a gift in return, like a really nice watch for example. The symbol may not be as obvious to everyone else, but it redressed the balance in their relationship in a way that made them happy. I suppose for me, this is what’s key. How you view an engagement ring is coloured by the context of your relationship. Because I feel like an equal partner in mine, I didn’t strongly feel that wearing a ring threatened that. Also, it was only for 10 months that I wore a ring and he didn’t – by last July we were married and both wearing wedding rings. In any case, I think my evolving sense of myself and my views on feminism have left me just not feeling that strongly about this issue. What I do in my relationship is up to me, and how I choose to express my position in that relationship is my own business. I am a feminist. And a wife. With two rings.


Things I learned this weekend

I came home with my head spinning after the final day of WOW 2012 so thought I’d share some of my reflections from the weekend.

There is no shortage of wonderful role models for women and girls – I developed massive girl crushes on Jude Kelly, Baroness Helena Kennedy, Shami Chakrabarti and Bidisha but also heard Ruby Wax and Rosie Boycott talk about the awful lows in their lives, Rosie Boycott (again) and others discuss global economics, all of the panel at the Arab Spring session, Sali Hughes and India Gary-Martin on body politics, Dr Kiran Bedi on the criminal justice system and many, many more. There are inspirational women all around us.

Strike a woman, strike a rock – The recent protests and strikes were largely lead and run by women. When we get together we can be magnificent (with thanks to TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady)

Women need to get into power to change things – Quotas came up in several discussions I attended and I’ve written another post about it. India Gary-Martin was also asked at the Body Politics session how things will change with regards to ‘acceptable hairstyles’ if people like her are still afraid to come to work with dreadlocks. Her answer was that her recruitment practices were changing the culture of the organisation and in time, what’s acceptable will also change. Great answer.

Find your people – The best way to recover from the hardest times in your life is by finding support from those who truly understand what you’re going through. I think the same is true of feminism. Finding support from other women and feminists is crucial. The WOW festival certainly helped address that and I met some amazing women.

There is so much more to be done for women in the world – from Shami Chakrabarti’s breakdown of what is still going on worldwide at the Women, Power and Change session, to the emotional discussion at the Arab Spring session and the panel about the Criminal Justice System it’s clear that we still have a lot to do to bring about equality for women worldwide.

Education of girls is key – The winning idea at the WOW Den was about creating an empowered girls’ network, educating girls and boys about how to relate to each other in a respectful way, and addressing the curriculum of all subjects in school to ensure the role of women is properly taught. It’s an exciting project. In addition, one of the WOWsers stood up and presented her idea about the need for black women to be better represented in careers such as the police force so that they could be role models for young black girls like herself. It was really tough for her to stand up in front of this room of women and speak but with the support of the panel and fellow students she did it. She’ll learn a lot about herself from having done so.

We’re not ladies – After a long and hilarious discussion on the meaning of the word lady, we ditched it. It’s gone. Forget it.

Feel the fear and do it anyway – I did one of the speed mentoring sessions and met some fantastic mentors. A key message from all of them? Go for it. Whatever it is, whatever I want to do, embrace my skills, let them bring me confidence and go for it.

I learned an awful lot more than this but these were some of the key themes which emerged for  me. I look forward to talking about them more on blogs, forums and twitter. Let’s keep the #WOW2012 hashtag going and keep chatting about what we know and what we can do.

I’m a Lady!

It’s been a brilliant and sometimes intense weekend of talks and debates on all aspects of being a woman. I’ve been to sessions on global economics, speed mentoring, the criminal justice system, body politics, the Arab Spring and many more. My head has been swimming with all the new perspectives I’ve heard and ideas I’ve been challenged with. And so, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I headed to Tea With The Lady – a discussion on the very notion of being a ‘lady’ (hear David Walliams voice in your head when you say it) and whether it’s a regression or is actually subversive. Interesting debate? I had no idea what I was in for.

Aside from the chair Bidisha I was unfamiliar with the four women on the panel and was therefore completely unprepared for the biting wit and sharp tongues about to be unleashed as well as the ridiculously funny conversation that unfolded. The context of the talk is that with the current prevalence of Domestic Goddesses (Nigella Lawson), home crafts (Kirstie Allsop) and floral prints (Cath Kidston) is being a lady something that is being reclaimed?

In that light, I’m going to attempt to create a (very tongue-in-cheek) 9 step guide to being a lady, formed by the discussion I heard.

Like Karen McLeod who worked as an air steward for British Airways before becoming a writer, my experience of being called a lady was when I worked in a shop and mothers attempting to control their children would tell them ‘give that back to the lady’ or ‘the lady’s watching and she’ll get angry’. As if I cared. I worked in Primark.

So to Lady attribute number one: Be a bit scary and stern. Scare children.

Writer Catherine Hakim claims it is part of our ‘erotic capital’. A lady is well groomed, stylish and with confidence and manners, like Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni. Anna Blundy (author and journalist – who had me in hysterics laughing throughout) argued that these types of ladies were accessories to men – known as being well-groomed arm-candy. Iconic templates as Rachel Johnson (former editor of The Lady magazine) put it.

Number two: Be stylish and well groomed at all times while being arm-candy for a man.

Actually, Johnson argued that as editor she had put women over 40 on the cover who had done something, regardless of their colour or beauty. But also, crucially were not trashy or trampy.

Number three: Don’t be a tramp!

Money and class inevitably entered the discussion. Women like Cath Kidson and Nigella Lawson make millions from their home-styled products and are extremely shrewd. For most women Blundy maintained, doing unpaid work is denigrated as society doesn’t value it.

Number four: Bit confused now. Either make millions by selling ladyness to others, or be arm-candy mentioned above and be rich enough not to work. I think being rich and posh enough not to worry about it is probably key.

Johnson mentioned that when her husband heard she was going to be on this panel, he told her a lady was ‘not pushy and was dignified’ and that she was neither of those things. Blundy went on to talk about her experience of speaking out about her experience of how the Daily Mail wants ladies to be (and I highly encourage you to read her blog post about it) She was styled, put in a suitably coloured frock and, when she didn’t stick to their preferred narrative, the piece was spiked.

Number five: Remain dignified and stick to the script – say what you’re supposed to say.

One of the most hilarious parts of the discussion emerged when McLeod showed us something her (female) partner had bought when they moved in together. A floral Cath Kidston peg holder, shaped like a baby’s dress and with a bow. She noted that many of her lesbian friends were now getting married (to women, I hasten to add as it caused some confusion amongst the panel) and wearing aprons. So is being a lady really just another name for being conservative? The panel felt it was.

Number six: Be conservative and buy aprons and floral peg-holders.

Even Rachel Johnson conceded that if forced to define a lady, it would be a woman in cashmere and pearls and with a pussycat bow. She would like that not to be the case however, but for it to be irrespective of class or income.

Number seven: Wear cashmere and pearls.

In fact, she felt, like Hakim, that being a lady was about behaviour. Blundy felt it’s repressed behaviour – or as McLeod put it, ‘smelling of flowers, not sex’!

Number eight: Smell nice. Shower after sex.

The debate was then opened to the floor and many fantastic questions asked. One was whether baking bread and making your own clothes wasn’t buying into ladyness but was actually about self-sufficiency and not buying from large organisations. Another asked about the programmed Ladette To Lady and what the panel thought of it. McLeod felt sorry for the girls in it, as their own wildness was lost. Blundy also noted that many of them had very problematic relationships with alcohol and sex and this was really just televised, posh rehab, although it seemed to work to an extent. Johnson love it as it taught the girls a sense of self respect and skills valued by society.

Finally, one woman asked if, for women to achieve equality, we really had to ditch the word lady altogether. Every panelist actually felt we did and several didn’t use it anyway. As Bidisha said, it’s currently got a fairly ktisch inflection anyway and the women who market their ladyness are shrewd multi-millionnaires. So with that the women in the room ditched it.

Number nine: Forget it – ditch the list and call yourself something else!


Two of the talks I’ve been to this weekend (so far) have mentioned something that I’ve struggled to accept in recent years. Quotas. I’ve never been convinced about them either way. Do they help women? Are they tokenism? Does it help the cause of female advancement? I’ve always felt that there are a lot of good arguments on both sides but it’s been interesting to hear a number of speakers come out and say that they think they are necessary.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC spoke this morning at the Women, Power and Change session. She’s an incredibly smart woman, and a fantastic speaker and she came out quite clearly and said that quotas were the way forward. When she entered the Bar, before the 1976 Sex Discrimination Act, only 8% were women. So how far have we come? The current Supreme Court of 12 judges has one woman on it. Not very far at all. Women are still under-represented on boards, in parliament, in Cabinet and in all powerful institutions. Baroness Kennedy argues that this will not change without quotas. Women get stuck where they are, partially because they buy into the dominant ideas in our culture which tell them that quotas are unfair. But men in power talk up younger men coming up through the ranks, who remind them of themselves. Invisible forces like this won’t be broken through unless they are compelled to break them down. Intriguingly, Baroness Kennedy went on to argue that for senior directors and managers bonuses should have a measurable performance indicator related to promoting diversity.

People absorb the story that quota are bad for women as no-one wants to promote a mediocre woman above a man who is better. But why do we assume that all that’s out there are mediocre women? Or that the men that are promoted currently are not mediocre? Plenty of them are and there is no shortage of brilliant, qualified women in most fields who could live up to any role.

Baroness Kennedy went on to talk about merit. We currently have systems where people are promoted on ‘merit’ but who decides what the criteria are? Men who currently hold the power decide on the list of criteria when recruiting. If women were appointed to senior roles, that list could change and might open the playing field for future applicants without the need for quotas. Merit is not a neutral term as it’s currently assumed to be. It has context and the current context is one in which men are in power and make decisions.

This was an incredibly powerful argument and really opened my eyes to the extent to which I had bought the line that quotas were bad for women in the long run. I wasn’t taking the context of merit into account.

Her thoughts echoed some that were made yesterday in the Selling Us Short? session on advertising – who decides how products are advertised and how are women represented in ad agencies? The consensus of the panellists was that there were very few women at a senior creative level, although they were well represented elsewhere in the industry. Towards the end of the discussion chair Rita Clifton asked what would change this. Andrew Cracknell (a former agency Creative Director and author of The Real Mad Men) reluctantly argued that quotas are probably ‘the right thing to do’. He worried that the first women who were promoted or brought in to fulfill a quota would suffer a backlash but that it was proven to work in countries like Norway. Looking back now, I think his comments about the backlash may have come from thinking that men would think the women didn’t merit being there, but I would not agree with him having heard Baroness Kennedy’s comments.

Gail Parminter (founder of her own agency Madwomen) thought that quotas were difficult in a creative role as you need talent, drive and passion to succeed. But again, why did she assume that women out there didn’t have that? She did argue for a need for role models though and that the few women in these positions currently need to reach out to the next generation. Maybe this is where quotas would help – in creating more role models to reach out.

Kate Stanners also mentioned that she hated the idea of quotas as she felt that women wouldn’t be there on merit. I think Baroness Kennedy disproves this point.

Harriet Harman (Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister) commented that we all hate quotas and find them problematic as it feels like meritocracy is being constrained by them. However, she did feel that sometimes there is no change without them and they are a means to an end. They have worked with MPs to an extent and that focusing initially on targets may be a way to start.

The Selling Us Short? panel had mixed feelings on quotas all round, and probably echoed my own mixed emotions but I’ve really had my thoughts clarified by Baroness Kennedy’s discussion of why they work and why they are necessary. I now see more clearly that the advertising panelists thought about merit in a way that was lacking in context. It’s been fascinating to see two quite different sessions at the festival have the same issue come up but in different ways. The real benefit of a festival like this is to tease out these issues and think about them in new ways benefitting from the experience of women who have fought their way to the top of their careers. We absolutely need to have these tough conversations if anything is going to change.

Find Your People

I went to two quite different sessions this afternoon but in a way Find Your People feels like it pulls them together.

Crash and Burn was a searingly honest discussion of what happens when women hit real lows. Rosie Boycott who chaired the panel is an alcoholic, Angie Le Mar had both a physical crisis and a crisis of confidence in her life and Ruby Wax suffered ‘the tsunami of all depressions’ about 4 1/2 years ago. The questions and comments from the audience were stunningly open too and I was so impressed and humbled by the way the women who spoke there talked about such difficult periods in their lives. Stigma had been a theme discussed by the panel and for these women to confront it in front of utter strangers was so brave.

During the conversation with an audience member the phrase Find Your People kept coming up again and again. Rosie Boycott had felt that support from AA, Ruby Wax has launched Black Dog Tribe, a social networking site for people with mental illness and the panel advised an audience member to seek support for the situation she was in. Find your people. One contributor noted that she had found her people and it simply stopped her feeling mad. She wasn’t alone and she wasn’t crazy for feeling what she was feeling. While inner acceptance was also noted as being key to moving on (from striving to thriving as Boycott put it) having support was vital.

Find your people.

In some ways I saw this echoed in the Rally The Troops event. Helping people to connect to other people seems to be what’s driven these women to do what they do. June Sarpong’s WIE venture is about women having a chance to network with powerful women in their fields. Shami Chakrabarti spoke about the need to help people understand their legal and human rights in language that was inclusive and empowered them. Baroness Grey-Thompson spoke of her time as a Paralympian and how she still goes into schools to let girls know how important sport is to their health and how they can achieve anyything in spite of obstacles they may face. Justine Roberts founded Mumsnet on the premise that mothers needed a space to talk to others mothers about anything and everything (an impulse I can relate to as I started my own feminist forum, Sharing Thoughts & Taking Action).

Find your people.

By finding your voice and what you’re passionate about – and Shami Chakrabarti is one of the most passionate speakers I’ve ever seen – you will be connected to others who feel the same way. It’s part of what I love about feminism in the internet age. The community of bloggers and tweeters helps me to discuss issues and challenge my thoughts, as well as find support when I think I’m the only one who feels that way. It’s also the single biggest strength of the WOW Festival itself, bringing women together in particular sessions to talk about a fantastically diverse range of issues.

Find your people.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

A slightly unexpected highlight this morning was this session on global finance and our economy. Rosie Boycott chaired a panel that included Emma Duncan (Deputy Editor of The Economist), Polly Toynbee (political journalist at The Guardian) and TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady.

It was an unusual relief to hear four women speak knowledgeably about detailed economic history and theory, as well as propose suggestions for the future.

Many interesting points were made about the current goverment’s policies and whether they were likely to help our economy recover, in comparison to the tactics taken in a country like the United States. Inevitably there was also much discussion on the government’s cuts and how they are affecting women in particular.

One section of the session really interested me however. Emma Duncan noted that there are very worrying statistics on women’s financial literacy, or lack thereof. She wondered if this was partially because in households men traditionally were the holders of the money and the power to control what was done with it. They also, let’s not forget, carried the weighty responsibility for ensuring the financial health of the family and making sure everyone was provided for.

In this day and age though, is that really true? Many people my age and certainly younger grew up with women who worked and often also ensured bills were paid and groceries and clothes bought, at the best price. Is it as simple as a lack of role models?

Frances O’Grady commented that very often poor people and poor women are actually brilliant at managing to get by on the money they have. They simply don’t have enough of it. It’s certainly true that, as Polly Toynbee said, if you are low paid you are less likely to educate yourself on pensions, savings rates and which is the best ISA right now. As Emma Duncan went on to comment, it is vitally important that young people – not just young women – are educated on financial matters.

I did Business Studies at school for the Irish Junior Certificate (the first year that the Junior Cert was taken). It incorporated incredibly useful sections on household budgeting, balancing chequebooks (times have obviously moved on) and understanding banking and different types of accounts. However, it wasn’t enough and as I discontinued Business Studies after the Junior Cert. that was the end of my education on the subject.

Education in financial matters, as in so many other aspects of young girls’ lives, is the biggest factor that will contribute to a healthy relationship with money later on. Control over money will give you power over your own destiny – as anyone who has given up work to look after children and then wants to leave a marriage will tell you. Knowing how to use what you have to get the best out of a little cash, or plan for the future on a larger salary comes from being confident in making decisions and this comes from education.

Hope for the future

So, today is International Women’s Day and the official launch of the WOW Festival. I was fortunate enough to be on the Join Me On The Bridge march organised by Women For Women International and to see the speeches afterwards in the Royal Festival Hall.

There were inspiring words uttered by a range of speakers including the Southbank’s Jude Kelly, comedian and writer Kate Smurthwaite, Bianca Jagger, Cherie Blair and writer and activist Natasha Walters with Zrinka Brala a journalist from Bosnia who fled the war in Sarajevo.

I want to take a minute here though to recognise the speakers who gave me more hope for the future than any of the others. Shabana Khanam and Hajera Khanom are pupils from the nearby Mulberry School and spoke eloquently and confidently about why ‘everything matters’. It’s not enough to worry about a single issue like equal pay for women because every single thing is important and will affect this next generation of girls growing up. For instance, women are still defined by their marital status – no Mr for us, it has to be Miss or Mrs. This next generation want to be freed from these limits and to eradicate traditional perceptions of women which they felt we all accept so easily. They want collective thought and action, and call themselves feminists as an ‘act of gratitude’ towards the women who’ve gone before them.

I was really struck by the clear, defiant way these young women spoke and in front of a large crowd of much older women and men, many of whom are professional campaigners. They simply won’t accept that things can’t change in the world.

This year Gender Across Borders are running an International Women’s Day blog with the theme of Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures. They need look no further than Shabana and Hajera. These girls talk about collective action and the need for a lack of selfishness and this will be increasingly important in the future. This generation of girls in the UK has an unprecedented opportunity to be heard. They don’t need to wait to be given permission to speak or for someone to give them a platform. They have Facebook and Twitter, they write their own blogs. They find their own platforms. It sounds like they intend to use them to make quite a noise and are feeling the responsibility of that voice.

This perspective gives me so much hope for the future and I’m really looking forward to reading what the WOWsers have to say over the next 3 days.