It was a man who first taught me what feminism was. I was in second year at university and I thought I knew everything. I was taking my first ever gender studies course, which cross-listed with my English major (somehow), and which I thought, based on the text list, would be a semester spent discussing Virginia Woolf novels and Sylvia Plath poetry, but ended up being 13 weeks talking about all the ways that women have been well and truly screwed over by the literary, cinematic, historical, governmental, social - you name it - establishment since the dawn of time. I ended up learning a lot, because I went in cocky and self-assured (I'd read Mrs Dalloway before, well, when I say 'read', I mean, I had read The Hours), feeling pretty certain that this was an 'easy' subject I'd be able to coast my way through. It ended up being the worst mark I ever received at university. And all because I had no idea what feminism was when I started the course.
In the first tutorial our tutor - a shy, tweedy type (at Sydney Uni, where sandstone is a religion, we still have shy, tweedy tutors, although I hear they've been mostly outlawed elsewhere in Australia) with ill-advised sideburns - asked us what we thought feminism was. I smiled, look around to make sure no-one else was about to start speaking (I was one step away from shooting my hand up into the air a la Hermione Granger, old habits and all that), and launched into this pathetically rehearsed, schoolgirl idea of what a feminist was. I may have said something along the lines of "evangelistic feminism was particularly prevalent in the movement's early forms, it could even be called militant" (cringe). I didn't know what I was talking about. I had a head full of Germaine Greer and burning bras. I had an idea of feminism I had formed from watching one bad documentary in year 9 history class. Looking back, the books I was reading were all by men. Sure, Jane Austen isn't a man. But in second year uni I had my head full of Evelyn Waugh, P.G Wodehouse, E.M Forster, John Le Carre... Men who write a cracker of a story, men who know how to write about the stuff and the things and all that glitters, but who don't write (many) great female characters. This was before Joan, before Virginia, before Nora, before Hillary, before Donna, and yes, even before Nigela.
My tutor - his name was Charles, which was just so perfect - coughed a little and smiled (shyly, tweedily) and did that very kind thing that tutors do, when they try and steer you in the right direction without humiliating you in front of all your classmates. "That's certainly one kind of feminism, yes," he said. "But what about all the others?" The others, I thought. There are more? "Would you call yourself a feminist?" He asked me. "No." I answered quickly. I was no Germaine Greer. (I hadn't even read a Germaine Greer book) (I hadn't really read any Virginia Woolf). "But do you believe that men and women should be equal?" "Yes" "And do you think your education is as important as mine?" "Yes, of course" "And do you think your opinion and voice is just as important as mine?" "Yes," I answered. "Well then," shy, tweedy Charles said, "sounds like you're a feminist to me." Was it really that simple? I have to say, in that cold classroom, that never stopped smelling ever so slightly of wet paper, even late in the year when autumn bled into summer and every day was what weathermen like to call 'scorchers', I wasn't convinced. It took me almost half the semester - and all of Orlando and A Room Of One's Own and a great deal of The Bell Jar - to convince me otherwise. I got a shocking mark in the final essay because, even though I had realised the implications of what feminism might meant to me, I still had a pretty shaky understanding of what it actually was. But it was the start of something. It was the start of something that never stopped being something, really.
When I saw the new Elle UK cover, fresh-faced Miss Watson, "this is what a feminist looks like", Benedict Cumberbatch on the turn, I couldn't help but think, god, I wish I had read magazines like Elle UK when I was younger. I wish there had been Emma Watsons (and maybe even Lena Dunhams) telling me on Twitter, on Instagram, in books, in the pages of magazines, how great it is to be a woman. Maybe I wouldn't have been so confused. I think back to the timing and, you know, the funny thing is, the very first Elle UK I ever bought - Alexa Chung on the cover, natch - was right at the end of that gender studies class. I remember being captivated, not just by the design - which is fantastic - or the fashion - which is fun - but the way it spoke to me, a young woman, trying to find her feet professionally and personally, with humour and wit and a knowing smile. "Been there, done that love," it seemed to say. "Let us help you." It didn't have the same strength and force of voice as it does now when it discussed feminism. But it was a magazine by women, for women, with features about work and money and sex and body politics and, yes, clothes, that celebrate rather than belittle or chastise you, the reader, a woman. That's real nice. And that's what feminism looks like.