‘There are a lot of angry feminists here!’ a woman proudly laughed into her phone as I made my way down the stairs of the Institute of Education past large, striking portraits of bold women, flanked by fellow feminists. I wanted to stop halfway to examine a colourful textile piece embroidered with powerful facts (‘1 in 4 MPs are women,’ ‘more people would dial 999 if they were to witness animal rather than domestic abuse’), but I was borne along by the chatter and excitement, pausing briefly at bookstalls, T-shirt vendors, petition-signings, vagina sculptures, information stands, white poppies, posters proclaiming how patriarchy is crap, and then arriving in the main hall for the conference’s opening addresses. This was Feminism in London 2014 and there were, indeed, a lot of angry feminists around.
‘Angry feminist’ is a term I hear often, sometimes with the added (and apparently synonymous) descriptors ‘lesbian’ or ‘man-hating’ thrown in. Of course, I do not need to point out that there is little ‘man-hating’ going on in the world, but there is an awful lot of woman-hating to be counted. Violence against women exists in – and is reinforced by – a patriarchal culture which privileges men and normalises misogyny. Through Hollywood, the politics, and increasingly violent porn culture, even science, research, and the art world, patriarchy is not only ordinary – expected – but commodified. Even guided by feminist principles, it is impossible to navigate this world of quotidian woman-hating and not to become exhausted, silent, self-loathing (personally and as a gender) and depressed to varying degrees, partly determined by the intersection of the oppressions you experience. As Gail Dines pointed out in her opening speech at FiL, women not only internalise their oppressors, ‘we even bake them cakes and cook them pies!’ Being angry is the least of our worries, as feminists.
There is a lot to be angry about. As I watched the hall fill to capacity from my seat at the back, the names and images of women who had been killed by men this year were projected onto a screen on the stage – too many names and faces, too ordinary to be mentioned in the mainstream media or talked about every day by strangers with shock, despair and outrage, as they deserve, weeks and months now since they were killed. Keeping their names alive beyond their families and immediate communities is a struggle, and the ensuing silence of mainstream society reflects the silencing of these women by violent men. Indeed, it is embedded in the muted history of women, which manifests itself in our lack of recognised ‘foremothers as well as forefathers,’ as Annette Lawson put it in the conference’s opening address. The normalised exclusion of women through history enables the continued silencing of women – and silence surrounding ‘women’s issues’ – in contemporary society.
So it is a relief, in the context of this mainstream world, to be in room after room packed full of loud feminist voices, of people who, for example, all agree that ‘sluts’ don’t exist. (‘Why are we even talking about slut shaming?’ asked Gail Dines, ‘how can you shame a concept that is all about shaming?’) Who agree that we need to shame and blame perpetrators, not victims. Who are united in their ardent belief that patriarchy is an awful system, for everyone, and needs to be dismantled. While there is a lot to be angry about, this is something that requires celebrating, and there was a lot of laughter bubbling from the proud solidarity at FiL.
Raising awareness, raising consciousness
Taken together, the speeches and workshops at FiL mapped the landscape of patriarchal discourse and feminist resistance. In the afternoon I attended a workshop on choices and parenting where it became clear that despite women in the UK constantly making similar choices often enough for these choices to be considered ‘ordinary’ – to have an abortion, for example (1 in 3 women), or to remain child-free by choice (1 in 4), or to make choices around childbirth – they are consistently ignored, patronised and assumed incompetent or incapable of making informed decisions. Yet they are also punished for choices they make, by stigma and direct verbal and physical abuse.
The day was educational and inspirational. From Annette Lawson of the National Alliance of Women's Organisations, who opened the conference by discussing the fear which prevents women from identifying as feminists when ‘we need to translate out fury into political action’ to the moving Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize (ehmp)awards at the close, recognising women who had done precisely that. Patriarchy ‘doesn’t celebrate the work of women, it controls their history,’ said Femi Otitoju, but the ehmp was clear about what needed to fill the pages of our unfolding history: that is, in the words of Finn Mackay, ‘the women who have faced male violence and faced it down’ as well as remembering those women who are too afraid or unable to do so.
I spent most of the morning in a consciousness-raising workshop about grounding feminist activity in our everyday lives. The consciousness-raising movement is based on the idea that the personal is political; while we were told by the facilitators ‘you are the experts in your own lives, in your own oppression,’ it is impossible to do anything about the oppression on your own. Instead of allowing patriarchy to divide us and compete with one another, women need to come together to grow in confidence and understand how oppression manifests itself for different women in different ways – while recognising that these manifestations are part and parcel of the patriarchal system, not isolated or individual incidents.
Sampling a consciousness-raising group was extraordinarily positive. Using our own experiences as a foundation for conversation, we were far from modelling an academic study group. Sticking to the principles that every woman has something to say and that our discussion must be entirely confidential, we used a structured approach (going around the circle, answering set questions about recent experiences, listening) to open up to each other, and found commonalities. Things which were deeply personal to me contained similar traits to women’s experiences across other areas of their lives – work, education, health, housing. While this was no group therapy session, it was reassuring to receive the affirmation of shared reactions to different situations, validating our experiences and reminding us that they are not our personal fault: patriarchy is engrained, and it is damaging.
These groups have traditionally moved women to activism, and focused activism on women’s real and very affecting personal experiences. Many of FiL’s older speakers and facilitators who I encountered were excited by the resurgence of feminist conferences and events in the past decade (FiL started in 2007, Reclaim the Night celebrates the 10th anniversary if its revival this year). Younger feminists were relieved to find that they are not as alone as they feel at school in thinking that the problem is not with their bodies or brains but with the system which tells them there is. Workshops for teenagers helped them to re-appropriate stand-up comedy, recite and create poetry, craft and validate their own stories as young women. A group called Young Feminists London was founded at FiL this year by young women who discovered that solidarity is key to overcoming their personal oppression.
Solidarity and support
Feminists today need each other as much as our foremothers did. Gail Dines started the conference by unpacking the neo-liberal framework which encourages us to see ourselves not as inter-connected but merely 'individual men and women' (thanks, Margaret Thatcher ); we are educated to believe that competition is 'natural' and conditioned to reject solidarity movements with suspicion and distaste. When third-wave feminism internalises this, the experiences of individual, more privileged women (predominantly of the white middle class) dominate the movement, and 'feminism' becomes a celebrity commodity when it is not a dirty word. So women stop at the personal instead of seeing the ‘text’ (our lives) in ‘context’ (patriarchy) and making the progression from outrage to collective activism. Closing the conference, Finn Mackay questioned why we would ever want feminism to feel 'popular' in a normative, mainstream society in which violence is both a symptom of patriarchy and its very foundation. 'Why would we ever want to 'fit in' [with this system]?'
When a distorted ‘normal’ oppresses our daily lives and experiences, feminist events and conferences like FiL are not only useful for education and discussion, planning and strengthening activism, but are excellent forms of respite from mainstream misogyny. As poet Sabrina Mahfouz expressed at the end of the day, ‘thank you for strengthening the part of my heart that sometimes weakens in the world out there.’
50.50 will be publishing further articles this week by Finn Mackay and Radha Bhatt from the conference Feminism in London 2014