Feminism: now for the good news

Women's oppression remains a major feature of British society, even if it sometimes looks rather different than it did during that last big wave of feminism in the 1970s. But the good news, argues Catherine Redfern, is that feminism is alive and kicking too

June 16, 2010 · 15 min read

You’d be forgiven for thinking that feminism today is in a terrible state. We all know the score by now, surely: rape conviction rates are at record lows; girls’ and boys’ career choices are still split along gender lines; women are being paid less than men; there’s concern about the ‘sexualisation’ of girls; politicians are threatening to roll back the clock on abortion rights; climate change is threatening women – the poorest of the poor – worldwide. And that’s just picking a few things off the top of my head.

In the face of all this, what have women been doing about it? Nothing apparently, according to the mainstream narrative of feminism over the past few years. Shrugging our shoulders, insisting we’re empowered and painting our nails while Rome burns.

Young women particularly have borne the brunt of this criticism, routinely told they’re apathetic or anti-feminist. At a recent feminist conference in Australia, 23-year-old organiser Rosa Campbell complained to a reporter: ‘We’re told all the time we have raunchy pornographic sex, binge-drink, pole-dance and are not active feminists. We’ve taken all the choices the seventies feminists won and used them for our own oppression. We’re ungrateful and rude.’

This has been the dominant narrative in the UK too. Feminism ‘has sunk into mindless hedonism’ according to one recent Telegraph article, laced with disapproving overtones about young women’s depravity, and illustrated with the mandatory photo of a group of young women partying in the street. Curiously, young women’s apparent rejection of feminism is presented as proof of their superficiality, while at the same time real feminists are dismissed and ridiculed.

The truth is rather different.

Beyond the doom and gloom

In my new book with Kristin Aune, Reclaiming the F Word, we’re presenting the good news: that feminism is being reclaimed in ever greater numbers. We’re not just arguing that more of us should embrace feminism afresh; we’re arguing that this is already happening, with younger activists fully involved. And we can prove it.

We’ve witnessed this during our own experience of feminist activism over the past ten years, Kristin as a sociology lecturer and active member of various feminist groups, and myself as founder and editor of The F Word (www.thefword.org.uk) a volunteer-run, UK-based feminist website. Throughout our twenties we witnessed our peers increasingly organise new events, groups, actions, protests, festivals and conferences. Sometimes these were reinventions of ‘second wave’ feminist forms, such as Reclaim the Night marches or national conferences. Sometimes they took new forms, such as feminist blogs, websites, Twitter campaigns, Ladyfest festivals or ‘unconferences’. Today the growth shows no signs of stopping, with new feminist groups being formed all over the country and new members flocking to join long-established groups such as the Fawcett Society.

As we investigated the extent to which women today support feminism, we were further encouraged. When asked about key feminist principles, the vast majority of women and men will support them. But even the numbers of those who identify as feminists are heartening too. Various surveys tend to show that between 25-30 per cent of women will call themselves feminists. While this is frequently reported as a failure of feminism (‘only 25 per cent of women’), we feel this is actually positive. The act of labelling oneself with a political identity is something that people are normally rather reluctant to do. Furthermore, taking on the identity of ‘feminist’ (or similar identities such as ‘womanist’) suggests some sort of commitment to activism, even at a very basic level. Wouldn’t any activist movement want a quarter of their community signed up to it?

Finally, we undertook our own survey, of almost 1,300 UK feminists who are involved with these new groups, organisations and events. The results supported what we had already observed: three quarters of those who responded were under 35; about 62 per cent were in their twenties or under. We had responses from more than 50 different groups, from national issue-specific campaigns, local groups and web-based groups as well as individuals.

This doesn’t mean that older women are not involved in these groups too. But it is clear that we can put to bed the myth that young feminists aren’t involved in feminism.

Reclaiming feminism from what – and why?

So why, you might ask, should feminism need to be reclaimed in the first place? Reclaimed from what? The answer is, partly, from the kind of simplistic, negative discussions around feminism that we’ve seen over the past few years.

In the UK, the mainstream media has been slow to recognise contemporary feminist activism, with many protests, events, groups and activities routinely going unreported. It’s only recently, perhaps due in part to several feminist books published this year (including Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion and Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls), as well as the tireless efforts of activists, that some quarters of the media have finally picked up on feminism as newsworthy. Even the Telegraph somewhat grudgingly accepted that feminism is showing ‘signs of life’ (while still managing to use the words ‘dead’ and ‘corpse’ to describe it).

We can look at feminism’s representation in the mainstream media to shed light on how attempts have been made to appropriate or co-opt it into something less threatening to the status quo. Women’s magazines, for example, tend to present feminism as generally a good thing, but only if ‘new’ feminists with their ‘high-heels and lashings of mascara’ can be positioned against the supposedly serious, scary, older ones, pandering to those who think that what a woman looks like matters more than what she does. Feminism is re-branded as fluffy and unthreatening, more about claiming an ’empowering’ (some would say meaningless) identity than collective action or concrete changes. Is it any wonder that many people’s view of contemporary feminism is negative?

While the message that feminists come in different shapes and sizes (so to speak) is a good one, it shouldn’t necessarily be the main priority whenever feminism is discussed, at the expense of actual politics.

This curious relationship with feminism – that it’s absorbed but in a watered down form that doesn’t really challenge the status quo – is not unique to feminism, of course. Younger feminists have grown up in an increasingly commercialised world, brilliantly described by Naomi Klein in her classic No Logo. It’s no surprise that feminism’s image has been swallowed up and distorted, when even 1960s political protest songs are being used to sell products.

Nina Power argues in One Dimensional Woman that in this climate, ‘Almost everything turns out to be “feminist” – shopping, pole-dancing, even eating chocolate’ – and feminism is sold as the ‘latest must-have accessory.’ Some blame feminists themselves for this, but the people who tell us eating chocolate is feminist are advertisers, not (in my experience anyway) feminists themselves. In practice, the idea that young women embrace feminism because it somehow gains them street cred is laughable. In our survey, 63 per cent of women reported experiencing negative consequences from identifying as a feminist, ranging from ridicule to homophobic abuse, threats or even attacks. (Interestingly, the male pro-/feminists reported far fewer negative consequences than the female.) Identifying as a feminist today, in the face of extreme hostility, is a brave thing to do. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of fashionable. And at least a quarter of women are prepared to do it. To me, that’s inspiring.

But this representation of contemporary feminism as being about ‘lipstick liberation’ seems commonplace. The average layperson might imagine that contemporary feminists are mainly concerned about such crucially important topics such as ‘Is Katie Price a feminist icon?’ or ‘Can I wear heels/make-up/do x/y/z and be a feminist?’

The negative representation of contemporary feminists has perhaps been influenced by debates in the US over ‘third-wave’ feminism. While I have always considered this term a compliment to older feminists rather than a snub, the idea of ‘a growing conflict between two generations’, as Women’s eNews described it in 2002, seems to have coloured the debate.

It is possible that what seemed like generational conflict was partly a necessary evolution of feminist ideas and practices in a changing context, in particular to try to make feminism accessible and more inclusive. But interviewed for an article in Conducive magazine (‘Drowning in the shallow end: third wave feminism’, July/Aug 2009), Daisy Hernandez, managing editor of the US race and politics newsmagazine Colorlines, argues that ‘much of the discussion of the newness of third wave feminism comes out of an active desire from daughters to separate themselves from the previous generation. “A lot of it is in opposition, a very particular mother-daughter dynamic,” Hernandez said, noting many women of color have a very different attachment to the older generation: “We very much see ourselves as proud daughters.”‘

With this idea of ‘generational in-fighting’ in mind, it is interesting to contrast the attitudes of the UK-based feminists we surveyed. In our survey, in which the ethnicity of respondents broadly reflected the UK population, most felt that the important feminist issues of today were quite similar to those of the 1970s. And while 48 per cent worked with feminists of a range of ages, the 30 per cent who interacted with feminists of the same age generally did so for practical reasons rather than political (many respondents were at university, for example). Perhaps most tellingly, when we asked who inspires them most, respondents’ own mothers and grandmothers were among the most frequently mentioned. On hearing this at a recent conference, a second-wave generation feminist told me: ‘We would have said our mothers inspired us towards feminism too, but not in a good way!’

So this image of contemporary feminists as first superficial and second antagonistic towards older generations does not ring true of the majority of feminists active today that we’ve surveyed, met and know personally. The feminists we know are fierce, intelligent, independent-minded, and reluctant to be pigeon-holed. When we asked the feminists in our survey what issues concerned them, Katie Price’s status as a feminist icon was not, you’ll be interested to know, one of their key concerns. No, they were concerned about big, serious issues: violence against women, economic inequality, childcare, equal pay, political representation, sexism in popular culture, the sex industry, and intersectional issues – racism, transgender issues, class. Concepts like kyriarchy (a modification of patriarchy which includes intersecting structures of domination) are becoming more frequent on the feminist ‘blogosphere’.

The majority of feminists surveyed didn’t identify with any particular ‘type’ of feminism. For those who did, socialist was the most popular choice. Many picked several terms, ranging from radical, womanist, third-wave, anarcha, sex-positive, pro-feminist, to ‘international punk noise feminist’ – although to my disappointment there was only one of those.

Moving forward

It is the simplistic and negative approach to feminism we’ve had over the last few years that contemporary feminists are reclaiming feminism from. An end to the simplistic representations and soundbites; enough with the magazine articles illustrated with burning bras and stories reinforcing stereotypes about feminists. We know those things are distortions of the truth. We also know that the fact that feminism is still being presented in this way proves the point.

Some have assumed that the white, middle class focus of the recent BBC Four Women documentaries is representative of the movement as a whole, failing to recognise the mainstream media’s role as a gatekeeper as to the types of feminism it is willing to represent. (I appreciate the irony that as a co-author of a book, it is people like me that are given the opportunities to speak.) But while there are certainly issues still to be resolved within feminist groups around intersecting oppressions, and improvements to be made in terms of diversity and inclusion, feminism is a lot broader than those who make it onto TV and we shouldn’t assume that feminist work isn’t being done out of the limelight.

What most inspires me are those women working at the grassroots level, whose activism we’ve tried to give a flavour of in our book: the teenagers writing their zines in their bedroom; the volunteers at the rape crisis centre, the women organising for better childcare services, the cleaners striking for a living wage, the anarcha-feminists organising collectively, and the bloggers staying up late into the night, reporting on these actions in their spare time.

Feminism isn’t what we’re told it is by advertisers, magazines, or anyone else in power. Feminism is not about endless tedious debates about whether doing X or Y makes you a feminist. It’s not a club with a list of rules that you are in constant danger of being thrown out of. Each of us comprises a jigsaw piece that adds up to a vibrant, diverse feminist movement that is in constant flux, evolution and change. It can’t be represented by a few organisations, individuals or manifestos. Feminism’s diversity is for me, and for most of those we surveyed, a strength rather than a weakness.

So we need to keep sharing feminist ideas outside of the mainstream media as well as within it, whether through volunteer-run blogs or photocopied zines passed around. We need to highlight feminist activism that doesn’t get mentioned or acknowledged in the mainstream. If feminism is to be reclaimed, it should be for all of us. What do we need to do with a reclaimed feminism? Well, where to begin?

Feminism touches almost every aspect of our lives, from the personal to the public sphere, from a woman’s relationship with her own body, to sex and relationships, violence, education and work, politics and religion, and our culture. The issues that concern feminists today are not totally new issues. In fact some of the ‘old’ issues, like justice for rape victims and the pressure to conform to beauty ideals, to take two examples, have got a lot worse. Some issues are still, sadly, unresolved, like violence against women, women’s representation in politics, equal pay, and the equal distribution of caring responsibilities.

But other issues are coming to the fore in a changing context. Women and religion is becoming an increasingly hot topic, with religious, secular and atheist feminists active in different ways. Religious women see themselves used as political pawns whilst at the same time their voices are marginalised, and many fear a resurgence of religious fundamentalism. The internet has had a major impact on feminist networking and activism, as well as providing a new arena for struggle against misogyny. We live in an increasingly globalised culture, and feminist struggles around the world are something we’re interested in, from global poverty and climate change to the conditions of workers in factories (mostly women) that make clothes exported to the west. Women’s health globally is a huge issue; HIV infection rates, deaths in childbirth and female genital mutilation sadly are all still firmly on the agenda.

The growth and influence of the sex industry has led to an increasingly sexualised culture, with many concerned about the impact of misogynistic and racist pornography on teenagers and children. We also have to deal with sex trafficking while trying to find ways to protect and help those in the sex industry. And in an increasingly commercialised world, where we’re encouraged to believe that liberation can be bought and advertisements bombard our senses daily, we need to challenge the influence of commercial interests in women’s lives (for example, the medicalisation of female sexuality).

So while there is cause to be optimistic about feminism there is still much to do. Feminism questions everything, from the issues we prioritise in politics, to the way we value certain jobs in society (cleaners and teachers, say, compared to footballers and bankers). The very structure of politics is up for debate. Some feminists prefer a move away from a ‘winner takes all’, competitive version of political power to an expectation that equality should be guaranteed. For many feminists, feminism goes hand in hand with an optimistic, radically different vision of how the world could be a better place for everyone. That’s why feminists are so inspiring: they’re ambitious, think big and take action, both individually and collectively.

Often, the problems we’ve identified can’t all be solved by simple legislative changes or increased funding. In many cases we’re looking at nothing less than a massive long-term change in society’s attitudes. So, cultural representations of women and men are an increasingly important battleground, and cultural as well as political activism is a major feature of feminism today. Actions like writing, blogging, subvertising and critiquing cultural products such as song lyrics, films and TV shows are often considered indulgent or a less effective form of activism. But these actions do more than preach to the converted. At The F Word, we’ve received many emails telling us that we’ve helped to change readers’ minds about various issues. Other feminist writers and bloggers report similar reactions. In a world that thinks that there’s no need for feminism, these activists are helping to point out why it’s still necessary and bring more people into the movement.

Feminism is about making changes that improve the lives of women (and many would argue, men too). Let’s keep focused on that, come together on issues that we agree on, and make the most of this enthusiastic groundswell of activists.

Catherine Redfern is co-author, with Kristin Aune, of Reclaiming The F Word: The New Feminist Movement (Zed Books, June 2010) and is founder of www.thefword.org.uk

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