Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: #milifandom, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Myth of Political Apathy in Young Women

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: #milifandom, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Myth of Political Apathy in Young Women

Thank you for the selfies, thank you for the support, and thank you for the most unlikely cult of the 21st century; milifandom.

At first glance, it seems like the modern world is fairly au fait with fandom. Directioners, Beliebers, Sherlockians, Whovians, and Cumberbitches are, if not everyday vernacular, certainly closer to the surface of public consciousness than the underground fandoms of the ’90s and early ’00s. Social media has catapulted the heartstrings of teenage girls out of their bedrooms and into the electronic mainstream; what was once the preserve of closed networks on LiveJournal has migrated to the wide open worlds of tumblr and twitter, where ALLCAPS opinions on Harry Styles’ hair can be viewed by anybody.

Into this world stepped Ed Miliband. Against his fellow focuses of fandom, the (at that time) Leader of the Opposition wasn’t an obvious choice. He wasn’t in a boy band, on a primetime BBC One drama or on YouTube; he is a married forty-five year old with two small children who, more often than not, gets compared to a man made out of clay. And yet, in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, something about Ed afforded him the carefully-given affections of teen girls across the land.

Kicked off by @twcuddleston, aka. 17-year-old Abby, the hashtag #milifandom gained ground at exceptional speed. When it was picked up by Buzzfeed, the fandom went supernova, garnering mainstream news coverage and serious think pieces alongside tumblr’s gifs and flower crown edits. The man who was famous for eating bacon sandwiches had performed better than expected in the televised debates, been doorstepped for selfies by a hen party, and hadn’t fallen over in public for ages; now he was an object of teenage obsession.

Obsession. Obsessive. The everyday noun and adjective are haunted by their psychiatric definitions of a person “motivated by a persistent overriding idea or impulse, often associated with anxiety and mental illness”. 1 The concept of emotion overwhelming the rational mind echoes that great Victorian misogyny, the Hysteric, a word which in turn has circled back around to become common nomenclature for young women, whether its over the Beatles or a middle-aged politician.

The Hysteric has a hangover from even further back than the psychoanalysts’ catch-all diagnosis. Women’s systematic disenfranchisement from education, a constant throughout history, has left a mark on the modern world that won’t quite come off. In the world’s most destructive case of chicken-or-egg, women’s lack of education was (and, in many places, still is) encouraged by patriarchal society, with the resultingly ill-educated half of the populus used as proof that women were not and are not as intelligent as men. Psychophysiology went so far as to contend that men’s brains were naturally bigger than women’s, accounting for an innate hierarchy in mental ability.

This persistent belief in women’s inferiority, combined with the prevalence of men’s cultural, political, and economic public spaces versus women’s private domestic ones, has meant that the concerns of women are traditionally afforded a distinct triviality, shadowed as they are by patriarchal interest. How did Mary Wollstonecraft put it? “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of … viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

So reduced, women’s historic exclusion from matters political, economic and cultural has its modern-day echo in how we treat those for whom childhood is not such a distant memory. Women aged 18-24 are the least likely people to vote in the entire country, and the reasons given repeat themselves over and over. Political disengagement is said to be rife here, uncourted as they are by parties who see little economic or political value in their votes. These women are once again subjected to the chicken-or-egg quandry; namely which disengagement came first – party or voter?

And so #milifandom was born into this world of low expectation for young women in politics (except that this time, they weren’t even old enough to vote). Women have a history of defying low expectations, and this is no different. There is nothing trivial or frivolous in starting a movement; nothing to scorn at in becoming the buzzword of an election or being thanked by the Labour Party leader in his resignation speech.

There is nothing childish in fighting for what you believe in.

Because that is what #milifandom was; and, under the tutelage of @twcuddleston, continues to be. The myth of political apathy in the young persists, but there’s no denying that it can be taken down brick by brick. The Labour party, deep in recovery and floundering to work out what went wrong, has promised to court the John Lewis shopper, whose average customer age is well over 35; but Generation Y have finally put their head above the parapet, and they’re here to stay.

  1. See “obsessive.” Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/obsessive (accessed: May 20, 2015).