What does feminism mean to you? Does it conjure up clichéd stereotypes, tired old tropes of women in dungarees, burning bras and chaining themselves to railings?
(Image via Starlights)
Dungarees: they are probably a quite comfortable but difficult to wear item of clothing. Feminists never burnt bras: this never happened. Of course suffragettes did chain themselves to railings, it was a protest tactic used throughout history by many social movements. To me, that seems brave and risky but most powerful protest actions are. How far would you go to get your voice heard, when you are oppressed and your voice is discounted?
‘Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.’ – Marie Shear.
I’ve been in various different situations when it comes to feminism. I started off my own journey after I did a module in Gender and Society at University as part of my Sociology degree. This led to my (now-defunct) blog taking on a feminist slant, and I became involved in the online feminist community in 2006. It was an interesting period of time where activism, blogging, and community collided, and certain websites sprung up, such as The F-Word, Hollaback, Feministing, Million Women Rise, Object and e-zines like Subtext.
This grassroots online feminism led me to take part in London Feminist Network’s Reclaim the Night when it was started up again in 2006. I attended a second Rcclaim the Night march in 2007. Mainly though, it was the blogging and the community that I was most active in, and this was also the beginning of what is now known as ‘armchair activism’ where online petitions are signed. At the time, they had more effect and there were a number of successful campaigns.
(Image via Starlights)
I became disillusioned with things during 2008. There was a kind of chasm between debating the finer points of things and actually doing something about it. Perhaps there was a generation gap in some way between second wave and third wave feminists. Either way, I felt as though I needed to take a step back from the community for a while – I just didn’t have the energy for constant debates and wanted a different environment and perspective.
I had applied for an MA in Women’s Studies at York so I was back at York and in a more supportive, empathetic environment, where I met women with different perspectives and ideas. It was a much more nuanced approach to feminism where I learnt more about intersectional feminism and the politics of identity. So I have experienced both grassroots and academic feminism and have great respect for both approaches.
‘Some people ask: “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender.
It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.
For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem acknowledge that.’ – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Having a look back over the archives from my feminist blog, I can see that I had quite a gung-ho approach to things, and my passion for feminism comes across strongly. With some distance, I can appreciate that aspect of myself: I was a young woman finding her feet and her voice, and experiencing passion for a human rights cause. I still have passion for women’s rights and the different inequalities we experience. Nuance comes with time and the lessons that life teaches us, and I have absorbed the lessons that feminism has taught me about the world and myself.
I still strongly believe that we live in difficult and dangerous times for women, even when on the surface all seems to have changed. There all kinds of issues to tackle, from domestic violence, rape, body image, trolling, attitudes, the pay gap, trafficking…the list goes on. The shifting social environment of our times brings new challenges. On the other hand, we can also celebrate things, and I for one, although I recognise the many issues we all face, am glad to be a woman, simply because this is how I have experienced life. There are things about it that make me happy.
(Image via Starlights)
There is also something extremely powerful about feminism. Say what you like about it – it has the power to change how a woman, or a girl, sees herself and her place in the world. When I was introduced to it, it was like taking off a pair of rose-tinted spectacles and seeing the connections between social, institutional, cultural and economic systems of oppression across a range of different inequalities. It isn’t for nothing that women in the 1950s and 60s felt it was an awakening. You wake up, and it is a hard truth but also a very comforting one too, to know that you are not alone in all those things you have experienced.
‘There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.’ – Audre Lorde.
My approach to feminism has changed though. I will always support the rights of women and people who identify as women, the world over, to exercise autonomy and to make the lives they want to make. Even if the things they believe or do don’t align with my own politics. It is one of the hardest lessons I learnt about feminism (and all activism) – that you can’t force someone else to believe what you believe. Life doesn’t work that way.
You don’t have to agree with everything. There isn’t just one way of seeing or experiencing the world. There are many different ways to be a feminist, and there are many different feminisms. There isn’t one particular ideal feminist that we all have to measure up to. Sometimes we are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
The biggest thing we can do for each other is to recognise and celebrate that women are people. We’re all living our lives, doing our thing, thinking, dreaming and feeling. We’re at least half of the planet, and can do anything we put our minds to. I’m grateful for the generations of women and their allies who fought for our rights and the generations now – and in the future – who will continue to do the same.
‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.’ – Audre Lorde.