Happy International Women’s Day!
When asked if she ever intended to pass her feminist torch, Gloria Steinem responded that she would instead use it to light a thousand other torches. And that’s the most beautiful expression of what feminism, as a social movement, is all about. I cannot claim to have amassed a great deal of wisdom in twenty four years of life – perhaps at forty eight I will look back and laugh at the audacity of suggesting I have any wisdom at all at this point – but what there is I want to share. So I am writing down all the things I wish I had known when I was younger, putting together pieces of knowledge that would have been handy earlier in life, in the hope that young feminists will find them illuminating. In sharing what keeps my own feminism burning bright no matter how hard the world tries to extinguish my belief in this movement, I hope to light a few more feminist torches.
Support Other Women
The first and most important lesson worth learning: the love and support of other women is the most powerful, sustaining force on earth. Women’s bravery and compassion is an infinite source of inspiration. The women in your life will hold you together through the worst of times and lift you even higher at the best of times. Prioritising women is the most rewarding decision you will ever make. Unpick the threads of internalised misogyny that keep you from thinking other women are worth your time and attention. Loving women is a powerful act of resistance and, as Alice Walker wrote, “resistance is the secret of joy!” Support women whose struggles are different to your own, support women who hold less structural power than you do. The positive energy that you direct towards other women will be returned to you tenfold.
Sisterhood is powerful – there’s a lot of truth contained in those three words, truth with the magnitude to rock the entire world, which reason it gets sneered at and belittled so often. To realise the power of sisterhood is to realise that you don’t have to squash yourself inside the narrow confines of what patriarchy tells us women can be, how women should live our lives. Connecting with other women, loving other women – it creates a world of possibilities. It opens the door to a feminist future and, in the here and now, will bring you a richer and happier life.
Be Open to Learning
Never close your mind to new ideas, other perspectives. Like Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” There are times when the boldest and most radical thing you can do it stop talking and start listening. Really listening, with focus and curiosity. Learn about women whose lives are different to your own. Try to see the world through their eyes – let that empathy inform your own views, change your behaviour. Do not project yourself onto their stories, but rather treat the parallels between your struggles as a means of connection – a way to bridge difference.
Nobody starts off perfect. Nobody ends up perfect, either – there is no such thing as a perfect feminist. But I’d trust a woman who genuinely tries to improve and grow over a woman who wants to be a perfect feminist on any day of the week. When you get it wrong, admit you are wrong and learn from it. When you get it right, try to bring other women with you to that point of understanding. Think of every woman you have ever learned from, the relief that came from being taught without judgement, and try to do the same for other women. This is how we create feminist consciousness. This is how we create social change.
Use Your Voice
Nobody else is ever going to express exactly what you are thinking in exactly the way you would say it. Your perspective is distinct. Your way of articulating that perspective is unique. Sharing ideas has always been a key element of the feminist movement.
“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” – Adrienne Rich
There are lots of different ways to use your voice – in fact, there have never been more – so find one that fits. Pamphleteering and public speaking both were crucial to the suffrage movement. Feminist tracts of the second wave offered blueprints for women’s liberation, with magazines and newsletters creating alternative media content and bringing women into feminist discourse. The DIY spirit of the third wave added zines to the mix, built upon the tradition of using creation as resistance with music and art. Throughout history women have found power through voice. Not the hollow, commercialised empowerment of a new lipstick, but real and lasting power. Self-expression and communication are tools of survival.
Some have speculated that we are now living through the fourth wave of feminism, and they might be right. Technological advancements have propelled us into a digital era, making it possible to engage with and learn from women around the world. That information grows ever more accessible, that plural perspectives become all the more visible, brings a change for the better. New media has also shifted the pattern of who gets heard, whose voice is accepted as part of public discourse. Women of colour in particular benefit from the absence of traditional gatekeeping online, using social media and digital tools to build platforms for ourselves.
Whether you vlog or blog, create zines or political art, start a podcast or a petition – or even do all of these things, if you have the energy of Wonder Woman – your message is worth sharing.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Spend an afternoon at the library. Walk beside the river or the sea. Bake a delicious cake. Make time to talk with a friend. The main thing is that you look after yourself. Prioritise what you enjoy, activities that nourish you. The more involved with feminist politics you become, the more draining it has the potential to become – after all, you are living your politics and carrying that political struggle with you every day. Making space for yourself is not only valid, but good.
Since trolling and online harassment are endemic, it is important to remember: nobody is entitled to your time or attention. Block, mute, ignore – you are in no way obliged to respond, least of all to men whose main kick in life comes from going on the internet with the objective of wasting women’s time.
Also, don’t spread yourself too thinly within the feminist movement. You don’t have to run yourself ragged for your contributions to the feminist movement to be legitimate. You can say no to a project, turn down a campaign, stay home instead of protesting. Nobody is going to revoke your feminist card, and if they try then shut down the guilt trip by pointing out that exploitative practice is not inherently feminist. No is a complete sentence. Assert your boundaries and do not spend more emotional labour or physical energy than you feel able to give.
Use Your Privilege to Help Others
Instead of gratuitous apologies for privilege, make good use of it and ustilise that power to help those without it. Holding privilege in one area, i.e. being white, does not mean that you are not marginalised in others, i.e. being working-class. Our lives are not static, but dynamic, and so there will often be ways in which we can use a position of belonging within a dominant group to assist others regardless of how little social power we actually hold overall.
Rebecca Bunce has a wonderful way of putting it: “As a feminist, look around the room and ask yourself ‘who isn’t here?’ Then ask what would it take to get that person here?” Never accept exclusion as the product of normality. Marginalisation is not a neutral act or process. By observing and challenging it, you have the power to prevent other people and their political struggles from being neglected.
Being an ally isn’t about getting praise for helping out. It’s about bringing people whose struggles are different to your own from the side-lines and into the centre of a situation, enabling them to engage fully. It is actually the most rewarding part of being a feminist, because – when done right – it creates a powerful bond of solidarity. Those connections demonstrate the potential for a better future, ways of life radically different to dynamics shaped by patriarchy – approaching difference creatively brings us the best of what feminism has to offer.
Findlen, Barbara (ed). (2001). Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation
hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre
Walker, Alice. (1992). Possessing the Secret of Joy
Zaslow, Emilie. (2009). Feminism, Inc.: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture