Everyday feminism vs everyday sexism

A debate about the feminist economy cannot be brought to the school gates, but a discussion on sexting, advertising and tuition fees can. That's what everyday feminism is and why it must be truly diverse and accessible, says Aisha Mirza.

I have become impatient, constantly shrouded in a feeling of urgency. Debates about cultural relativity are good. Amending the default white middle-class feminism that leaves so many women unrepresented is good. Writing blogs is good. But now I want to know what we are doing and who we are doing it with.

We can’t genetically engineer a vagina dentata that will take over the world (yet), but we can fight back against the gross misogyny that saturates our society and we can do it in daring, creative and hilarious ways – especially once we accept that no two feminists are the same but we are all activists. This is the ethos of everyday feminism - the lesser-reported form of direct action being carried out by individual women every day. Everyday feminism occurs in moments: the moment where you stop doing all the housework, the moment where you lobby your council for affordable childcare, or the moment when you finally have a response to street harassment. Everyday feminism does not rely on textbooks. This is the personal truly becoming the political and this year, women across the UK have begun to wake up to it. This is good news, because we need it.

The UK’s Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition government is relentlessly rolling out a series of policies and austerity measures that swiftly undo decades of feminist fight. I cannot tell you how bored I am of hearing, knowing and saying that sentence. Is it strange that George Osborne’s fateful 2010 budget was implemented without a Gender Impact Assessment? (That’s the carefully developed tool to help policy makers work out if their legislation is going to make women’s lives harder or not). Is it weird that this month’s cabinet reshuffle saw the number of women drop by 20%? (That’s from 5 women to 4 women, to be clear). Does it strike you as peculiar that this week the Government is considering a benefit freeze, the most damaging decision for the poorest women and single mothers in the 2010 budget? No. Me neither. The powerful are so safe in their power, so comfortable up there that they don’t even tiptoe around us. They are brazen and we have no choice but to be bold in response.

So off we went, us feminists, to Bristol, to the third  Summer School organised by the national feminist activism network UK Feminista, to learn skills, meet people and organise for the feminist future. Founder of UK Feminista, Kat Banyard, opened with: “simply waiting for change to happen is boring and dangerous.” Amen, sister, I thought, boring and terrifying. Almost as terrifying as taking action, pouring hours into planning stunts, marches and occupations to make change and being completely, routinely ignored. I arrived at the Summer School - my second - tired and in the middle of some sort of activist burn out. I was unsure of what it is we need to do to make the crucial, long-standing difference and to stop this country, and others, from slipping backwards to a place where rape is viewed with default scepticism and services for women and girl victims of gendered violence are seen as  dispensable. A place where women being allowed to go to university and maybe even study science is considered a win. By the end of the weekend I think I have a good idea.

Everyday feminism has exploded this year with a flurry of articles and more importantly, projects. The Everyday Sexism project has been inundated with examples of sexism experienced by women everyday, and while often harrowing, and offering little fight back, is an important part of championing the value of individual experience. Hollaback! is the campaign to end street harassment by sharing your experiences and pinning them on a collective map.

Given this momentum, it was strange that everyday feminism was pretty absent from this year’s UK Feminista Summer School, lost somewhere between time-old university style talks and social media workshops. Strangely, the talk that came closest to representing this very tangible thread of feminism was one on feminist art: “the social sculpture is a concept in which society is a sculpture and everybody is an artist,” said the workshop facilitator, Will McCallum. Everyday feminism, I thought.

I spoke a bit about everyday feminism in August 2011, at last year’s UK Feminista Summer School, during a panel asking where is “the front line of feminism?”. I began to realise then that we all have our own front lines. For some it’s riding your bike from your house to work without getting sexually harassed. For others it is fighting to keep the local Sure Start centre open so that you can stay in work. Everyday feminism understands each woman has a unique blend of issues to deal with and a unique set of opportunities to fight back. It understands that gender equality issues cannot be neatly tackled by Women’s Hour or tucked away in the woman’s section in the Guardian, but that they are messy and sprawling and different for each woman. They are our front page every day.

Everyday feminism tries to see the struggle on the terms of each individual woman, each with as valid a stake in feminism as the next and encourages us to value that difference while uniting under patriarchy. It understands that all feminism is not about the struggle of all women. It encourages some women to sometimes take a supporting role, the way that some men do within feminism, and other times lead the way. There is space in this feminism, space to grow confident in the validity of your personal story, but feel supported at the same time. The conclusion of a workshop on ‘Organising in your community’ rung true: “people are everywhere and they’re probably nice”. 

I spoke to a woman at this workshop who told me about her frontline. As a mother to young girls, she was horrified by the drive to sexualise girls. She told me about a campaign she was starting, to limit the high heels that were being sold in her local shop to adult sizes. She hastily added the disclaimer “but… I’m not an activist or anything.” This reminded me of a planning meeting I had been to at the beginning of the summer. During the launch of the Olympics, Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC) held a meeting in Stratford to discuss the way local residents affected by the Olympics could and were fighting back. A young man stood up and explained the efforts he had made to rally local residents in the protection of their housing complexes that were being taken over by major news channels. He started with “I’m not an activist, but…”. This is not the same as when people try to distance themselves from feminism… “yeah I want women to have equal rights and opportunities but I’m not a FEMINIST!” This was more, “I’d never have the audacity to call little old me an activist but here is some pretty badass stuff I’ve done…”

What is this mystification of activism? An activist is someone who tries to change something. The focus, when huge groups of feminists get together, should be making that very clear. Everyday feminism works with the assumption that everyone is an activist. And this can take many forms. It can, and often will, include looking inwards, because patriarchy is in our heads too remember. It will often involve limiting the burdens we place on ourselves, or changing our sexual practices, or making some changes at work alongside joining a local childcare cooperative, lobbying the government or occupying a bank.

Encouraging packet of 'man crisps' 'Man crisps'the individual woman to consider herself an activist, and her own every day struggles as worth being active for, is empowering and with empowerment comes energy, fun and perpetuation. You begin to see it everywhere, sexism and opportunities to fight it, everywhere. A feminist Summer School is no reprieve. In the queue at lunch, a friend noticed a woman eating Mccoy’s crisps, the packaging of which had been branded ‘Man Crisps’. A look on twitter revealed a stupid campaign :“How awesome is my Mrs, She’s been out shopping and bought me a Massive variaty [sic] pack Of @Mccoys because I like Darts”.

Yet accessibility is still the biggest challenge facing feminism. It’s possible to forget, while debating between schools of feminism in a student union in the South West of the UK, that the vast, vast majority of people do not know what it is.

As I mentioned in my last article, anything to do with feminism will be side-lined, bashed, trolled, under-funded, under-resourced and exploitative of the people who take it on, and so I am deeply thankful to those who organised UK Feminista. Yet in our everyday lives we cannot wait for the resources we need to train an army because we will be waiting forever. We have all we need. My activism with UK Uncut taught me to dream big: what would I do with an army of 50,000 women? What would I do with the keys to Downing Street? What would I do with unlimited time and money? And then scale down. What would I do with 10 friends, £50 and a smartphone? That’s the reality – that’s what we should be brainstorming around. Free banner printing at work, friends we have or can make, calling people incessantly, what’s in our pockets and what’s in our heads and in our every day.

Spaces like UK Feminista have value, but they are preaching to the converted. You are not going to go to a workshop on how to set up a feminist community action group unless you identify as a feminist and I’m not sure that’s enough because even if we all know how to use twitter and write a press release, they’ll just lock us all up, burn us all out or continue to ignore us. We need to make feminism truly diverse and accessible. We need to be at the school gates. And that’s why we need everyday feminism. A debate on feminist economy cannot be brought to the school gates. A discussion about ‘sexting’, advertising, and tuition fees can.

At the end of last year’s Summer School I wrote an article asking where the modern day suffragettes are. I realise now that we are everywhere. We cover a scope far too wide for a weekend and it needs to be wider, still.

This article is part of series of articles from the UK Feminista Summer School 2012. Read the others: The issues that divide: building a diverse feminist movement, State feminism: co-opting women's voices and Can men be feminists?