Turning the tide
I owe a huge proportion of my identity and lifestyle to ‘feminism’. It has taught me, challenged me, comforted me, and introduced me to inspiring sisters who encourage me in every aspect of my life. Without ‘feminism’ I suspect I would sink into a world of disabling fear and far less hope. Yet I say ‘feminism’ in inverted commas because it is as diverse as any ideology or movement, and with its different interpretations come different obstacles. I propose the current stutters in our movements are born of a lack of intersectionality, but also an inherited paranoia of the past, that we need to continuously fight the back bite of the second wave, and sweeten our demands to make our feminism gentler to men.
I don’t suppose it is particularly helpful to stubbornly align with any specific strand of feminism, in that first and foremost my feminism influences my broader politics. What I mean to say is that, I am feminist; therefore I oppose capitalism and all oppression, perpetuated by the existence of states. I believe that fundamentally feminism has always been of the left, and always opposed hierarchy, which should be demolished in all structures and relationships.
A frequent topic of dispute is the role of men. Whilst all liberation movements must be open to communicate with those who do not define within said oppressed group, it seems feminism still lives in a shadow of obsession with previous waves. We are silenced from the fear of being branded ‘man-haters’, and told our raw honesty is segregationist. Whilst it is frequently useful to receive the input and perspectives of pro-feminist men, we must consider the impact this has on the strength of safe spaces for women. Consider then, the ‘apathy staircase’ (we experience, we reflect, we act) in that many feminists will be moved to action from their own personal experiences. It is important that these stories can be shared and discussed, without continuously having to justify or moderate emotions for fear of offending, by generalizing, men. Indeed I have just justified myself.
I would suggest that it is somewhat rare to attend mixed gender meetings and hear truly honest and open discussions of personal experiences. I believe this can be achieved by more women-only spaces. In actuality, for a man, or other feminists to oppose this on the basis of excluding men is failing to appreciate the privilege pro-feminist men still enjoy – women do not have access to the same methods, resources or spaces as men do on a daily basis. The Guardian for example, in December 2010 reported that 78% of newspaper articles are written by men – the media being a major opportunity for discussion, debate and influence. It should be appreciated that many women have suffered severe violence and abuse, often on more than one occasion, and thus may find it extremely difficult to discuss this in front of men, and that no amount of ‘vouching’ will ease such nerves. I, for one, would not feel at ease to openly address my experiences in the hope of supporting, or building a relationship with other women (who may or may not have had similar experiences), in the presence of a man, whom I could reasonably fear to take a defensive reaction, turn the focus to ‘there are some good men out there’, ‘men experience that too’, or struggle to empathize with what is a daily struggle for women. Whether individual pro-feminists are guilty of this is not the point – what I mean to emphasize is that whether right or wrong, these feelings of distrust do exist, because women are still unequal and do suffer frequently at the hands of men.
Not all meetings need be absent of men, but allowing some to be ensures that women have the opportunity to empower themselves through honest and open discussion, to build a sisterhood with other feminists, and to speak freely without male or misogynist judgement.
If it is problematic to consider BME only spaces unfair or unreasonable to white people, why is it that feminism must so frequently and continuously provide spaces for male participation? Should heterosexuality be represented within all LGBT discussion? I remember clearly a female poet requesting she perform to a women only space and being uninvited because so much noise was made in support of welcoming men. The result? A woman was denied an opportunity to participate, so that men instead, could. Still today, I find a depressing amount of blogs, literature and meetings are so focused on representing a unity between men and women, they’ve forgotten what the cause is – empowering the women.
Yet on the other hand, where these spaces are provided, they have frequently fallen into a vicious trap of oppressive exclusivity: most predominantly of trans women. As the ‘RadFem’ Conference approached, it was encouraging to see so much outrage at the explicit exclusion of trans women. This in itself is an example of failing to understand privilege, and also the inequality within women as a definition. Not all women are automatically equal amongst other women, which is why there is such an essential focus on the priority of intersectionality. Take for example, a working class woman and a rich woman. Whilst they may both struggle for gender liberation, structures used to oppress fall heavier on the working woman. On the issue of childcare – whilst both women may fall under the expectation to be maternal and self-sacrificing, fundamentally the rich women is more likely to have the financial means to remove herself from that role, through child-minding perhaps. Or she could maybe afford to avoid the frustration of working long hours and then having to effectively work for free within the home as a cleaner/minder/superwoman. Now consider transwomen are likely to suffer suicide, sexual intimidation and attack, and prejudice within the workplace and the home in a different and possibly more frequently extreme way than a cis woman. All oppression is connected, but the further away you are from the white, cis man, the further tip the scales of equality.
Many feminists argue that trans women blur the distinction between gender and sex, but this is a shallow reaction, which completely dismisses the impact of patriarchy on trans women akin to cis women. If, for example, a trans woman does display stereotypical ‘feminine’ traits (shaving, clothing, make up), this does not mean to say she considers this the epitome of womanhood (as many RadFems would have you believe) – merely that she may suffer the same societal pressures as any other women. And surely as feminists, we oppose such stereotypes of beauty as a product of male dominance in the first place, so why use it either way as a value of women?
Transphobia is a huge detriment to feminism and it must be opposed wherever we find it. All women only spaces must be accommodating for trans women. How is it that self defining women are so frequently shunned from spaces whilst men are accepted? If the transphobic argument is that transwomen are anti-feminist because they supposedly equate sex and gender, is this not the same as some feminist movements insisting that ones gender must be reflected by their sex? To say that a woman can only be a woman should she be born with a vagina is the same as saying her sex is her gender. This is insulting to the achievements of our sisters before us.
So it becomes clear that there is often no good direction of mobilization or inclusion/exclusion currently. It can feel like feminism is stuck in a rut. If there is one thing the last few years have shown us (not only in feminist movements), it is that diverse, engaging and flexible organisation works. Not every feminist is active, not every apathetic individual is misogynist – we need to find ways of stimulating fresh ideas and new dialogue. No revolution was born of repetition. People are tired of the same meetings, with the same speakers, for the same papers to focus on the same recruitment drive. Whatever we may think about the actual politics of Occupy, or SlutWalk or UKUncut, people are interested and want to be involved. Once you can take the first step to get attention, and mobilize on a mass scale, then the real evolution of movement begins. The beauty of recent protests is that they are organic and, at least initially, aim to be more autonomous and mass led.
I do not think we are lacking the drive, nor anger to act. The problem comes when this raw energy is dampened by parties and groups contorting into political vultures, that rip apart and pressurize individuals, until the day comes when they are so exhausted and so alienated that they become disengaged. This can also mean that wherein somebody does not adhere to the same beliefs or structures as those already set up; there is little alternative to explore.
Why do we need activists to be so categorized? Why is the left so devastatingly sectarian that it becomes almost impossible for genuinely united fronts? Is this in part responsible for damaging feminist action? Many activists would not identify themselves initially as feminist, but as socialist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, anarchist, and argue that feminism is incorporated within that. The issue with this is the lack of priority on the women’s movement, which probably has less controversial demands and a relative consensus across the board, but is blown aside because of a fixation on party politics, and the screams of over-dramatic insults across a battlefield of fangs bared, sign-up sheets ready. Let’s talk before we get the debit cards out.
For feminism to evolve and progress, we need to ensure there is room for diversity and spaces to explore our pasts and our direction. We are cursed by failings of the old waves – being sold back to us the tools of our liberation (apparently now, sexual liberation can be bought in Ann Summers). We become stuck and disjointed. As radicals we should radicalize our perceptions of everything, not only in language, gender, sexuality and how we organize – but also our relationships between each other. To discover new waves and further our emancipation, we must remember to continue turning the tide.