“Why are you a feminist?” “Why aren’t you?”

Posted by blatantblithe on August 27, 2011 Blog posts | Personal | | One comment

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Two weeks ago, I went to UK Feminista’s Summer School with a few girls from the Swansea Feminist Network, a 2-day conference on feminist activism in Birmingham. I had a really fantastic time!  The talks were mostly very inspiring, interesting, and informative, and I left with a feeling of renewed strident feminist rage, feeling more able to defend my feminist politics, and with lots of ideas for Swansea Feminist Network.

The highlight of the first day was the workshop on race, gender, and the beauty industry.  The facilitators Sandhya Sharma and Chitra Nagarajan divided the room into groups, gave each group one or two mainstream beauty magazines, and asked us to tear out every image of a person of colour, and tack it to the wall on our left.  The resulting wall of images took us by surprise – the people of colour found in the pages were usually either celebrities whose lives were being picked apart by the likes of Heat magazine (e.g. Oprah Winfrey’s daughter’s drug habit), or they were fashion models featured in ads where their race was stereotyped (in adverts such as this).

Sunday’s highlight for me was the talk on reproductive rights, run by former MP Dr. Evan Harris (what a dude!), and Darinka Aleksic from Abortion Rights.  It was frightening to learn how the government has increased its efforts to restrict women’s access to abortions, handing reproductive health advisory services over to religious, anti-choice organisations.  Aleksic informed us of the lies that such organisations spread to pregnant women seeking abortions when they seek counselling, e.g. that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, and that they would birth the aborted “child” at home a few days after the procedure.  Another shocking discovery was learning of the arrival of American Christian pro-life groups in the UK, and their extreme tactics used to restrict abortion access.

I’ve written a more extensive review of Summer School on the Swansea Feminist Network blog if you’re interested in reading it, with info on each workshop I attended, and some criticisms of the event.

When I came home from the event, I got to thinking about feminism in everyday life.  Being a shy person, I find it very difficult to stand up for my feminist beliefs when questioned.  Something about feminism really gets under people’s skin, and brings out the asshole in them, and when you’re attacked it can be so difficult to defend your corner… especially when it’s clear that certain people are only interested in having an argument rather than actually learning anything from the conversation.  During my time at university, I met a few male students who attempted to undermine my feminist beliefs in this way, as if they were being so original and “critical”.  They would say, as though it were a self-evident truth, that feminists want dominance, not equality, there’s no need for feminism in the UK anymore, that we’re all complaining about nothing, that women naturally ARE better at cooking/cleaning/childcare so why go against nature blah blah blah listen to meee!  UGH. It’s as if the patriarchy hands out flashcards with irritating talking points.  One man even had the audacity to tell me, in all seriousness, that the most oppressed in today’s society are white men.  Seriously.

And then there are the people I meet who, upon finding out that I am a feminist (usually through my involvement with the Swansea Feminist Network), will persistently ask provocative (read: offensive) questions, constantly trying to catch me out.  Some real-life examples:

  • “Why don’t feminists shave their underarms? Do they WANT to repel men?”
  • “But privileging women over men is reverse sexism!” (as a feminist musician, I’ve heard this so many times that it’s almost laughable.)
  • “Why do so many women lie about being raped?”
  • “Why should I care about feminism? I’m a woman and I’ve never been oppressed.”
  • “…patriarchy? That’s very conspiratorial/paranoid, dontcha think?”
  • “But I ENJOY making sexist jokes! Who are you to stop me!? Free speech blah blah censorship pooh pooh!”

(for more examples, I refer you to anti-feminist bingo, something I wrote about in my previous zine)

For people who prided themselves on being enlightened, intelligent, critically-thinking individuals, they were pretty fucking blinkered when it came to feminism.

As mentioned in my review over at the SFN blog, many workshops at Summer School were derailed by discussions of whether the word “feminism” needs to be changed to something less exclusive, like “equalism” or “gender equality-ism”.  Perhaps I’m getting old and grouchy, but my patience has recently been wearing very thin with these kinds of pointless debates.  Summer School reminded me of how much we have left to fight for here in the UK – the assault on our reproductive rights, how the cuts are hitting women the hardest, the glass ceiling and gender pay gap, rape culture, oppressive beauty standards, etc.  These are the things we need to be focusing our energies on, not changing the name we fight for these things under.  The whole “the f-word isn’t inclusive enough” argument implies a fear of being seen as too radical, of trying to stave off criticisms of the kinds mentioned above, having an easy life.  The thing is, we can’t forget that feminism is a radical idea for some, even in its most basic form (i.e. that women even are oppressed, or that they deserve equal treatment).  Besides, as someone correctly pointed out in a Summer School workshop, the Daily Mail et al will hate us whatever we call ourselves.

We shouldn’t let ourselves get preoccupied with non-issues like the word “feminism” – we have our own fight.  And, despite my shyness, I’m making an effort to fight the good fight; to stand up for my feminist beliefs when questioned, to call people out when they’re being offensive, and to outright tell people that if they’re just arguing for the sake of arguing then the conversation is over.  Fuck having an easy life. People will disagree with you whatever you do, so you may as well do what you think is right.

The ideal response to the question “Why are you a feminist?” should not be to reel off a series of memorized statistics to “prove” that we have good reason to believe that feminism is still needed, to gently reassure that we actually love men, to illustrate all the ways that we are still friendly and fun, or to allow the odd sexist/racist/ableist joke pass by in conversation from fear of being labelled “humourless”.  As writer Rosalind Miles argued at the opening talk at Summer School, the response should be: “Why aren’t you?”.

p.s. if you liked this, you might like to read the other blog posts in my feminism tag!

1 Comment

  • Hannah said on Aug 28, 2011 4:51 pm

    Great post, Cath. Sounds like an interesting event, and I like the “why aren’t you?” response – I’ll have to use it myself! x

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