What does it mean to be a feminist?

I have been thinking a lot recently about how we feminists, women, progressives and activists participate in a world that is build on, and maintained by, so much injustice. I have been thinking about the role of incrementalism versus revolution (and the fact that it is difficult to even say ‘revolution’ in earnest, despite several having taken place in my lifetime); and I have been thinking about the reason why I became political, and party political at that, in the first place – which is that I believe how we do things matters as well as what it is we are trying to achieve.

I approached Jessa Crispin’s ‘Why I am not a feminist’ with some apprehension. I do not have much time for people who want to tear down on diminish the ways women are trying to navigate and challenge the patriarchal society we live in because they are not perfect.

That is not what Crispin does.

Crispin’s manifesto is effectively a call for women not to simply strive to be equal to men in a system that is built on breaking people, on keeping the poor poor, on keeping white people at the top and black people at the bottom. It is an argument against simply fighting for a seat at the boardroom table, particularly if that boardroom is overseeing the abuse and subjugation of others.

It is not – get ready for the double negative – it is not a call not to participate because the world is imperfect. It’s the opposite. It’s a call to actively participate but to do so with accountability and with clear principles.

“The refusal to participate is to allow yourself to be hurt and shocked and fucked up, is a betrayal to the people with whom you claim alliance. Women. If you want to create a better world and a better existence for your people, you must participate in the imperfect world that exists now.”  – Crispin.

I think Crispin is right that at some point many of us, and the feminist movement at least that I know and am a part of, has stopped reimagining the world as different and instead focused on how we women can gain more power and equality within it. I wrote a blog last week about what it’s been like to live in the world as a girl and as a woman over the last twenty six years, and in it I reflected that I think we are approaching a crucial time for change.

Perhaps right now, at a time when global warming threatens every element of our existence. Right now, when we are facing crucial choices about how we build and power our cities and our communities. Right now, when we grapple with having the largest number of displaced people ever in history desperately seeking safety and survival. Perhaps now is the time for us to be bold in imagining what a better world could like.

This is what the last pages of Crispin’s manifesto call on us to do.

 

Participating in the patriarchy

I have always been surprised when people ask me whether there’s anything the Greens could do that would make me step away from my party. Of course there is. There are many, many grievous things the Greens – like any political party – could do that, if they were sufficiently distant from the reasons why I joined the party, would mean I would have to leave because the party would no longer represent or be fighting for the things I value. 

This too ought to be true of feminism.

Crispin writes about the label of ‘feminism’ become popularised to the extent that it is losing its substantive meaning as a principled social movement. There is a suggestion in Crispin’s work that becoming mainstream perhaps inherently renders feminism less radical, less principled, or less substantive. I don’t agree with that. I can’t see any reason for that to necessarily be the case, although I do agree that often mainstreaming does serve to dilute and soften our demands and our movements.

However, I do agree that ‘being a feminist’ has in many ways become a goal in and of itself. This, I believe, is both nonsensical and dangerous.

remember clearly when Michaelia Cash became the Minister for Women and said that she was not a feminist. I was outraged. I was so angry that someone could have the title of representing women and not share the label that I thought denoted their commitment to basic tenants – like equality, an acknowledgement that we had not reached equality and a commitment to work towards it.

Why did I think that Michaelia Cash, Minister for Women in a government that systematically locks up and abuses some of the most vulnerable women on the planet on Manus Island and Nauru, a woman in a party whose state counterparts have vowed to vote against decriminalising abortion in Queensland, and a woman who is part of a party that systematically denies support to the poorest members of our community, single parents, young people, people with disabilities and women fleeing violence…. why did I think that Michael Cash should call herself a feminist?

Labels mean something because they are a shortcut. They allow us to find our friends and our foes easily. But they mean nothing if no values sit behind them.

I agree with Crispin: it’s time to stop demanding people simply declare themselves to be feminist. And, perhaps it’s time to stop accepting that everyone can be a feminist irrespective of their political ideology, their work, or their priorities.

Can you be part of a political party that routinely disregards women, both in their ranks and in the community, and be a feminist?

Can you work in industries that destroy the land Aboriginal men and women are fighting to protect, and be a feminist?

Can you be a lawyer, like I want to be, and participate in a system that locks up and deprives predominantly poor people of their freedom, community and hope?

I think these are important questions. Not because we ever will, or should, have some omnipresent Feminist Arbiter who determines who can and cannot join the club, but because our movement is rendered meaningless if pretend that our choices don’t have consequences or that participating isn’t political.

“It follows that women who are part of the system are not necessarily any better, morally speaking, than the men who developed and maintained it. Women are now lawyers and judges who put innocent men and women in jail, who exploit the poor, who support institutionalised racism. Women are now politicians who are rewarding the mega-rich with even more money at the expense of the poor.” – Crispin.

 

Power

Spattered throughout Crispin’s manifesto are her reflections on power. Specifically, the claim often made by women that they don’t have any.

I have a good friend who I met in politics who has taught a lot about power. She taught me that we all have power. Different amounts of power, different types of power and definitely different avenues to use that power – but we all have power. We pretend we don’t because to acknowledge its existence would mean we had to take responsibility for our lives and choices, and for the impact we have on those with less power.

Crispin writes about this difficult intersection of power and powerlessness, of oppression and partial advancement and of ultimately what it is we want when we talk about power.

“This sense of despair is caused by exhaustion. We tried hard to change society, to change the world, to build a space for women within the system. That did not fully work because it could not work. The system was built to keep us out. Now it’s easier to focus on ourselves and what we don’t have than what we do. It is also easier to focus on how we have been thwarted than to notice there are other routes available to us..”

… and she writes:

“It’s not that we don’t have the power to create new lives and new forms of community. It’s that if we do, we will not benefit from the patriarchal reward of power, which is what we have been taught to want.” – Crispin.

I understand why we focus on powerlessness, at least some of the time. I did it last week in a blog post! Crispin sums it up beautifully when she says that chronically these harms can simply be “to provide company to women,” so that they know they are not alone and that the harm they have suffered is real. In a society that still actively harms women and then tells them they are crazy, it is important that we share our stories with each other so that we don’t allow other people’s narratives about us to become true.

But there must be (and I think that there is) more to our fight than sharing our stories of suffering.  And that’s where power comes in.

There are many ways that we exercise power. I share Crispin’s concern that increasingly women are fighting back and trying to reclaim power by exerting power over easy targets – women who use the wrong language, men who make stupid jokes, feminists who display ignorance etc. That’s not to say we shouldn’t call out bad behaviour, violence, misogyny, racism and the rest of it. I think the question comes down to why. Are we calling out these people because they are using their power to inflict harm on others? Or, are we calling out these people because it shows that we are right and they are wrong and we get to step on their shoulder blades and climb one rung higher.

 

Rejecting individualism

A thread that runs through Crispin’s book is a rejection of the hyper-individualism which encourages us to seek justice, success and power for ourselves without ensuring that all women benefit. I think many of us have accepted that the advancement of individual women to positions of power will naturally benefit us all.

But why? If we are comfortable rejecting the fallacy of trickle down economics because we have seen in our lives the way in which power and wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a few; why would the advancement of women within the same system be any different?

I understand why the narratives of self empowerment and individualised success are alluring – particularly for those like me who are close to power but not quite there. I’m white, tertiary educated, affluent and have just embarked upon my career – why would I risk personal success that is within reach, for a collective movement that may or may not succeed? Why would I risk success that I can quantify within the system we currently live in, for one that I can’t even fully imagine? Why would I give up being on the top, when we may not see in our lifetimes the collective success of women?

These are some of the reasons why I think it so much easier for us as feminists to pretend that individual success will deliver universal benefit. That’s not say that women in positions of leadership, living and working by feminist values, using power to promote and advance others is not useful. It is. But it is to say that its utility is necessarily limited.

“Fighting for your own self-interest, without the awareness of your motives or the ramifications of your success, does not make you a hero. It makes you the same as any other selfish, ambitious jerk.” – Crispin

While guilty of this, I also agree.

 

So what does it mean?

I’ve been sitting in bed (with lungs full of phlegm) since 3am thinking about what this means. I am studying a subject in my masters at the moment about how lawyers can work with communities to create lasting systemic change, and one of the most interesting takes I’ve read so far is called ‘It’s about Power, Not Policy: Movement Lawyering for Large-Scale Social Change’  by Alexi Nunn Freeman and Jim Freeman.

It starts by describing something that almost every activist will be familiar with. It describes the “scenario that has never happened in the history of advocacy” that is, when you go into a room full of powerful people and you explain the problem and the injustice, and outline a solution that advances everyone and alleviates suffering, and those in positions of power thank you for opening their eyes to the systematic oppression going on in their communities and implement reform immediately.

It’s never happened. Because, as with the struggle women are engaged in, those in positions of power rarely want to give it up.

What Freeman and Freeman go on to discuss though is the need for collective responses, for collective advancement, to these concentrations of power – because there is no way their power can be matched otherwise. As an aspiring lawyer this rings particularly true if I think about the enormous and powerful structural factors that lead to mass incarceration, for example. There will never be enough lawyers working alone with individual clients to make a dent in ever expanding prison population numbers. It requires a collective response to the poverty that drives crime and to the vested political interests in exploiting crime rates and fear for public appeal. We must not pretend that oppression exists because of tragic chance or misfortune. It exists because people benefit from it, and so they fight back when challenged.

I don’t think there is a panacea answer to the question of where-to-from-here for our struggle for equality. But I do think there is clear need for us to push back against the capitalist, hyper individual, corporate coopting of feminism and to start working out how we work together – and I mean truly together, not just with people who look or sound or speak like us – to dismantle the systems that are breaking people.

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