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

Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the third in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement, in which I explore the pitfalls of feminist theory treating white womanhood as the normative standard. Part 1 can be accessed here, part 2 here.


 

Throughout the rich and varied body of feminist theory, within every facet of feminist activism, the rights of women are a central concern – and that is all to the good.  Whether the issue relates to women’s bodily autonomy, socio-economic standing, or political representation, challenging the secondary position women occupy in society is fundamental to feminist theory and practice alike. Yet the question of which women are prioritised within feminism and why cannot be easily dismissed – hierarchies are established and maintained, even under the politics of liberation. Given the feminist movement’s flawed relationship with race, it is a question that requires thorough consideration before it can be answered honestly.

In 1851, an emancipated slave by the name of Sojourner Truth addressed the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and posed the following question: ain’t I a woman?  That Truth’s speech was distorted by the white gaze in the process of transcription, her dialect roughened and reshaped to fit the popular image of Negro then held by the public imagination – a Southern slave – does not detract from the power of her words. Truth provided one of the earliest and most meaningful deconstructions of womanhood found within feminist theory, unpicking the racism and misogyny defining the cult of true womanhood. Truth was a staunch advocate for the human rights of all women, irrespective of race, and Black men. Her critique of the normative standard of woman remains relevant to this very day.

Feminism has an ongoing problem with race. The movement did not form inside a social vacuum, separate and distinct from white supremacy – indeed, many among its earliest American campaigners became staunch supporters of white superiority when it appeared that Black men would receive the right to vote before white women.

“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” – Carrie Chapman Catt, 1859-1947 (Founder of the League of Women Voters)

White women made use of racism, exploited racist assumptions, for their own benefit (Davis, 1981). That is an unavoidable truth. White racism is an undeniable part of feminist history, has continually influenced the development of feminist theory, and can be traced directly from early to contemporary feminist discourse.

Mary Wollstonecraft drew numerous unfortunate comparisons between the plight of white women, often with a degree of material and class privilege, and that of their enslaved Black sisters. Wollstonecraft was an abolitionist, a pioneering feminist thinker, yet her otherwise rigorous challenge to the dominant social order was undermined by the polemic slavery analogy (Ferguson, 1992). The argument is of course made that Wollstonecraft was a product of her time, that within her context she was a revolutionary. Except that with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft unwittingly set a pattern of behaviour that continues to manifest in feminist praxis: a failure to acknowledge how women are positioned by race.

The Feminine Mystique, a book frequently credited with catalysing the second wave of feminism, relied on both racist and classist assumptions. In her study of “the problem that has no name”, Betty Friedan completely overlooked that women of colour and working class women worked outside of the home out of sheer necessity, treating the white, middle-class and college educated woman’s experience as standard (hooks, 1982). In Against Our Will, a book that revolutionised the understanding of rape, Susan Brownmiller exploited racist assumptions of a bestial Black masculinity, the flip-side of which is a hypersexual Black femininity (Davis, 1981) – small wonder that women of colour were alienated by popular feminist thought. Although a great deal of radical feminist thought operated on what would now be considered an intersectional basis, writing from the second wave often treated white womanhood as normative, and women of colour were routinely marginalised within feminist activism (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981. Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982).

Little changed with the third wave of feminism – if anything, emphasis on the individual circumvented any meaningful analysis of structural racism. Even as intersectionality has come to shape recent developments in the feminist movement, white women routinely use it as a means of virtue signalling. Intersectionality is often treated as a way of paying lip service to women of colour without meaningfully exploring any factor shaping our realities beyond the hierarchy of gender. Numerous feminist books published within the last five years have a token chapter (if we’re lucky…) devoted to the intersection of race and sex. To give an example, in a chapter of Everyday Sexism (2014) Laura Bates explored “double discrimination”, her phrase for co-existence of multiple forms of oppression. Though she acknowledged the ways in which women of colour are fetishised as a sexual Other, our experiences were framed as niche, irregular.

White feminists also have an unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two entirely separate forms of discrimination, which do not meet in a common site and are therefore not worthy of joint consideration. Emer O’Toole’s otherwise stellar analysis of gender roles in Girls Will Be Girls (2013) is undermined by the casual erasure of women of colour resulting from the following phrase: “people of colour or women.” This is, of course, a false dichotomy that positions white womanhood as standard.

Treating white womanhood as normative not only serves to marginalise women of colour within the feminist movement, but positions our needs as secondary to those of white women, propagating the hierarchy of race within feminism. Considering white womanhood as normative defines who is valued as a source of knowledge relating to women’s experiences, and who is not. It shapes the criteria for who is heard within the feminist movement, and who is overlooked by default. If the concerns of white women become simply the concerns of women, then race – conveniently – ceases to be a feminist issue. Women of colour critiquing racism can therefore be dismissed as threats to feminist unity, accused of “trashing” white women when we critique their racism. The racialised depiction of passion, particularly common in the Angry Black Woman trope (Harris-Perry, 2011), automatically invalidates any attempt women of colour to address racism. This is why women of colour are so frequently subject to tone policing in feminist discourse. Silencing criticisms of their own racism enables white feminists to avoid the challenge of uncomfortable self-reflection – they justify doing so by claiming that they act in the name of sisterhood.

However, as Mohanty says, “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.” White women disregarding and speaking over women of colour are not enacting sisterhood, but rather undermining it through exploiting the hierarchy of race. Contrary to the derailments used to silence women of colour in feminism, it is white racism that stands between the feminist movement and interracial solidarity. In addressing that racism, women of colour seek to overcome the ultimate barrier between women.

I will conclude by encouraging white feminists to apply the same tools of analysis they use in critiquing misogyny to their own racism, to the racism of other white women – to speak out when they see it. When discussing race with women of colour, I advise white women to consider their expectations of men when discussing misogyny – to draw the parallel of oppressor class and oppressed class, and apply those principles to their own conduct. Whether or not white women are aware of it, they are positioned at an advantage over women of colour – the only way they will learn more about it is by listening to our voices, acknowledging our perspectives, and reflecting on what we have to say.

I would also add that there is no shame in making a genuine attempt to improve and getting it wrong. Responding with white defensiveness and attempting to silence a woman of colour is, however, reprehensible. In my relationships with white feminist women, there is a clear distinction: those who are prepared to learn when it comes to race, and those who are not. The former group I trust and value as my sisters. The latter group I’m too wary of for true solidarity to be a possibility. I do not ask for perfection – who does? – but simply that you try.


Bibliography

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

Ferguson, Moira. (1992). Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery. IN: Feminist Review, No. 42.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. (2011). Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

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

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

eds. Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia Bell, & Smith, Barbara. (1982). But Some of Us are Brave.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

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

Smith, Barbara. (1998). The Truth that Never Hurts.

In Praise of Older Women: A Love Letter to My Big Sisters

A disturbing trend has been established over the last few years – implying that, as women within the feminist movement age, they become less relevant. It is not simply unrepentant misogynists airing this view – although they are responsible for starting it – but rather relatively young and often liberal women who openly describe themselves as feminists. Kaite Welsh of the Telegraph branded Germaine Greer a “dinosaur”, suggesting that she “face[s] a slow and painful extinction.” Similarly, Jessica Valenti used her Guardian column to lament when older feminists “lose their way“, the implication being that doddering old dears like Susan Brownmiller are no longer fully aware of the world around them.

I do not dispute Welsh’s right to critique Greer’s perspective on gender. Valenti’s objection to Brownmiller’s comments on sexual assault is, in my opinion, perfectly reasonable. That being said, these criticisms should not be couched in ageist language. As Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In using ageism to reproach older women, younger feminists give tacit permission for men to do the same. There is nothing revolutionary or progressive about employing the same misogynistic tactics used to silence women.

Across Twitter, older radical feminists are slammed for being “anti-sex”, “fossils”, and “pearl-clutching prudes.” In addition to perpetuating ageist misogyny, these phrases are also symptomatic of intellectual laziness – challenge the ideas of our older sisters, not their right to participate in public discourse.

Susan Brownmiller quite literally wrote the book on rape culture. Without her contributions to feminist theory, ongoing discussions about male sexual violence and the patriarchal society that enables it simply wouldn’t have evolved to their present format. Irrespective of the controversy currently surrounding Greer, her writing and activism have proven hugely influential in critiquing social models built upon male dominance. She was a pioneer and deserves to be acknowledged as such. We know that trashing our fellow women gets us nowhere, let alone anywhere in the direction of liberation, so why do so many of us still fall into this trap? When women are pitted against women, we are fighting each other – not patriarchy – no matter how progressive we are told this in-fighting makes us.

Disagreement is not justifiable cause for demonising someone. Older women receive a disproportionate amount of flack in this respect, perhaps from women who haven’t yet realised that in twenty or thirty years time their youth will have faded and they will be in the same position. If we’re being honest, I used to oscillate between dreading middle-age and thinking I would, somehow, prove an exception to the invisibility of older women. Now, having spent time with and listened to so many amazing older women, I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to being bolder, wiser, and stronger than my 23 year-old self with the same enthusiasm I once anticipated evolving my Pokémon.

Taking off the blinkers and really looking at older women has filled my world with positive role models. With this in mind, here is a letter of love and gratitude addressed to my older sisters.

Dear Older Feminists,

                                           I am writing to thank you for the battles you fought before I had ever even heard of feminism, and for continuing to fight by my side to this very day. We have a long way to go, there is no doubt, but it all seems much less of an uphill struggle when we stand together. That sisterhood is a nourishing, sustaining force. Without it, I might easily have given up or stayed silent in favour of an ‘easy’ life. But, as Audre Lorde pointed out, our silence will not protect us. Every time my mentions are flooded by trolls suggesting I kill myself or “go back to Africa”, your fortitude and support are what inspire me to carry on with activism.

Even when we disagree, and it does happen (e.g. some of you are strongly pro-Hillary Clinton, and I am not), you acknowledge my stance and treat my voice as significant in itself. You have encouraged me to write, to speak out, to stand up for myself – even when the you are the people I’m disagreeing with. You have built the communities and spaces where I now flourish. You have taught me my own worth. By seeing my skills, knowledge, and creativity, you made it possible for me to see these things too. You have also given me plenty to aspire towards – keen cleverness, intellectual rigour, unerring kindness, awareness of others, steely determination, the strength of will to change the world.

All the traits I most admire are the traits I find in older women, older feminists. After years spent drinking the patriarchal Kool-Aid, and then trying to be the “right” sort of feminist, it was something of a revelation to find that both older and radical women are nothing short of [s]heroic. Your campaigns to support women, to end violence against women, to offer women the space to grow and learn, really have made this world a better place. How my life would have gone without your encouragement and enthusiasm doesn’t bear thinking about. It is thanks to you that I have purpose, determination, conviction, belief in myself – in short, all the tools I need to change the world as you have done, as you continue to do.

Yours in Sisterhood,

Claire