Feminism is the Future: a Black Feminist’s Advice to Young Women

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.

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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 notaudre-lorde-2 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.

circuitfeminism_dqh8xpSome 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.

Practice Self-Care.

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 mainself-care 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.

posterRebecca 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.


Bibliography

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

For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity

A brief foreword: this is the conclusion to my series of essays on race and the feminist movement. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can all be accessed here. The following knowledge was acquired at great personal expense. Use it how you will. Dedicated to every woman – Black, brown, and white – who has sustained me through sisterhood.


Whenever I discuss racism in the feminist movement, this question is invariably asked as a result: white women wonder “what, specifically, can I do about racism? How can I create solidarity with women of colour?” It’s a complicated question, which I have been considering closely for over a year now, and there is no one simple answer. Instead, there are many answers, of which none are static and all of which are liable to shift in relation to context. The reality of the situation is that there is no quick fix solution for the hundreds of years’ worth of racism – racism upon which our society was built, its hierarchies of wealth and power established – that shape the dynamic between women of colour and white women. That imbalance of power and privilege colours personal interactions. It creates the layers of justifiable mistrust that women of colour feel towards white women – even (perhaps especially) in a feminist context.

Altering that dynamic in which race exists only as a hierarchy, building sustainable forms of solidarity between women, is going to require persistent self-reflection, effort, and a willingness on the part of white women to change their approach. Here is my perspective on the practical steps white women can take to challenge their own racism, held consciously and subconsciously, in the hope that it will create the potential for them to offer real sisterhood to women of colour.

“The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.”
Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

Acknowledge the differences brought about by race. Do not define women of colour by our respective ethnicities. Equally, do not pretend our lives are the same as yours. Not seeing race means not seeing racism. Not seeing racism means allowing it to flourish, unchecked. Start by recognising our humanity, seeing women of colour as self-actualised people with insight, powers of critical thought, and – that which is most often neglected in this conversation – feelings. Begin with examining how you think about women of colour, and build from there.

Gatekeeping and Authority

Many problems are perpetuated by white women positioning themselves as gatekeepers of feminist discourse, authorities uniquely qualified to determine what is and is not Proper Feminism. It is no coincidence that women of colour’s contributions, in particular commentaries addressing racism or white privilege, are frequently dismissed as a distraction from the main feminist concern, i.e. issues which have a directly negative impact upon white women.

The tacit assumption that a white woman’s perspective is more legitimate than ours, more informed, that if women of colour simply learned more about a particular issue then our outlook too would become nuanced, is persistent. Underpinning that assumption is the belief that white women are the guiding experts of the feminist movement, women of colour in a position of subservience. The same situation unfolds in the context of class politics, with working class women dismissed as uninformed when their feminist perspectives do not align with those of middle class women. Reinforcing these hierarchies is the greatest hindrance to solidarity between women.

White women have a habit of arbitrating what is and is not feminist in a way that centres white womanhood, positions it as the normative standard against which female experience is measured. If white womanhood is standard, Black and brown womanhood become deviant forms by definition – a paradigm which contributes to women of colour being Othered.

Feminism is a political movement devoted to the liberation of women from oppression. Some of that oppression is gendered. Some of it is racialised. Some of it is class-based. Some of it relates to sexuality. Some of it concerns disability. And within these categories, there is always the potential for overlap. A failure to acknowledge the intersection of identities ensures that the most marginalised women will continue to be oppressed – not a feminist objective by any set of standards. Responding with “this isn’t your moment, guys” when women of colour address racism is a direct contradiction of feminist principles. Expecting women of colour to remain silent for the greater good, i.e. for the benefit of white women, is not an inherently feminist act. The idea that there is a time and place for acknowledging a form of oppression experienced by women undermined the principles upon which the feminist movement is built. White women need to stop derailing critiques of racism and instead listen to what women of colour have to say on the subject.

There is an unfortunate pattern of white women framing themselves as the enlightened saviours, men of colour as savage oppressors, and women of colour as passive victims of an oppression stemming purely from men falling within our own ethnic group. This model acknowledges that women of colour experience gendered violence whilst simultaneously erasing the racialised oppression to which we are subject. Furthermore, it denies the reality of white women belonging to an oppressor class – a deft and disingenuous manoeuvre that absolves white women of their role in maintaining systematic racism. If the problem of racism does not exist, it need not be discussed. If racism is not discussed, white women may continue to benefit from it unimpeded.

For inter-racial solidarity to exist within the feminist movement, the question of ownership must be addressed. Time and time again, white women behave as though the feminist movement is their exclusive property, something with which women of colour may join in but never lead in establishing discourse or action. This approach not only erases the crucial role women of colour have historically played in the feminist movement, but denies the possibility for future collaborative efforts to occur on an equal footing.

White women who want trust and solidarity with women of colour must first consider how they position women of colour in their minds, how they conceptualise us – do you see us as sisters, or someone to whom you pay lip service without ever properly listening to? Are we a central part of feminist struggle, or a box-ticking exercise? Honest inward reflection is essential. Analyse how you think of us, critically explore why that might be, and work from there.

Feminist Organising

Are you planning a group for women? Creating a feminist event or space? Building a feminist network? Every gathering of women creates new possibilities for the feminist movement, one of which happens to be an opportunity to improve upon the dynamic of race in a feminist context. With collective organisation, there is a question which white women must ask themselves: are there women of colour in this group? If not, there is a reason. It is all very well talking about how women come together as friends or a set of activists sharing a particular goal, but the way in which that group was formed did not take place inside a social vacuum. It happened in a society where women of colour are racialised and Othered to the point our womanhood is perceived as fundamentally lesser. As a result, our grasp of women’s political issues and therefore feminism is perceived as inferior.

For example, the stronger my commitment to Black politics, the more my feminist credentials are policed by white women caught up in two fallacies: first, that it is impossible to care about multiple issues simultaneously, second, that the politics of liberation can be neatly divided because no overlap of identities need ever be taken into account. The perception that my support for Black liberation must come at the expense of my support for women’s liberation, diluting my feminist politics, misunderstands the essence of how both sets of politics were established and the fact that they are inherently connected through Black women’s lives.

If there are no women of colour involved in your feminist set, consider how that came about and subsequently how it can be addressed. What about your way of organising, your content, your feminist praxis, could be alienating? Critical self-reflection is by no means a comfortable process, but it is a necessary one for solidarity to be possible. A key element of this subject is the way in which white women behave towards women of colour.

Treating women of colour as an exercise in diversity as opposed to authentic members of the team betrays a form of racism in how we are conceptualised. Our skills, knowledge, and commitment to women are not considered the natural state of affairs in a feminist setting in the same way that white women’s contributions to the group are. The assumption that we can only ever be present as a means of filling quotas conveys an obliviousness to our humanity. Set aside that line of thought. Look for our value as individuals in the same way you are automatically inclined to look for it in a white woman, and you will grow accustomed to seeing it. Unpick your racism with the same vigour you unpick internalised misogyny.

It is important that there are women of colour involved at an organisational level, as part of the team designing your events and campaigns. Let go of the paternalism that assures you, as white women, you are in a position to speak for all women.

Behaviour

The most obvious point: do not be racist, in word or in deed. One way or another, it will come to light. If you are saying something about women of colour in a private context that you would not voice in a public context, consider why it is that you differentiate between the two settings – the answer usually relates to white women not wishing to appear racist. Appearing racist has, paradoxically, become more taboo than racism in itself.

And if your racism is addressed, do not treat this as a personal attack. Do not be the white women who makes it about her own hurt, the white woman who cries her way out of accountability for her actions. Reflect instead upon the magnitude of the hurt dealt to the women of colour subject to that racism – I guarantee it is so painful that your own discomfort is small by comparison. Give women of colour experiencing racism the empathy you would extend to a white woman experiencing misogyny.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Do not remain silent when your friends are racist. Do not look the other way. Do not pretend that nothing has happened. Your silence makes you complicit in that racism. Your silence normalises that racism, is part of what legitimises that racism in a mainstream context. It’s not easy to confront someone with whom you are close, someone with greater power or influence than your own. But the right thing isn’t always easy to do.
Lastly, do not grow complacent. In a recent interview with Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys lamented the rise of identity politics, which she conflated with intersectional praxis, claiming that because men never got caught up in being expected to do everything, women shouldn’t either. This attitude is not atypical among white feminist women. However, Jeffreys’ perspective begs the question: since when did radical lesbian feminism model itself after the behaviour of men? Feminism is not a race to the bottom, it is a radical political movement. And that involves some intensive critical thought – a consistent of challenging of structural oppression that is not selective, but thorough.

It will not be comfortable. It will not be easy. But it opens up whole new avenues of support and sisterhood between women. Solidarity that will sustain and nourish all women as we work towards liberation.


Bibliography

Bilge, Sirma, & Hill Collins, Patricia. (2016). Intersectionality.

Grewal, Shabnam. ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women.

King, Martin Luther. (1968). The Trumpet of Conscience.

Parker, Pat. (1978). Movement in Black.

 

Young Feminist Summer School – AGORA ’16

A brief foreword: this is my account of attending Young Feminist Summer School in Brussels from the 7-11th of September, 2016. My place was very kindly sponsored by Engender. Text originally posted here, on the European Women’s Lobby site.


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Before

My name is Claire. I am a feminist – specifically, a feminist of the Black and radical variety. I live in Scotland, where I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with the Glasgow Women’s Library for almost two years, and blog as Sister Outrider. In the year since I started blogging, I’ve written about intersectionality, how race operates as a dynamic, racism in the feminist movement, and white privilege. In addition, I run feminist workshops and speak about Black feminism at events; although writing has been crucial to me finding voice as a feminist, my priority is improving life for other women – women of colour in particular – and that requires deeds as well as words. So I applied to AGORA ’16 Young Feminist Summer School in order to learn more about how to bridge the gap between feminist theory and practice, between ideas and reality.

Feminist Summer School. Those three words promised everything about which I am passionate: learning, feminist politics, and an opportunity to work with brilliant women. Fifty places were open to young women from all across Europe, inviting us to Brussels for five days to learn how best our activism can bring about change. One of those places is mine. Young Feminist Summer School was organised by the European Women’s Lobby, the largest network of women’s organisations in the whole of the EU. Having read about the extraordinary achievements of my fellow attendees, the strength of their commitment to women’s liberation, it is clear that this project has so much valuable knowledge to offer about feminist campaigning, organisation, and projects.

It still doesn’t feel real. My plane tickets are booked, the boarding passes printed, and yet I can’t quite believe that I’m going to Brussels in September. I applied to AGORA ’16 at the beginning of the year – the deadline fell on the same day as my university required applications for PhD research proposals to be submitted and coincided with the funding application, too. Although things got a bit hectic (translation: staring at the computer screen and questioning the meaning of life, the wisdom of my professional choices), this turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise because, being so very stressed about my future, it didn’t occur to me to be nervous about whether or not I’d be accepted into Young Feminist Summer School. I had simply thought, best case scenario, AGORA ’16 would be a nice way to spend the time between finishing the dissertation for my MLitt in Gender Studies and starting my research degree. And it will be.

Confession time: my application was totally last minute. I sent the email within a half hour of the deadline, indecisive until the eleventh hour. This is because I wasn’t sure that I’d have enough to offer the programme to be a deserving candidate. Silly, in retrospect – there’s nothing to lose by applying. And yet… Young Feminist Summer School had been popping up on my Twitter feed for weeks, being shared again and again by women I respect both in a sisterly and professional capacity. It looked so wonderful – a way to develop feminist praxis, meet and learn from young women all around Europe, and go to Brussels, a place which I had never visited before.

One of my fellow Glasgow Women’s Library Volunteers, Louisina, talked so enthusiastically about how much her daughter had enjoyed and gained from attending the first Young Feminist Summer School in 2015. Feminist Summer School looked so brilliant that it became almost intimidating. Was I good enough, accomplished enough, to apply? And then I thought about how much impostor syndrome holds women back. I asked myself whether a straight white man with my skills, experience, and enthusiasm would ever question his right to such an opportunity. The answer: don’t be ridiculous! And so I send the form.

Full credit for this budding confidence goes to Glasgow Women’s Library. Spend enough time in women’s spaces, and you start to believe that anything is possible. All of the qualities other women see in you grow slowly visible to your own eyes, shape your self-perception, and gradually eclipse self-doubt. Through recognising the talents of other women, your own as you become part of the team, you subconsciously begin to unpick the layers of misogyny that were hidden away in the depths of your mind and develop a justifiable faith in your own capabilities.

My feminist praxis is intersectional, which means that I consider hierarchies like race and class alongside gender in my analysis of power structures and approach to feminism. In the run up to Young Feminist Summer School I have also been wondering how, as a Black feminist, I would fit in a European context. Here in Scotland, in Britain, it can be something of a struggle getting people to think about racism in the same way they think about sexism, to acknowledge that the two are connected. There persists an idea that race matters less than sex in determining women’s experiences, a perspective which completely overlooks the realities faced by women of colour. How that conversation generally unfolds in other parts of Europe, it is impossible to guess – I am very much looking forward to finding out, to hearing from women whose experiences are different to my own.

There is no way to know what a project as new as Young Feminist Summer School is going to be like, to predict how I will find being in a new place and meeting so many new people. But all of those possibilities are exciting. I am proud to be going, and delighted that this year my home country Scotland is represented by two women of colour. It is the ambition of the European Women’s Lobby’s vision for building a better future, the creativity of their approach in bringing young feminists together to learn from each other, that make Young Feminist Summer School such a thrilling prospect. I look forward to AGORA ’16, and to everything that will follow in the work of my fellow participants.

During, Part 1

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I am not anxious about Young Feminist Summer School. Throughout the journey from my quiet coastal hometown to Glasgow, from Glasgow’s familiar buzz to the remote beauty of Edinburgh, I am free from the acute panic that typically plagues any journey to an unknown destination. In both a direct and philosophical way, this novel peace of mind is due to my enthusiasm for ideas, for translating feminist theory into practice. The night before AGORA I was on the phone with a friend, and we stayed up until about 3.30 in the morning talking about the tension between identity politics and structural analysis in the politics of liberation. It was one of those intricate, intense conversations to which a good night’s sleep is sacrificed without a second thought. Now, some 12 hours later and thousands of feet above the earth’s surface, I am physically too tired to experience anxiety. (Note to self: experiment with sleep deprivation before all significant undertakings…) At AGORA ’16, I expect to meet like-minded women. Though we have never met, I anticipate finding a similar passion in my fellow feminists.

Here in Brussels, on my first trip abroad in the capacity of feminist, I begin to think about national identity. Walking through passport control, I froze for a moment, uncertain of whether I could still queue as an EU citizen in the wake of Britain’s referendum, until Nadine told me it was valid for another 2 years. The practical implications of Britain leaving the European Union are still emerging, an endless string of unfortunate consequences. When the time eventually comes to change my passport, I wonder what will replace it. A woman after my own heart, Nadine has also suggested we Tweet our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a selfie of the AGORA ’16 Scottish contingent. I like this idea. After the Black woman who ran the Ireland Twitter account for a week was sent torrents of racist abuse (as in the UK, Black can only ever be safe if it is considered other to the ’’us’’ who belong and make up the fabric of society), it feels important to show how proudly two women of colour are representing Scotland.

The air-conditioned bus into the city, with its tinted windows, is cool and quiet, allowing for introspection. I am a Scottish feminist. I am a Black woman. Here, in a different context, it’s a fresh opportunity to consider how those things fit together. I flew here with two women also involved in Scottish feminist organisations, and I myself am part of Glasgow Women’s Library. The three of us have worked together before. For the first time, I see how I fit into the nexus of Scottish feminism – rather than trying to define myself, my work, against it, I see now that they fit under the umbrella of Scottish feminism.

It can be disproportionately white, back home. Whenever I go to feminist events, I am consciously looking for women of colour. Are we a part of the audience? Are we represented on the panels? Are women of colour involved behind the scenes in feminist organising? If a feminist space or event is entirely white, it is quite simple: I do not belong in that context. No feminist setting that does not value and listen to what women of colour have to say is relevant to me – how can anyone fit into a group where they are ignored, made irrelevant as Other? In Scotland it feels like something is changing for the better. Our new Poet Makar, Jackie Kay, is a Black lesbian woman. At GWL we have established Collect:If, a network run by and for creative women of colour. Dr Akwugo Emejulu convened the Women of Colour in Europe conference in Edinburgh last weekend, highlighting the academic and creative contributions of voices marginalised altogether too often. That same weekend Lux screened a documentary about Audre Lorde, The Berlin Years, at Glasgow Film Theatre and it sold out – people cared about Lorde’s life, her significance. All these things give me place, knit me a little closer into Scottish feminism.

From bus to train, we venture into Brussels. I take a particular delight in asking for ’’un voyage, s’il vous plait’’. The ticket is quite different from those in Scotland. Trundling my case behind me, I am an obvious tourist. Upon getting stuck in the accessible ticket barrier, I envision spending the rest of my life in that perspex box before managing to escape. Emerging from the metro is like stepping into another world – so different to my native Scotland. The sky is blue, the streets cobbled, and the architecture distinctly European. On our way to the Mayoral reception there is so much to feast our eyes on, and the scent of freshly cooked waffles is near-impossible to resist, but it is well worth it upon arrival.

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The town hall is exquisite. It looks more like the Vatican than a municipal building, and I am in awe. Upon entering the reception, I am given a cool glass of champagne – so refreshing after a long day. It is significant, I think, that among the first to approach me and introduce themselves of the Summer School attendees are my fellow Black women. This recognition is so welcome – being in a totally unfamiliar environment can get unsettling. Without preamble, we delve into a fascinating conversation: the state of the UK Labour party, Black identity across the diaspora, how “diversity” only extends so high in organisations, the ways in which Black women do and do not relate to one another… It’s exhilarating.

The achievements of these women are extraordinary, and it is a privilege to be among them, energised by their enthusiasm and the breadth of their vision for engineering social change. This conversation, under the fresco decorating the town hall ceiling, is all that I had been hoping for and more. Everything that I have planned with my own work seems possible – a very promising start to Young Feminist Summer School. We head back to the hostel, buoyed by so much feminist company as we traverse the streets of Brussels. Later that evening, as my roommate curls up in bed reading Patricia Hill Collins, I realise AGORA ’16 is exactly where I am meant to be.

During, Part 2

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Feminist Summer School exceeds my every expectation. Our first session sets the tone for everything that follows, establishing our core values: to speak with intention, to listen with attention, and be mindful of the group. As we share collective responsibility for the conversation and how it impacts on our fellow participants, everyone tries to be particularly conscious of the needs of others – an early lesson on how to successfully translate feminist principle into practice, the value of which becomes apparent as the day continues. This element of care enables honest and open discussion, and truly creative thought flourishes. Critics of safe spaces perhaps do not always see how, in certain circumstances, they enable rather than hinder discussion. And there is no end of challenge to our opinions, even those closely held – as one participant observes, “there are many feminisms here, not one feminism.”

We are all curious about our sisters: where their experiences match our own and where their experiences are different. Our contexts are diverse in this group – 49 women representing 22 countries – and there are factors of race, disability, sexuality, class, faith, language, etc. shaping our individual lived experiences in a vast number of ways, so that curiosity is pressing.

There are many shared concerns, particularly the malaise that sets in with the popular misconception that we have achieved equality now, that we don’t really need feminism any more, a falsehood that enables the erosion of advancements that have already been made towards equality. This perception that equality exists erases ongoing social inequalities. The rise of fascism in Europe, of right-wing politicians propagating misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, and anti-immigration rhetoric is also causing a palpable worry that transcends borders. We discuss how austerity disproportionately impacts women, the intersection of disability and gender politics that is overlooked in so much of the feminist movement, and how in conservative countries – even in Romania, where the procedure is legal – abortion and other aspects of reproductive healthcare are made so difficult to access.

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During the lunch break, these conversations continue at an informal level, women seeking out women whose perspective has resonated with them or overlaps with their own cause. I step into a discussion about the politics of Black women’s hair – how wearing it natural creates assumptions of radical politics in the vein of Malcolm X, and relaxing results in a whole host of assumptions about the politics of respectability. Through the conversation, parallels are drawn between the warped perceptions connecting Black women’s hair with our politics and the similar implications projected onto hijabi women.

During the afternoon sessions there are three workshops to choose from, two of which we can attend, offering real insight into the European Women’s Lobby’s campaigning. The first I attend is Whose Choice? A workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model, which is to criminalise purchasing sex (almost always done by men), not selling sex (almost always done by women) with a view to ending demand. This subject is particularly contentious in the feminist movement, with a divide between those who focus on the significance of individual choice and those who consider the context in which choice is made. Pierrette, our facilitator, creates an environment that is conducive to respectful discussion – as a result, we feel unafraid to share our perspectives, even when they are contradictory at points. It is a constructive way to learn from one another. With umbrella organisations it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint a specific set of beliefs, and I gain a new respect for the European Women’s Lobby because they have a clear set of principles through which prostitution is acknowledged as a form of male violence against women in their analysis and campaigning.

Then we move on to Yes Means Yes, a workshop on sex education and consent. The European Women’s Lobby are starting a project to promote healthy attitudes towards sexuality. It is an area about which most of us are passionate and Nadine, my fellow Scottish candidate, does this professionally. As always, the quality and the depth of knowledge in the room is impressive. This makes me hopeful: it is only through education that we can change attitudes towards sex, consent, and subsequently behaviour. As many as three million women and girls are victims of sexual assault or other forms of male violence against women. It is endemic. But we have the ability to change that.

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Every moment filled with learning, Young Feminist Summer School is an exciting experience – but it is also tiring. So we go out into the city to unwind during the welcome party and get a sense of Brussels. It is a beautiful city, though I will never get used to the traffic. Despite the chaos of the roads, there is something fundamentally peaceful about Brussels. The balconies and bridges are so very picturesque, the architecture distinctly European. Yet, in some ways, Brussels is reminiscent of my home city: Glasgow. It has a friendly atmosphere. Le Space confirms that initial perception. There is wine and good food. On the bookshelves, I find George Jackson’s prison letters and pour over his words to Angela Davis. One of Zadie Smith’s less known short stories, The Embassy of Cambodia, sits between volumes of French literature. This is my type of bar.

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All the same, it has been a very long day. And I am still hungry. Three of us slip out in search of that renowned Belgian cuisine: chips. Becca is the strategist, orchestrating a methodical sweep of these unfamiliar streets. It is not long until we are rewarded. The chips are hot, delicious, and melt in the mouth. Bliss for three euros. It is no disrespect to AGORA ’16 that I consider this moment one of the highlights of my trip. When we return to the bar, someone has added chalk art to the walls. “Feminisme et Frites” – the perfect combination.

During, Part 3

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Visiting the European Parliament is one of the highlights of Young Feminist Summer School. Despite having been up late the night before for the party, there is a buzz about the group that carries me through the tiredness. We get up early for breakfast, double check that we have our passports, and it is time to go. The parliament building is visually stunning, a modern fusion of glass and chrome. All the flags on display, the variety of languages on every sign, convey a politics of unity and consensus that resonate with me, reflect the purpose behind the AGORA ’16 group.

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Ahinara, one of the Young Feminist Summer School attendees, delivers a talk on the European Union’s significance to her, describing her time writing about the institution as a journalist and then interning from the EU upon realising its power for enacting social change. Her enthusiasm and knowledge chipped away some of the mistrust I feel towards large bodies of government. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house” – in broad terms, my view was that the state existed as a fundamentally patriarchal and colonial institution and, as such, was fundamentally an oppressive structure. But the words of another attendee have been playing over in my mind concerning the European Union: “government has the power to liberate as well as oppress.” We learn from each other constantly during AGORA.

The next session is inspirational. Malin Bjork and Soraya Post, two MEPs active on the femme committee, come and speak to us. That the Young Feminist Summer School is worth fitting into their busy schedules is striking: I feel aware that not only of our existing achievements, but our potential for enacting change in the future, give us real significance as a group. Hearing Malin and Soraya discuss their politics and careers is uplifting, as their careers make clear that driving meaningful social change can be possible. Soraya’s words in particular chime with me: she is the first Roma woman to be elected as an MEP, and the intersection between race and sex shapes her politics. Soraya’s perspective is fully humanitarian, and this is in no way a cop out of claiming the label feminist: she fights for the humanity of Roma women and men, women around the world, to be recognised. The basic definition of human that shapes Soraya’s humanitarian politics does not stop at white and male – as is too often the case – and her passion for justice is wonderful to behold.

Soraya and Malin belong to different parties. They hold different perspectives, particularly with regard to the mainstreaming of gender. What strikes me is how their disagreements are in no way a barrier to them working together constructively, making the world a better place for women and girls. Many governments, especially the British Parliament, could stand to learn a great deal from their methods. Setting aside political point-scoring and one-upmanship not only brings integrity to politics, but brings about meaningful results.

I wasn’t prepared for how powerful an experience visiting the European Parliament would be. For the British women among the group, it is a poignant moment in the wake of Brexit. In the past, I have been ambivalent about the European Union – so concerned with reform that I didn’t necessarily appreciate the social good that it has brought about. It feels sad that I have only fully appreciated Britain’s membership of the European Union when we are on the cusp of losing it. The macho, isolationist politics of sovereignty have cost us a great deal.

That afternoon we begin learning about Appreciative Inquiry – far more exciting than it sounds. This session is, at heart, about stories and the role they play in providing us with self-definition. Storytelling is broken down into a process of three parts: storyteller, harvester, and listener. In groups of three, we take turns in each role and learn first-hand the ways in which narrative is shaped by those bearing witness in addition to the person telling the story. Sitting in the courtyard with Anna and Milena, the fountain splashing gently behind us, I am content. We share a great deal. It is good to listen. It is good to be heard.

Next, we meet local feminists involved in campaigns around Brussels, representing three organisations: Isala, the House of Women, and Garance. Isala is a team of volunteers working to prevent women in prostitution from becoming isolated, to stop society from turning a blind eye to their exploitation. Garance teaches self-defence in order to increase women’s agency against male violence, with the core aim of making women and girls feel safe, strong, and free as we occupy public space. The House of Women is, in some ways, reminiscent of Glasgow Women’s Library: it is motivated by empowering women in very practical terms. They seek to emancipate women through teaching new skills, encouraging independence, and advocate an openness that enables women to take up the public space to which we are entitled – as Adrienne Rich said, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” Hearing about their work helps us to break outside the Brussels bubble of political power and consider how the threads of feminist activism weave together to form what is a global movement.

As Soraya Post says, “you have to take your place in the room, set the agenda.” And the participants of AGORA ’16 are ready to do that. We prepare our own workshops and invite our fellow feminists to attend. The expanse of knowledge present and available in the room is extraordinary. From feminist podcasts to instructions on grassroots organising, a range of practical skills are covered. With discussions on the role choice plays in feminism and how to be a white ally to women of colour, the distance between feminist theory and practice is bridged with finesse.

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The next morning I facilitate a workshop on intersectionality and co-existing identities in the feminist movement with Rosa, a Brazilian feminist with a flawless undercut and keen insight into geopolitics. The honesty women bring to the group is humbling, and I am profoundly touched that they are prepared to share so much of themselves in the discussion. The personal is political, a truth unavoidable when considering intersectional feminism. Running workshops is a very rewarding experience. I received facilitation training from Glasgow Women’s Library, who are always keen to upskill their volunteers, and have been putting on workshops since. It is a wonderful thing, to be able to do what you believe in. Afterwards, I go to a workshop facilitated by Hélène of Osez le Féminisme in which we share strategies for activism. My own plans for Sister Outrider slide into sharper focus.

We spend the afternoon at Amazone, where almost twenty women’s organisations hold office space. I decide to write, reflect, and take some time for myself in their sumptuous garden. Nearby, an impromptu workshop runs. It is a peaceful place. We return in the evening for our final party – bold lipstick and a black dress turns out to be a popular look. I am described as “witchy” – exactly the aesthetic I was striving for. Though we are openly critical of the beauty standards to which women are held, there is a lovely discussion about our lipstick choices, the ways in which our female friends have used it as a means of encouragement and support, a way to help us find little moments of joy. My own lipstick, Vintage Red, carries enough such history that every application brings me a measure of daring.

The wine flows, and so too does the conversation. It is lovely to be young, to be surrounded by other women as the night draws in, and to have the freedom of moving through Brussels as une femme seule. On such evenings, it feels as if anything is possible. And for the women of Young Feminist Summer School, it is.

After

My intention for Young Feminist Summer School had three parts: 1) Learn about effectively bridging the gap between theory and activism. 2) Support other women in their learning and be part of collective growth. 3) A bonus objective – have fun and meet new people. AGORA ’16 brought me all of these things and more.

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In the space of five days, in the company of fifty women, my feminist politics have developed in ways that defied prediction. And I have grown a little more self-assured. After getting off the plane at Edinburgh Airport, returning home, I waited for the confidence AGORA brought out in me to fade – early on in the Summer School, I ceased questioning my right to speak as part of the group and the validity of my contributions – but it didn’t. The magic of Young Feminist Summer School lingers, continues to do its work. On the flipcharts papering the wall, a post-it note perfectly sums up why that is: “You will never walk alone! Because all AGORA will always support you.” That support has brought with it a degree of self-belief that continues to thrive.

Agora is a Greek word meaning marketplace – a public space in which not only goods but ideas were exchanged. And that sharing of ideas was exactly what we accomplished. That reciprocal learning was the highlight of Young Feminist Summer School, seeing the extraordinary depth and variety of knowledge other women brought and answering it with my own. And I became more aware of what it really is to be part of a collective unit, too – how powerful it is to be in a group of women, the way each and every one of us shapes the dynamic. This is something I have done in my home context, for a range of purposes, and found infinitely rewarding. That it is possible in an international setting too makes the world seem even more full of possibilities.

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Young Feminist Summer School has also acted as an antidote to the Imposter Syndrome that shadows me through every achievement. In secondary school, I was certain that my university place would fall through. It didn’t. After completing my undergraduate degree, I was terrified I wouldn’t qualify to study for the Gender Studies MLitt. I did. This summer I was more than slightly concerned that the university would write to explain that offering me a place to undertake a research degree had actually been part of an elaborate practical joke. It wasn’t. Yet it never occurred to me to assume the inevitability of success. But, during AGORA, I found the courage to mention my PhD plans when people asked about my career and life. Nobody was surprised or disbelieving. They even thought my project – researching Black feminist activism in the UK – sounded exciting, worthwhile.

Something about the way these women responded to my ambitions, saw my hopes for the future as legitimate, enabled me to do the same. After Young Feminist Summer School, I didn’t let myself hesitate before talking about my PhD plans when asked – at a party filled with other feminists, at the Collect:If network for creative women of colour, with curious family friends, I mentioned my intention of undertaking further study. The more I spoke of those plans to other people, the more real they began to feel. The doubt was there every single time, but speaking about my studies made it a little more possible to see myself through the eyes of the women I was speaking to. Gradually, it got easier to ignore the voice of imposter syndrome and see success as the natural product of hard work and skill.

Looking back on Young Feminist Summer School, the thing that stands out most is how our politics shaped the way we treated each other, our dynamic as a group, and our relationship with public space. The compassion and trust within the group enabled real sisterhood. It also made being away from home, in another country previously unvisited, less intimidating than it otherwise could have been. Walking through the streets of Brussels as a group of fifty feminists was an adventure. Being together with other women, laughing and unafraid as we explored the city at night, was as much a novelty as a treat.

AGORA was a totally enriching experience: I am richer in travel, knowledge, experience, and – best of all – richer in friends. Since we left Brussels and returned to Britain, the UK AGORA group have stayed in regular and close contact. It’s a lovely support network, a group of understanding and encouraging feminist friends. We all have projects on the go – watch this space – and are planning to meet up again very soon, which is really exciting. I am grateful that Young Feminist Summer School brought us all together.

Daring to apply for AGORA ’16 is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It renewed my commitment to feminist politics at a time when I was growing weary. It reminded me of the joy found in working together with women to better the world around us. It gave me a positive vision for a feminist future. It let me be part of something so much bigger than myself. Watching my AGORA sisters grow and gain confidence over five days, consistently encouraging others to do the same, was a real honour. And being part of Young Feminist Summer School is an experience I will carry gladly for the rest of my life.

Intersectionality – a Definition, History, and Guide

 

Intersectionality has been a common theme in feminist theory, writing, and activism for the last few years. It has even become something of a buzzword. And yet there remains a great deal of misunderstanding over what intersectionality actually means and, subsequently, how it is supposed to manifest within the feminist movement. This confusion has resulted in a degree of backlash, claims that intersectionality distracts women’s energy from the key aims of the feminist movement – dismantling patriarchy, ending male dominance and violence against women – when in fact it is only through a truly intersectional approach that these goals become possible for all women, not simply the white and middle-class. And feminism is about uplifting all women, a goal which becomes impossible when only those aspects of women’s experiences relating to the hierarchy of gender are considered. This is where intersectionality becomes essential.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a framework designed to explore the dynamic between co-existing identities (e.g. woman, Black) and connected systems of oppression (e.g. patriarchy, white supremacy). The term was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and challenges an assumption continuing to undermine the feminist movement – that women are a homogeneous group, equally positioned by structures of power. In a feminist context, it allows for a fully developed understanding of how factors such as race and class shape women’s lived experiences, how they interact with gender.

Intersectionality is actually a pretty straightforward idea: if forms of prejudice have the same root, growing from the dominant power structure of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks), then challenging one aspect of structural power alone is almost entirely ineffectual. Opposing one facet of systematic oppression also requires a degree of selectivism, treating one form of structural power as a bigger threat than the others, e.g. when white middle-class feminists argue that gender is the primary means of oppression in all women’s lives, disregarding the realities of working class women and/or women of colour. For an effective feminist movement that tackles the very root of persisting inequalities, in the words of Audre Lorde, “there can be no hierarchies of oppression.”

The lens of intersectionality allows for the overlap between identities of race, sex, class, sexuality, etc. to be fully incorporated in structural analysis, thus providing feminist analysis with the perspective to encompass the true range of all women’s lives, the scope to understand all women’s experiences. Intersectional praxis prevents marginalised women from being further side-lined within the feminist movement. It also defies the expectation that feminists of colour ought to prioritise sex in our analysis:

Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of colour to a location that resists telling. (Crenshaw)

Where did intersectionality come from?

Despite the concept of intersectionality being relatively new, that mode of connecting forms of oppression together in structural analysis can be traced back throughout the activism and liberation theory within modern history. For example, when the abolitionist Frederick Douglass championed women’s suffrage during the mid-19th century, he did so in the belief that women (both of colour and white) were every bit as entitled to participate in democracy as Black men – unlike numerous suffragettes, Douglass resisted prioritising the struggle of the group to which he belonged above the struggles of others, a commitment to universal equality that ultimately strengthened the position of both women and Black men pursuing suffrage.

Intersectionality also manifests in Black feminist writing from the 1960s onwards. Michele Wallace was a pioneering thinker in this respect, her criticism of misogyny within the Black Power movement highlighting the dynamic between misogyny and racism and, subsequently, the nature of oppression faced by Black women. The writing of Angela Davis was pivotal in unveiling the racism and classism of the women’s liberation movement, analysing the history of Black women being further marginalised within feminism. Her work gave a clear demonstration of the relationship typically existing between race and class, and explored the role played by both in the oppression of women. bell hooks too asserted that racism and sexism are inherently connected forms of structural oppression, that Black women are positioned in such a way that makes that link undeniable.

Kay Lindsay postulated that as Black woman are relegated to the sidelines by both the misogyny within Black liberation politics and the racism of feminism, we find ourselves as outsiders in both movements despite being the object of the oppressions they seek to address. This position of marginalisation twice over is what Frances Beale first termed a “double jeopardy“.

It was this context from which Crenshaw drew on in providing a comprehensive description of the relationships between identities and oppressions. Patricia Hill Collins built upon her theory, arguing that multiple forms of oppression connect to form a “matrix of domination” – just as identities overlap, so too do the hierarchies by which structural power imbalance is maintained.

Part of the ongoing feminist resistance of intersectionality stems from the marginalisation of Black women’s scholarship, where the theory has predominantly been developed – dismissing it as jargon is easy as it requires no critical self-reflection from white feminist women, whereas engaging with an idea with the power to radically alter praxis and deepen understanding of structural power demands a significant level of honesty both in dealing with yourself and others.

How does intersectionality work?

 

Intersectionality proposes that the greater a deviation from the Cartesian subject – the standardised ‘norm’ of a white, wealthy, heterosexual male – the more layers of prejudice the individual in question must face, those prejudices combining to form a matrix of domination. Looking through the lens of intersectional feminist theory demonstrates that there is not one fixed reality to be lived by all those sharing a single umbrella identity (such as woman), but rather a multitude of realities, the experience of which is determined by co-existing identities (hooks). In other words, a Black woman and a white woman will both experience womanhood differently owing to the vector of race. One is not “more” woman than the other. Treating white womanhood as a definitive standard, particularly during structural analysis, erases Black womanhood and propagates racism within the feminist movement.

Separating identities, and indeed the experiences that arise as a consequence of those identities, is highly implausible. As Audre Lorde said, “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

An intersectional approach to feminism considers social inequality beyond that which is part of your individual experience. The discomfort of acknowledging that you, in some hierarchies, belong to the dominant class is essential to the redistribution of structural power. An intersectional approach also requires a thorough consideration of power – how it operates as a dynamic on both an individual and collective basis. Intersectional thought rejects the binary assumption that a person must belong to either one group or the other (e.g. woman OR person of colour). The relationship between multiple identities is acknowledged and considered in feminist praxis. An intersectional approach to feminism is also mindful of context, conscious of how comparative privilege can shape and even limit perspective. (Hill Collins & Bilge)

Intersectionality extends the reach and relevance of the feminist movement. This is because intersectional praxis has the power to dispel the misconception that feminism is simply “a white thing”, by and for white women. Intersectional praxis is crucial if feminist sisterhood is to exist. It has the power to foster solidarity between women – all women – and make our movement stronger.


Bibliography

ed. Cade Bambara, Toni. (1970). The Black Woman: An Anthology.

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Hill Collins, Patricia (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

Hill Collins, Patricia. Bilge, Sirma. (2016). Intersectionality.

hooks, bell. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism.

hooks, bell. (1982). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

eds. Moraga, Cherríe & Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back.

Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.