“… Greer writes about being a woman the way men sing about being men… she writes paragraphs like piano solos, and her rendering of feminism is simple: everyone should be a bit more like her. Scornful of any useless inherited bullshit. New; fast; free. Laughing, and fucking, and unafraid to call anyone out… And LOUDLY. LIKE ROCK MUSIC.”
“Don’t call it sexism… call it ‘manners’ instead… it doesn’t need to be a ‘man vs woman’ thing. It’s just a tiff between The Guys […] Seeing the whole world as ‘The Guys’ is important. The idea that we’re all, at the end of the day, just a bunch of well-meaning schlumps, trying to get along, is the basic alpha and omega of my world view. I’m neither ‘pro-woman’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion’.”
“Simply being honest about who we are is half the battle… There’s so much stuff – in every respect – that we can’t afford and yet we sighingly resign ourselves to, in order to join in, and feel ‘normal’. But, of course, if everyone is, somehow, too anxious to say what their real situation is, then there is a new, communal, median experience which is being kept secret by everyone being too embarrassed to say, ‘Don’t think I’m a freak, but…’”
Category Archives: My feminism
“[…] we are not all Pussy Riot. For the many women contending with mental and physical illness, childcare, poverty and shyness, that kind of direct activism is simply not possible […]
“Shyness affects Mandy’s feminism on a number of levels, making her cautious about openly identifying as a feminist because of how that might be perceived. “If you are naturally shy, when you are put in a confrontational situation, it is actually very damaging and difficult,” she says. “So to even openly talk about feminism isn’t something I always do.”
“Not one of my feminist heroines reminds me of myself – shy, retiring and fainthearted. I suspect my true feminist soul sisters were quietly and invisibly working in the background, writing impassioned articles in favour of the vote, while the Pankhursts were being force-fed in Holloway prison.”
“I call myself a feminist, yet I regularly collude in one of the planet’s most organized, durable and violent wars on women. I don’t have an excuse, or a handy intellectual theory to justify it. It’s just wrong. But sexual impulses are powerful and hard to change. My only real defence is a 17-year marriage to a lifelong feminist. Because I like to convince myself that my relationship with porn is compartmentalized neatly and entirely separately from my real-life relationships with women.”
… is radical; not content with taping up the edges; only with exploding the entire system and envisioning and creating it anew.
… sits in sympathy with socialist ideas, aligns with the left, and wants capitalism brought down with the patriarchy.
… is inflicted with postmodern paralysis though, so saying you want capitalism brought down with the patriarchy becomes something to scoff at, for it’s not as simple as that.
… cannot be reduced to some A – Z roll call of issues – E for Equal Pay, P for Porn, R for Rape, S for SmashingPatriarchy – I deal with on my days off.
… is much, much more; a rich and broad-ranging ideology and philosophy, inextricably bound up with the intangible and everyday aspects of life.
… is a state of mind; an identity; always there, overt or covert, feeding and bleeding into everything I do.
… knows the need for nuance and difference in political discussions and organisation, and
… has a vision of a future in which all women are taken into account; where there is support for our different situations, and celebration of our varied selves.
… recognises we have a government opposed to all that; instead preferring to set everybody into some white public-school boy mould, and forgetting about anybody who doesn’t fit into it.
… wants to wage a counter-attack on this conservative ideology; not issue by issue; but by striking at its very principles, which are contrary to everything lefty, radical feminism has ever stood for.
… scorches and soars like loud rock guitar.
… is fuelled by the crests of electric guitar waves; sounds just like them; is indistinguishable from them.
… goes arm-in-arm with a DIY punk rock/non-conformist outlook, and so
… says no to marriage, no to a mortgage, no to a perm 9 – 5.
… seeks autonomy, impermanence, and freedom instead; freedom from treading well-worn paths, those which have stifled many women’s screams, screams to escape the dead-ends they lead to.
… embeds itself in everyday, concrete reality.
… speaks from personal experience, and
… likes other feminisms warm with the blood of personal voice, emotion, and passion.
… aims to express itself thoughtfully, creatively, wholeheartedly.
… is confused, complicated and contradictory;
… critical as well as contemplative;
… queerying and self-questioning.
… stands in solidarity, but also sits alone .
… experiences excited hopeful energy, but
… also knows hopeless despondency, from recognising all that needs remedying.
… disappears on looking in the mirror.
… does not unfurl that curl of self-esteem I feel when I see my own reflection, and
… gets frustrated by what I do for a living; serving, assisting, and pleasing; playing office housewife.
… validates my loner wanderlusting; for women should be able to roam wherever they may like too, literally and psychically; alone; unbound by convention, routine, and sexist expectation.
… signals an opportunity for self-discovery and self-definition.
… demands space to be herself/ves.
… dreams big, and
… harbours a revolutionary, idealistic zeal.
… takes the form of a lifelong journey, which goes with its ebbs and flows, and
… is all-encompassing.
First there was the student riot at Millbank Tower, where in amongst the groups of your atypical lefty male activist-types, were women experiencing direct action for the first time, including, “a shy looking girl” who “squeaks in fright, but sets her lips determinedly and walks forward, not back, towards the line of riot cops” and giving “the glass under her feet a tentative stomp, and then a firmer one. Crunch, it goes. Crunch.”
Then there were the young women taking to their city centres to demonstrate against cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and occupying their student unions in protest at increased university tuition fees; their faces lit up in joyous defiance, their stand self-assured: “They are cutting EMA and they are cutting arts and sports programmes, but they are not cutting the Ministry of Defence and nuclear weapons which is ridiculous. They need to get their priorities sorted out.” And I thought: how fucking brilliant is this? These women may be heading into adulthood amidst the bleakest social and economic times of recent years, but perversely, this is also inducing their political awakening, an awakening which may have taken longer to dawn had their futures beamed a little brighter. These 15, 16, 17, 18-year old girls have now found their political voices, felt the freedom in fighting back – something they’ll never forget. So now their resistance has been piqued, who knows what further riots they could inspire?
Then as I sat amongst rows of young feminists at the recent Bristol University Feminism Conference, I was struck by the way feminist activism has taken off on university campuses in the past couple of years. I attended my first feminist conference in 2005 (FEM 05 at Sheffield University Student Union) shortly after graduating, and there had been no similar student feminist movement back then. And yet now there are all these pockets of student women finding feminism and wanting to run with it.
In short, it’s really exciting and encouraging to see such a surge of political energy coming from young women – at a time when it’s most definitely called for.
My current optimism signals a shift in my feelings about the efficacy and value of some activism, particularly in relation to how it’s utilised in feminist movement. A couple of years ago, I was writing quite critically about feminist activism in the UK, arguing that one-off demos were unlikely to achieve much and that more vigour and commitment was needed behind the more high-profile campaigns.
However, I’ve been engaging with feminism in a more positive way again recently, mainly because of the Women Speak Out (WSO) project I’ve been doing. I’ve been meeting women involved in some of those campaigns I’ve since cut ties with, but getting out from behind the computer screen to instead talk face-to-face with them has humanised and provided a better context for me to understand their commitment and motivation for getting involved in the causes they do.
For instance, at our discussion in Bristol, we were talking to women who were most concerned with porn, beauty ideals and the sexualisation of young women. Now, these are no longer the sorts of things I get so worked up about, and I’ve got my issues with how feminism tends to tackle them, however there’s no escaping the fact that, just like the young women we were speaking to, my first forays into feminism also involved protesting lad mags, rape, and sexual objectification. I too remember discovering that feeling of joyous defiance, the freedom in fighting back (something you can see for yourself if you read through the entries made on this blog through 2006 – 2007).
My feminism has since calmed down and got more complicated, is even contradictory in places (rock music by guys would suit the tone of women-only marches really well!? fuck beauty ideals, but I really want clear skin!?). But recognising my younger feminist self in these burgeoning feminist activists – as well as in some of those girls taking their first tentative, yet also heady footsteps, into activism via the issue of education cuts – has made me more empathetic and understanding towards their activism and the feelings fuelling that activism. So, instead of completing disavowing my early feminism, and continuing to criticise other, often younger, feminists for continuing down that road; almost expecting my feminism to be their feminism, I’m now more in the mood to try forging productive alliances and dialogues with them, on the understanding that we come into, and do, feminism at different stages and from different places.
If we acknowledge that being a feminist involves taking a political journey, one which will see our politics change as our personal circumstances change, then that not only allows us to question and shift our own positions on certain issues, but also means we are better placed to accept the different positions held between ourselves and other feminists.
And perhaps there is no better way to set out on that journey than to just dive in and see where it takes you. I’ve been critical in the past about feminists protesting for the sake of protesting, to no specific end, and that coming together for a couple of times a year to march through the streets of London is never going to bring the revolution. But that was talking as someone who had already embarked on the journey and was ready to alight at the next stop – I’m not going to criticise other young women for joining in the way I did, and dismiss them when they declare, for example, how empowering marching alongside other women is (which it is!). I’ll cheer on any young woman who makes that choice – still a pretty radical one – to step out on the streets and speak back on something that rouses her ire. If nothing else, it’s a way for her to test out her new political ideas and experience what resistance feels like. Even if the aims of the campaign aren’t achieved, even if it requires a bit more work to be successful, even if she comes to a point of disillusionment with it, at least she’s now gathered further fuel to embark on the next stage of the journey.
And this is something that will continue throughout the journey; you stop to focus on a particular campaign or figure out a new theory, before setting off again, either because the campaign/theory no longer fits, or on the contrary, its success requires you to keep moving forward with it. No one sets out with their feminism fully formed, but then again, no one can ever claim to have a fully formed feminism, because our politics will always change alongside our personal lives, therefore we shouldn’t be expected to get it right all the time, we’ll make mistakes, and say and do things which in a couple of years we may no longer want to align ourselves with.
The important thing is to create spaces and dialogues that allow for this within feminism. We’re not always going to agree with each other and wish to attach ourselves to the same causes, but I still believe in the possibility of entering into constructive dialogues with those at different stages of their feminist journeys, whether those differences arise from ideology, personal experience, or how long we’ve been on those journeys.
We had such a discussion at Bristol; some of us were speaking from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, and investment in different causes, but I found it exciting to see the young feminists we spoke to keen to ask questions and listen and learn from each other. They were idealistic, but not dogmatic. They had their convictions, but they were open to having them challenged and expanded.
‘Tis another reason for the optimism.
But I also feel like cheering on this rush of young female resistance, because now is not the time to be holding back and staying home. Again, in contrast to what I was saying two years ago, I think it’s better we head out and make our voices heard than not do anything at all.
When I read about young women, “feeling alive, really alive” as a result of their political awakening and involvement, I see that as the key thing right now. In these times of neo-liberal, Conservative rule, where we turn up to work and get coined as ‘resources to be rationalised’, then expected to find solace in television schedules stuffed full of shiny soulless entertainment; told our hearts should lie with Royal Variety Shows, where the heir to the throne shakes hands with those nice boys from Take That, and no matter the kids outside who’ve left London burning because they’ve just been dealt a debt-ridden future; in these times, we need to be storming Parliament Square, taking to the streets as huge masses of women, and turning off the X Factor to tune into a heartier soundtrack; to show that we’re fuckin’ Alive and not falling for any of it.
Sure, we need to make sure our protests are potent and on target – just like those of the recent student movement, which feminism could take a lot from (particularly as the two movements overlap, anyway) – but we should also be encouraging all those young women who want to get involved to get going.
For girls – your time is now. Dare to dream and turn those dreams into reality. Get stuck in and set off on your political journeys; calling out what tugs at your heart and turns your stomach. Don’t be afraid to second-guess, criticise and change your minds. But do insist on writing your own futures – don’t let others read them to you.
Muse, Butterflies & Hurricanes
“Why does is it have to rain now, on Monday morning, when I’m walking to work?”
The clouds had been converging ominously
I set off cursing its bad timing
but a good mood was also brewing.
Once I got to the office, it emerged.
The grey rainy air seemed to settle everything down; it was quiet; things weren’t as fraught as I was expecting them to be.
I go back outside, and welcome the cool brisk wind, get high on its breath.
Not minding the rain landing on my skin:
it bristles, bringing me back to life, invigorated.
This is more like it –
no more staid sleepy sun, with its expectations to be
pretty and perfect in suntan still.
But boisterous breeze, splashed stains, rushed roars of rainy wind
making our hair messy, our trousers dirty, and our thoughts go wild and free.
Step inside. The dark sky forms a thick blanket to retreat under, made warmer by the solid silence that surrounds me now I’m home.
The gentle but assured drumming of the rain on the roof
a steadying soundtrack.
Everything seems easier.
The niggles are appeased.
I’ve got a clear head again. So, I’ve been able to do stuff; I could finish typing up the minutes; I could speak, and keep going despite only a handful of hours sleep.
The humid air and bright muggy light have gone away, taking the tired body and muffled mind with them.
Cosy quiet lamp lit evenings
turning the television off for bouts of silent reading instead.
Flashback to last summer, when the office I worked in injected me with swathes of lethargy, leading me to collapse into thoughtless, wasted evenings.
But isn’t that what we’re meant to do? ‘Switch off’ once we get home from ‘work’?
But what if we do jobs that keep us ‘switched off’ all day too?
When are we meant to come Alive?
Get some proper work done?
Walking to the Dr’s through a thunderstorm.
Rain falling in long, straight, clean lines.
Picked up my prescription for more pretty pills aka antibiotics to treat my acne.
They’re kicking in now. That blazing bathroom light has been kinder
so on looking in the mirror, I see cleaner, calmer skin.
Sneak up closer and you’ll see the scars.
But I’m happy with how much healthier my face is looking.
Walking back home
remnants of rain falling tranquil.
darkening wet outsides and lit up insides.
The thunderstorm stops, the rain dries up.
The sun then emerges, like a yawn
slowing it all back down.
“I find it hard to believe – 1 in 4? What about battered men?”
asks the bloke who sits next to me at work.
How to respond?
My stiff awkward disposition sets in.
Self-consciousness scratches as I try to reply, but I’m not working.
I lack the words and strength of feeling to galvanise a hearty, assured response.
“Women live 10 years longer than men – we have to bump you off somehow!”
he continues with a chortle.
I guess this is supposed to be taken as one of those knowingly anti-PC jokes we’re just meant to laugh along with, unless we want to be accused of ‘taking things too seriously’.
It’s this sort of thing that crosses a line with me, though.
Slams up hard against my feminist foundations.
Responding to the harsh facts of violence against women
with laughter, mocking questions, disbelief.
Such attitudes make it likely that domestic violence happens to women on the scale the statistics suggest. The indifference, ridicule, lack of empathy, unwillingness to listen and believe what women are trying to tell you, creates the conditions for it to continue.
It’s not nasty bogey men who are closing their ears to these violent truths.
It’s honest, hardworking, otherwise decent blokes.
My dad. My colleague.
Making my relationships with them difficult.
“You’re good, but how can you *think* that? How can you *think* that & still be a good person?”
Do they deny women’s voices, gay asylum seekers’ human rights, because if they embrace them, they fear they’ll be knocked off their privileged perches?
Then I go home, turn on that television, and laugh along to sexist jokes.
The clouds are converging again, the rain returns.
Fold away the fretting office doing nothing.
Fold away the Friday evening traffic going nowhere.
Tuck up into the weekend instead.
Floods of rainy rock guitar. Freedom sounds.
Buoyed once again.
… inspired by our second Women Speak Out discussion in Birmingham.
What is radical feminism to me? Don’t get your definitions of radical feminism from postmodern academic theory – they’re distorted. Turn to the original, brilliant radical feminist thinkers/writers Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin (her book, Woman Hating, is a precursor to queer theory), Robin Morgan and Charlotte Bunch (her collection of writing, Passionate Politics, is some of the most nuanced, eloquent, complex, radical feminist writing I’ve come across, and I highly recommend it). What these women came up with was more nuanced and aware of dynamics of race/class/sexuality than radical feminism is often given credit for.
Radical feminism is something I can still associate with because:
• I see it as advocating for a radical overhaul of society – nothing else will be enough to secure women’s liberation.
• Patriarchy exists and the overthrow of capitalism alone will not be enough – capitalism and patriarchy are keenly intertwined.
• Radical feminism is from the grassroots, it centres the personal, everyday experiences of women, it’s not top-down theory.
• It applies a materialist/structural lens to examining society and women’s place within it.
• It doesn’t see gender/sexuality as biologically determined.
What I don’t like about radical feminism (the more contemporary variant thereof):
• Its attitude towards trans people and transgender/sexual issues more widely
• Its dogmatism around the issues of pornography; male violence; femininity
• Its tendency to support women over men at all times – what, even when the female boss is being a shit & you, as a secretary, have more in common with the everyday working experiences of the guys delivering the post/fixing the photocopier/taking out the bins – sorry, but I’ll be joining the blokes on the picket line.
• How it forms its agenda around a few massive issues, but is somewhat removed from the nuances and mundanities of everyday life – it fights the display of porn in the staff room, but doesn’t really talk about you know, just getting up and going to work, and what goes on there. Radical feminism dissects the extra-curricular of your life, what you face when you’re out alone at night, or in a shop faced with sexist imagery, but not your main everyday subject.
• Its suspicion of ‘Queer’ politics and identities.
• How it doesn’t like to question and critique itself.
The representations/treatment of women within different rock music sub-cultures. Does metal music sexually objectify women more, than say, punk and grunge, which tend(ed) to be more egalitarian in attitude and androgynous in appearance? And if so, why? And how does it relate to the actual content of the music?
Tackling lap dancing/lad mags/prostitution – banning them is not the way to go vs their continued existence signals women’s inequality in society. And how putting things on top shelves and away from the high street just moves the problem elsewhere – usually to affect a more disadvantaged group of women. A danger of middle-class directed feminism – it’s okay to get these things out of our sight, ‘cause then we don’t have to think about them, but now it’s just going to gravitate to the more deprived outskirts of town, where (non middle-class) women are going to continue to be adversely affected.
The biological sex vs gender as social construct dichotomy – should we be moving beyond this dichotomy? Could it be that men and women are actually born with different traits which society then exaggerates/distorts to fulfil its stereotypes? If they were less exaggerated and encouraged to turn out in a different way, would things be a whole lot different? We all have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits – and often in various, contradictory combinations. So, I’m quite feminine in my voice and mannerisms, I’m not assertive, I don’t take up space, but then when it comes to talking and expressing emotion I’m more stoically, silently male, I don’t like dressing in a feminine manner, I don’t like a lot of stereotypically feminine things i.e. shopping, I’m not maternal. And yet a woman who comes across as feminine via her physical appearance – heels, make up, et al – can be dominating and assertive in her personality (ref: Julia Serano – Whipping Girl).
Abstract feminist theoretical questioning vs just laying claim to simple gut emotions. I can to and fro all day long about whether I should be supporting a woman because she’s a woman, I should be looking at the context in which she’s behaving to explain what she’s saying/doing, I should consider her background, her situation… but thing is, I just think she’s being a right fucking bitch – and that’s all I want to say on the matter.
There comes a point when you need to stop making excuses and realise that This is It.
The one shot at life you’ll get.
Your one chance to be the best you can; to develop your unique, individual self to her fullest; to push all your ‘wild’ dreams & ‘crazy’ ideas (so they say), & the creative energy needed to make them come true, to the brim so they spill right out and all over.
So there is no longer any distinction, any separation, between your everyday self & your real self; so your everyday consists of doing what you believe needs to be done & not what you are told should be done; so you have the opportunity to bring to the fore what you previously believed couldn’t surface because the everyday kept getting in the way; so we can be our whole selves.
We make excuses not to pursue our ideas; follow our heart’s pull; devote ourselves more fully to the execution of our talents and practice of our principles; to make a difference; to realise what we truly can be.
“I don’t have the time”; “I can’t get there”; “I can’t afford it”; “It would take too long”; “I don’t know anybody else”; “no one would notice/read/listen/watch/engage with it anyway”; “it won’t make any difference”; “I’m too tired”; “I have to be up early for work tomorrow”; “so-and-so might need me”; “I’m not good/interesting enough”; “I tried before & never got anywhere with it”; “no one else can be bothered, so why should I?”
This is what we say when the hands of the everyday grip us round the neck and suffocate our souls; when the tangled webs and heavy chains of gender/race/class oppression have paralysed us into silence & self-doubt and snapped from our hands that which we need to move; when ‘just getting on with things’ becomes the only mode and mantra of existence, whether by necessity or habit; when we cease to look at the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is that which consists of who we really are and what we’re really interested in; what needs to be done to change things for the better, for ourselves & others.
It’s that place where our oppressed selves are replaced by our liberated selves. Where we are allowed to give more of our time, energy, selves, to that which we really want to do, and dare to dream of doing – art, writing, activism, caring, community work, educating – but which we dare not realise, for our everyday selves and situation take over.
We have to go to our jobs, put ourselves away & present false, conform & perform to fit what we don’t reckon with, our time, energy & souls being sucked away… and hence come the excuses.
But there comes a point when we realise that this isn’t good enough. It can’t continue. A life of split selves, wasted weeks, too much compromise, of just making do, of resignation, of always dreaming, but never getting round to actually doing, changing, realising anything.
We can find a way.
We must find a way.
Mix things up a bit. Shift priorities. Put our foot down and ourselves first.
Take your idea, your dream, and sit with it. Break it down, bit by bit. What steps do I need to take to make it come true? Counter the excuses. There may be more ways than you think, ways around and about, a perceived obstacle, if we dare to think & dream beyond the everyday.
See? It could still happen, there is another way, and you do have the chance to make your dream come true, to realise your full self, to change things, to live. Stop making excuses. Just get on with it.
It won’t be easy. It will ebb & flow, stop & start, fall apart and need to be built back up again. Participation in the everyday, with its monetary rewards, will still be essential to an extent.
But if we dare to make our dreams come true, dare to declare the importance of pursuing our interests & making our voices heard, the prickly everyday need cause us to itch no more. Because we finally realise what is important. What needs to be done. What life is really all about.
For those outside of the centre – women, BME communities, queers, anti-capitalists, punk rockers, the disabled, those with heads full of mind wars & wanderings, who never fit in, in the school playground & still don’t in the office, idealists, and so on – this is imperative if we are to survive & be happy.
We can’t realise our true selves in the everyday, that which forms the centre from which we are shunted. If we want in, we have to switch off and over to another self, compromise our creativity, dilute our principles, pipe down our voices, wear proper shoes.
We may kid ourselves into thinking we can get a place at the centre and play along like everyone in the everyday. So we sweat, scratch and spill tears in our efforts to fit in and find our niche.
But you don’t.
You just end up compromising yourself, diluting what made you & your work so great in the first place. You twist yourself into a position which will allow you to get a foot in the door, but you just end up bending yourself so out of proportion, that whilst you may have got in, once there you’re so completely tangled up in someone else’s standards, having untied the knot of your true self at the door.
It’s important to remember what you’re really about, where you & your inspiration come from, what your passions and politics and personality really stand for, and find another way.
Your own way. Doing It Yourself.
Because no one else will provide you with the forum to express who you really are.
Because no medium exists which will tolerate, or take on board, your form of expression.
Because at the centre, in the everyday, they expect you to be some neat tidy monolithic package, easy to label and sum up in a sentence, when in reality you’re wide open and all over the place, full of messy confused contradictions, myriad passions & politics, between which you have formed your own individual connections, but you do you really expect them to get it?
Because you can’t work to the everyday’s schedule, can’t dance to its beat. There’s nothing there to dance to.
Because you can’t live up to their standards, ‘the standard’.
Those outside of the centre need to Do It Themselves, to stay true to themselves, to create their own space, products and politics so they can say they exist as laws unto themselves & not just to fit some everyday mould.
They’ll be no thank you from on high for going this way; you’ll be told what you create isn’t good enough and what you’re saying doesn’t make sense; it won’t make you rich & famous; maybe what you do will go completely unnoticed…
… but despite all this, Doing It Yourself promises a greater sense of empowerment, fulfilment, self-realisation, happiness and liberation. A more real, centred, true to yourself existence can emerge from making the decision to take the plunge to pursue your ideas, projects, dreams and plans. You can revel in the fun a self-determined life on the margins can bring. Relish the deeper world view it can help flourish.
You can live with the knowledge that you at least tried. You didn’t spend your life just dreaming and posing ‘what if’s?’ to yourself all day at your desk- the consequence of making too many excuses and not waking up to the importance of just Getting On and Doing It Yourself.
Taking part in the Million Women Rise (MWR) march on Saturday, I realised my feminism has changed. Whilst I still believe in the importance of trans inclusive women-only demonstrations to protest against male violence, I felt less enthused and more removed from it all on Saturday, compared to previous years.
And that’s more to do with me, and the impact of the changes in my thinking and experience over the past year or so, rather than it being any criticism of the march itself.
When I started attending these mass feminist demonstrations, my first being in 2006, I found them really empowering, I think because it was the first time in my life I’d literally raised my voice and was therefore doing something out of character. It was also exciting, for getting involved in public protest was me stepping out and doing something different with regards to my background- I wasn’t brought up to align myself with progressive, radical politics; my feminist foremothers are to be found on my bookshelf, not my family tree.
It was also empowering and exciting because these demonstrations were taking place amidst a bunch of new feminist groups and campaigns cropping up, coalescing to form this momentum, a new ‘wave’ of UK feminism, which has now started to be documented in books. I remember being there – organising and protesting – near the beginning of this most recent ‘wave’, and it felt great to be a part of this activity, a part of something bigger than myself, which simultaneously allowed me to become more of myself. It was life-changing- for the first time in my life, I really felt a part of something, I ‘fit in’, there were women like me out there, I was working to make a difference.
But my activism has dissipated over the past couple of years and ties with sisters severed… meanwhile the movement has continued to get bigger and this is where some of my displacement was felt yesterday. Listening to the speaker from Object talk of the success they’d had with their campaign to re-license lap dancing clubs and the optimism her speech invoked of the tide finally turning in feminism’s favour… it was good what she was saying, but I didn’t feel a part of it. Aside from the fact that I hadn’t got involved with the lap dancing campaign because I didn’t fully agree with its aims, I also felt some distancing as a result of my current attitude towards sex object culture and the feminist fight against it.
Whilst I still think dealing with the sexual commodification of women and girls in popular culture should be high on the list of priorities for UK feminist activists, my anger around this issue isn’t as visceral as it was a few years ago.
I don’t particularly know why, but I think it may have something to do with how I’ve become more interested in issues surrounding women’s oppression and exploitation in the workplace (though I acknowledge this can take the form of sexual objectification), class analyses, and the extent to which the work a woman does and what position in the class hierarchy she holds either helps or hinders her ability to do activism.
These interests have arisen out of personal experience- one of the reasons my activism has dissipated recently is because I simply do not have as much time as I used to, to do activism. Being a single woman, living alone, working a full time job – being the breadwinner and housewife – leaves little time for organising.
Anyway – and this was also something that came up in my thoughts on Saturday – I feel I’m more naturally inclined towards directing my feminist energies into writing, publishing, and documenting activism for the herstorical record, as opposed to organising groups and campaigns. I could never be an inspiring public speaker or someone who stirs the crowd into a chanting frenzy. I think it’s important to find ways in which our individual personalities and talents can be used to push feminism forward and not necessarily always look to change ourselves to fit a dominant stereotype of what we think a feminist is and does e.g. a loud, confident, shouty woman at the front of the protest, or someone working in public, organising other women and campaigns.
There were also other instances throughout the march and rally which made me reflect on the way in which how I feel about, and identify with feminism, has changed.
I still think marches such as MWR are a crucial feature of feminist movements. They can be a site of empowerment, particularly for women survivors of male violence – to be able to join together with thousands of other women to reclaim your strength and speak back against the violence you have experienced, is something not to be dismissed. And hearing the culmination of a few thousand women’s voices, shouting and cheering in unison, is definitely something. These marches also offer inspiration, for those taking part and those watching it from the sidelines, they can raise awareness and spark thinking in the general public who come upon it. Probably the best part of the march for me this year was seeing other women applauding us as we went by; receiving and sending validation in equal measure. Continuing to hold these events also carries on a fine tradition of herstory; this year’s protest was particularly poignant, taking place as it did almost exactly 40 years on from the first UK Women’s Liberation Movement demonstration.
Despite all this though, I still felt a lack of something.
It often feels like these mass protests exist in their own bubble, and I think I’d have felt more satisfied on the way home yesterday if I’d felt more reference had been made to tackling violence against women in relation to the specific political and economic context we currently inhabit. I dipped out for a time during the rally, so didn’t hear all the speeches, but the ones I did hear made no reference, for example, to the recession or the upcoming general election. Yet, I feel if we want to end violence against women in our lifetime, we need to be engaged with those broader political contexts and legislative processes that can affect it.
For instance, it would be good to use these mass rallies to call out the main political parties on what they’re doing – or not – to tackle male violence against women so as to inform our vote on polling day. Another way I think we could extend the impact of these protests is if they consisted of a few, specific demands, as the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s and ‘80s did. Whilst these demands have still to be fully met, they gave the WLM something to galvanize behind and did provide the framework by which some change could – and did – occur. Ultimately, we need to come up with more ways of channelling the empowerment generated at these events into some concrete action.
Another way in which my feminism has changed – which I anticipated before attending the march, and which taking part in it clarified for me – has to do with my feelings around woman-identification.
Two, three years ago, I would have vehemently positioned myself as woman-identified. But on yesterday’s march, I felt somewhat awkward amongst all the loud, radical woman-identification which set the tone of the event. Again, that’s no criticism of radical woman-identification in itself, just that I don’t find it so easy to identify strongly with it myself at this point in my life. This is, I think, down to what’s been happening in my life over the past year or so, and what I’ve taken comfort and reprieve in as a result.
Until recently, the bane of my life has been a female manager and work colleagues… and what got me through those horrible working weeks wasn’t any feminist theory, but music from some ageing all-male ska band (The Specials). I spent more time last year listening to male bands and laughing along to male comedians than doing feminism, and whilst some of the music and jokes were sexist, I could cast this off for the rest of it was good enough… and I don’t think this contradicts my feminism.
This contrast in the identifications I’ve experienced over the past couple of years was exemplified at MWR with the ‘one woman one song one body one love’ message that opened and sealed the protest and on hearing the female singers performing at the rally.
I don’t identify with that sort of thing at all, that level of woman-identification, that sort of energy. I wasn’t comfortable chanting back the ‘one woman…’ mantra, ‘cause it’s not where I’m coming from. When it comes to emotional outpourings of feelings, I’m more stereotypically male than female – they don’t come easy; whilst women with acoustic guitars do nothing for me… I’d rather listen to some Metallica. That comes nearer to representing my energy, more closely mirrors the anger and upset and tension I may experience as a result of being a woman living under patriarchy.
Again, I don’t think this male-identification over woman-identification should imply any contradiction in a feminist identity – after all, rock ‘n’ roll performed by men has saved many a woman’s life. And sometimes I think it would be good to blast something a little louder like that at this sort of thing… something like this….
Muse – Unnatural Selection
A perfect protest anthem, I think.
So, MWR this year did stir some mixed feelings, and their consolidation perhaps signals the next stopping off point in my feminist journey. One where I’ll still endorse women-only protest, but won’t be as forthright in it as I once was; where I’ll sometimes choose men over women and that’ll be ok; and doing feminism in a way that more closely matches my disposition and talents.
I liked this article from India Knight in today’s Sunday Times, from which the title for this post was taken, about the reaction to Gail Trimble’s success on University Challenge.
The very fact such a fuss has been made about this reflects how deep-rooted the sexist notion that women and intelligence don’t go together still is. Intellect in women is still novelty, it still inspires confused awe, unsettles the patriarchal order of things- a woman who thinks too much is dangerous, let her read too much, and maybe she’ll start to question her place in the world, refuse to keep quiet, won’t get married and have babies… cue anarchy!
Although, Ms Knight reflects that this wasn’t always the case- when she was at school being clever wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, it was the less intelligent who faced ridicule. But this isn’t my experience. When I was at school, to be a ‘boffin’, to have done your homework on time, to get good grades, lead to social ostracism, and these attitudes were held quite specifically amongst the girls. Bookish girls were eyed with more disdain that bookish boys; I know because I was one of those girls. I received the message loud and clear from my peers (and thinking about it in hindsight, even from some teachers) that you couldn’t be female, clever AND cool.
Class, as well as gender, may also have something to do with which attitudes towards intelligence circulate in particular spheres. Perhaps in the classrooms of private schools and redbrick unis, middle-class mainstays, intelligence is more revered, whereas in comprehensive schools and former polytechnic unis (which are still wrongly deemed the ‘lesser’ unis by virtue of offering so-called less academically-rigorous courses) which have greater numbers of working-class students, bookishness is deemed more suspect.
Yet there is also something of a contradiction in the argument that clever women are not valued, when we look to the fact that young women are doing better than ever at school and university. Many girls are perfectionists when it comes to their school work and get really stressed out, even depressed, with the pressure they put on themselves to achieve good exam results. If patriarchal culture is so dismissive of clever girls, why are so many of them getting so worked up about not doing well enough? Again, this seems to be a specifically female problem which requires some feminist attention.
But I want to further explore this idea that intelligence in women is mocked and looked down on, for I feel it is still quite potent. Why does society still have such a problem with women who pursue a life of the mind? I think it has something to do with the fact that intelligence in women is deemed incompatible with femininity and by extension, heterosexuality, which are much more valued in women. A bookish woman is de-feminised and asexualised.
But a patriarchal capitalist society requires its women to be feminine and heterosexual in order to keep functioning, hence the push by mainstream media (and even some alternative media for that matter- alternative politics and music are also unsettled by the woman with the scrubbed face who questions too much) to feminise and heterosexualise clever women.
They try and placate a woman’s intelligence, get her back in that feminine box, by giving her a makeover, sexing her up, highlighting the fact that she still likes to indulge in feminine pursuits such as shopping, and most importantly of all, ‘has time for boys.’
If they can do this – get her in low-cut top & lippy, get her to admit that the pursuit of knowledge isn’t everything to her – then they’ll let her off for having the temerity to use her brain. As long as she’s heterosexualised and feminised we can just about stomach a woman’s bookishness.
This is what’s happened with Ms Trimble. She’s received an offer to pose topless for Nuts magazine and a separate article in The Sunday Times today reported that she’d got engaged to her boyfriend. Read: ‘It’s okay people, no need to get freaked out by the woman with brains, she’s with Man now, a Real Woman.’
Of course, women shouldn’t feel that their intelligence negates their sexual attractiveness and a woman can enjoy reading and shopping for clothes. But why is the issue always framed this way round; why is it that the only way for women to be acknowledged is via their compliance with white, heterosexual, feminine norms?
Why is it always the girls with glasses who need to go for the makeover before they are noticed or listened to? Why is it always the case that the only time clever women, or feminism come to think of it, are spoken about with any respect and make the front cover is when they subscribe to conventional white femininity? This is why I find the argument that radical feminists who spurn beauty practices are the oppressors of those women who don’t a complete load of shit. It’s not images of women with make-up-less faces and hairy armpits bearing down on us everyday. They’re not allowed to. They don’t sell. It’s not the impression we like to give out. Women can’t just be. They have to have the feminine accessories.
I like this quote from Joan Bakewell from the aforementioned article about Gail Trimble‘s engagement: “Intelligent women don’t suffer. They have got too much brains to do that. They will think themselves out of the issue.” It’s important that women do, do that though, particularly young women. To know that they don’t exist only in relation to men, that their minds and intellectual achievements are worthy in and of themselves, that they are worthy for who they are alone. It doesn’t matter if you wear glasses and don’t have a boyfriend, just as it doesn’t matter for boys. Hell, even men in rock bands who wear glasses are still hailed as ‘rock gods’. Girls with glasses are only tolerated in Specsavers adverts.
“Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”- so fucking what? Why isn’t it: “Girls with glasses don’t make passes at men who are dumbasses?” Women need to get on top, refuse to be the ones who are gazed at and judged, and instead revel in our intellectual pursuits and rejection of white heterosexual femininity, and not made to feel awkward and embarrassed by it. That’s a real tenant of my feminism.
We need to change these standards by which women are expected to measure themselves, by breaking down this dichotomy between clever & beautiful. We need to make it loud and clear that a woman doesn’t have to be attractive to men to be respected, to have some self-worth, to exist in this world. We need to determine our own standards to live by, ones that suit women.
* As someone with “undyed & unhighlighted” hair, I got excited on reading this sentence with its acknowledgment of the lack of images that exist of women with such hair. This applies to both the dominant mainstream and alternative cultural spheres- if you’ve not got the glossy locks of the Vogue cover star, you should have the bright dyed hair of the edgy rock chick. Hair on a woman cannot just be.
I recently read Sheila Jeffreys’ chapter, ‘Return to Gender: Post-modernism and Lesbianandgay Theory’, in the radical feminist anthology, ‘Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed’*, and parts of it resonated with me, particularly in light of how I felt when writing my previous post on the importance of Reclaim the Night (RTN) marches being women only.
I stand by everything I wrote in that post. It’s an issue that gets me on quite a visceral level; to hear people dismissing, or trying to appease, women only politics really gnaws at the root of my radical feminism.
And yet, whilst finding some relief in writing – for the first time in a while – something so unabashed and unapologetic, and wanting to communicate my anger and steadfast views on that issue, the whole time I was writing it, the niggling voice of my academic training kept trying to reign me in, telling me to take a more nuanced approach to the issue. So as I was writing, I felt like I should at least include some sort of disclaimer or footnote to say, ‘yeah, I know this sounds angry, but’, as a way to explain away my seeming step back to my ‘old school radfem ways’; except I didn’t want to, because I really felt (feel) strongly about what I was saying and didn’t want to water down a post that was a tirade against the watering down of feminism itself.
This reticence towards taking a strong stance on something is what Sheila Jeffreys discusses in ‘Return to Gender’. She talks about how the shift to postmodernism in feminist theorising has led to what she calls, “radical uncertainty”. Because postmodernism encourages the ‘deconstruction of subject categories’, for example that of ‘woman’ (‘woman doesn’t exist’), and treats concepts such as ‘oppression’, ‘power’ and ‘social structure’, as just that - concepts – with no concrete basis in reality, it makes it hard to claim an identity or take a political position.
This “radical uncertainty”, Jeffreys argues, holds dangerous implications. Not being able to take a position leads to tentative theorising and academic introspection at the expense of taking action. It prevents us from proposing any concrete politics, from being bold in our assertions. For women, it means we can’t speak as ‘women’, because ‘women’ don’t exist, and if we don’t exist then neither does the discrimination and oppression we experience. And there’s no point then in forging on with a ‘women’s liberation movement’. On this score, I’m in agreement with Jeffreys. Extreme postmodernism is bad for women’s health.
I also recognise what she says about how engagement with postmodern theory can affect your previous views on things, saying, “Indeed once in the academy [...] it is not easy to hold onto positions which can be seen as vulgarly political” and that many lesbians have become apologetic about their “earlier embarrassing feminism” after being exposed to postmodern academic thought.
I recognise this because it’s what’s happened to me. As I’ve written before, my approach to feminist thinking and analysis has changed a lot over the past year, and this is due in no small part to my engagement with postmodern feminist theory. Where’s once I was quite gung-ho in my opinions, since my forays into postmodern academia, I have felt the strength of those opinions dissipate to some extent, I have been reigned in. And yes, I too do feel embarrassed about some of my earlier feminism.
Though, unlike Jeffreys, I don’t think this is all that much of a bad thing. I can see how being gung-ho can equate to being absolute in your views, which can lead to taking an overly simplistic and self-centred approach to things. Expanding my theoretical horizons, with the help of postmodernism, has encouraged me to be more attentive to difference (those of identity and opinion amongst women) and to incorporate a consideration of how other oppressive structures, e.g. racism & capitalism, coincide with patriarchy. And I think this is the direction feminism as a whole needs to take if we want a fully inclusive women’s liberation.
However, because of this direction my thinking has taken, there is another part of me that does find it hard to be as bold and assertive in my writing as I used to be, to just come out and take a position on something, unapologetically, no questions asked.
So when I was writing about the importance of RTN being women only, the urge to placate my forthright views on this, to add that disclaimer, was strong, because I felt I should be somehow justifying holding such a strong view, but in the end my simple, radical feminist conviction that RTN should be women only smothered all that, and I’m glad it did. It’s good to question, but it’s also good to clarify, and I didn’t feel like questioning in that post, I wanted to put forth a strong opinion.
Yet the mind war remains- between my conviction that recognising others, difference, the opposition, is important, and my other conviction that you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and be unapologetic about expounding some profoundly felt and steadfast feminist politics.
Jeffreys also says: “There is an anguished agony of the artist here which many of us who simply seek to express ourselves as simply and frequently as we can, just cannot afford in ordinary political struggle”
However, unlike Jeffreys, I don’t think this issue can be framed as a case of either/or; either deciding to partake in the “anguished agony” of abstract postmodern radical uncertainty or instead choosing to forge on with ‘real life’ political struggle. The two can intertwine.
We do need to be attentive to difference, to ask questions and be self-reflexive, to examine our stances, and recognise the different places women’s views and experiences come from, so that we don’t create self-centred, simplistic, rigid feminist politics. And to ensure this, we do need to delve into the abstract, to sometimes take a step back from ‘real life’ activism so we can assess where we’re at, where we need to go, and if we’re on the right path. In that respect, being academic or looking to theory is to be encouraged and shouldn’t necessarily be deemed as nothing more than postmodern pontificating.
But after asking some questions and doing some thinking, we also shouldn’t also be afraid of making a statement, proposing some politics, devising some action.
We shouldn’t succumb to radical uncertainty to the extent that it stops us from taking action and saying something. We can alternately take a stand, and then a step back to reflect. We can determinedly and passionately share our opinions, ideas and views, whilst also being mindful of others’.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that each instance of our feminist theorising, politicising and action, cannot always account for everything. There’s always going to be something missing, something not accounted for, something to do better next time.
The key thing is to acknowledge this, to recognise that what we may be thinking, writing, saying, doing, at any point in time, is just one part of the whole, one part of ourselves and also one part of women’s liberation.
*‘Return to Gender’ is an excerpt from Jeffreys’ book, ‘The Lesbian Heresy’.