Loud and United – Reflections of a Black Feminist on the Road

Dedicated to my mother, Angela, without whom this adventure would have been impossible. Thank you, mum – for getting me to the airport and for encouraging me to spread my wings.


The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. – Gloria Steinem

Before

At the beginning of this year – the first lived without the guidance of my grandfather – I challenged myself to two things: more travel and more adventure. The writer’s life is typically one of books and ideas, and although writing has the power to transport both author and audience to extraordinary places, across the vast expanses of human imagination, I sometimes wonder if I use writing as an excuse to retreat from the world and into myself. By inclination I crave routine and solitude, neither of which can be depended upon in the great unknown. That is, perhaps, why it is so important to push myself outside of the comfort zone so easily constructed around the familiar and open myself to new experiences. Through the unexpected, the unpredictable, we grow and learn more about ourselves in the process. When static, we too often see what we expect to see as opposed to what’s really there in front of us.

20170607_142308Feminist theory is meaningless without the ability to put it into practice. And life, though it can at times be daunting, requires living. So I am on a plane to Brussels for Loud and United, an event which marks twenty years of the Observatory on Violence Against Women. The Observatory was created to put political pressure upon governments across Europe to eradicate male violence against women and girls.

Loud and United is split into two parts: a symposium in which experts, politicians, and activists discuss the realities of male violence against women, and a march through the streets of Brussels to protest that violence. Loud and United is the perfect balance of words and deeds, what Audre Lorde described as the transformation of silence into language and action. In coming together, naming the agent, and resisting the insidious idea that male violence is a ‘natural’ part of women’s lives, we resist the very foundations of patriarchy. I want to be part of that resistance. And it doesn’t hurt that Gloria Steinem is to give the keynotes address.

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This isn’t my first trip to Brussels – last September I was there for what turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life so far: Young Feminist Summer School. Fifty women from across Europe came together to exchange activist experiences and learn from each other’s feminist perspectives. Sharing space and time with my AGORA sisters developed my understanding of the relationship between feminist theory and practice like nothing else, radically altering my approach to feminist organising. Being part of that group blew away the cynicism that threatened to take root in me, dealt with the weariness that came from challenging racism within the feminist movement, and restored my belief that anything is possible when women work together. AGORA also imparted a degree of self-confidence, a sense of my work being legitimate and having a place within the context of the feminist movement.

Attending Young Feminist Summer School changed so much for the better. And I almost didn’t go – partly out of the panic that stems from chronic anxiety, partly due to a heavy bout of Imposter Syndrome, and partly because my grandfather was dying. On the final day of Summer School, I received a call to say that he couldn’t be released from hospital until I had been taught to feed him through a tube – which I did for the final month of his life. It was a difficult time. Becca, one of my AGORA sisters, introduced me to spoon theory during Summer School – a disability metaphor coined by Christine Miserandino to explain the extra limitations capping the available energy to spend on the day to day tasks that make up everyday life. And now, almost a year on, I have even less spoons within reach. In caring for my grandfather I ceased caring for myself, which created something of a spoon deficit.

I have taken leave of absence from university owing to depression, scaled back professional and social responsibilities, and entered a kind of hibernation period to focus on my health. I have set three rules to live by: 1) go to therapy 2) volunteer at the Women’s Library at least one day every week 3) look after yourself properly. It’s a cliché, a bourgeois twenty-something going to Europe to find herself, but I will not apologise for that. After Young Feminist Summer School I can think of no better place to look for that bold young woman with a radical spirit than the city of Brussels, no better point to reconnect with my politics and the passion behind them than Loud and United.  People living with debilitating illnesses and disabilities are expected to justify every last speck of joy, but I am going to grab it with both hands and without apology.

When the plane touches down in Brussels, I begin to feel hopeful. Armed with enthusiasm and a basic grasp of the French language, I set off to board the shuttle bus to the city centre. I spend the journey alternating between staring at the lush expanses of green fields and blue sky and reading Gloria Steinem’s most recent book, My Life on the 20170614_174803Road. Steinem’s reflections are thoughtful, and something about the way she connects physical movement through the world with a development of ideas strikes a chord. What I like most about Steinem’s writing is that from her early essays to recent reflections delivered in her eighties, she doesn’t pretend to know everything and is therefore always open to learning and improving her own feminist praxis. If there were such a thing as total and definitive understanding of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem would have more right to claim it than most. But there isn’t. Feminism is a socio-political movement propelled by women’s actions and ideas – it’s a continuously ongoing process, not a destination. Its progress is best marked not only in the accordance of women’s rights, but in the development of surrounding ideas and attitudes.

Ilaria, a fellow graduate of Young Feminist Summer School, is waiting for me at the bus stop. She introduces me to her girlfriend Michela and we work out how best to communicate. Ilaria and her girlfriend moved to Brussels from Italy last September, which – being a total homebody – I find incredibly brave. Michela speaks French with a little bit of English. I speak English with a little bit of French. We meet somewhere in the middle, with Ilaria translating what Michela and I cannot. As they guide me back to their flat, I feel none of the anxiety of being away from home alone. Because I am not alone.

We drop my luggage off at the Tetris House, affectionately termed as everything has an exact space, to head out for dinner and drinks. As we walk, I am struck by the beautiful art nouveau design of the buildings. Ilaria fills me in on the area’s history. She and Michela live in the most diverse part of Brussels – half of the population is white, and half of the population is people of colour. Houses that were once the pied-à-terre of Belgium’s upper classes are now flats occupied, more often than not, by migrant families. It’s the first port of call for people from all around the world when they first move Brussels. Sure enough, as we meander through the city I see a gorgeous spectrum of brown skin. It is nothing short of divine to feel so inconspicuous.

Belgian fries are in a league of their own, so we get chips for dinner. Mine are accompanied by a falafel wrap, which makes going abroad and getting chippy for tea seem acceptably cosmopolitan. The greatest difference between Brussels and Glasgow is how each city’s inhabitants occupy public space. In the cobblestone courtyards, the pavements are full of tables and chairs set out by nearby bars. To my surprise, Ilaria says that we can sit outside a pub of our choice and eat our meal there. She and Michela choose from a long list of fancy beers – one Belgian treat I decline owing to an unapologetically femme taste in drinks.

At the bar, there are five fridges full of craft beers. They are as mysterious to me as the rules of any sport that isn’t Quidditch. I search for a fruit cider, the closest acceptable approximation to beer. The bartender takes pity on me and comes over to help. He laughs, not unkindly, when I explain what I’m looking for and says that they don’t stock any such thing. I struggle to understand the Flemmish accent to his French. When he realises that not only do I speak English, but that I am Scottish, the bartender is delighted. “Glasgow? I love Glasgow,” he tells me. “That city is CRAZY!” He pantomimes the sort of argument that is characteristic of the city, mimicking those interactions that walk the fine line between masculine bonhomie and pure aggression. It involves a lot of gesticulation and “FUCK YOU!”  That’s Glasgow alright. Perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of the fear that he has given offence, the bartender pours me what can only be described as a triple gin and tonic. He moves the gin to a pint glass upon realising that both ice and tonic will not fit. Fortunately, Glasgow has taught me how to hold my drink.

Back at the table, we discuss lesbian politics and culture. Ilaria and Michela moved to Brussels because it’s a better place to be a lesbian couple than Italy. Life away from Catholic homophobia and social conservatism is happier. Scotland isn’t perfect but, by comparison, I feel fortunate. Two leaders of Scottish political parties are lesbian. Holyrood is “the gayest parliament in the world.” Not bad at all.

We talk about our first forays into lesbian culture – how much the shows with even a couple of lesbian characters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or even solid lesbian subtext (Xena) had meant to us all growing up. We all watched The L Word. There were so many sex scenes in it that I would wait until my grandparents went to church before watching an episode on Netflix lest they overhear. Needless to say, feast days and holidays of obligation (extra church on days other than Sunday) were always welcome – thanks be to God! Michela thinks this is hilarious. She watched Sugar Rush when it first aired, despite not having much English, and would watch programmes in any language provided there were lesbian characters. The lengths to which lesbians will go to see ourselves represented in the media know no bounds.

On the way to the bar, I had spotted people drinking what looked like irn-bru in wine glasses. Ilaria told me that it was, in fact, aperol spritz and suggested we have some next. She asks what’s in irn-bru. Aside from sugar and colour, I haven’t the faintest idea. Does anybody? For a time irn-bru was banned in America, which says a lot about the ingredients in Scotland’s other national drink. At first I’m not convinced by aperol spritz. Michela taps an inch down the glass and reassures me that by this point in the drink, the taste will improve. She’s right.

During

Having been anxious about Loud and United since the moment my plane tickets were booked, I feel remarkably at ease with the world on the day. Ilaria can’t make it, has to go to work first thing in the morning. Michela makes a delicious breakfast and we head out. In the lobby we pass two older women, and Michela pauses to talk to them. I assume they are neighbours, perhaps another lesbian couple, and feel glad for Ilaria and Michela. Older lesbians make the world a better place. But when she joins me on the street, Michela explains that the women go from door to door trying to convert people to Christianity. When Michela told them that she’s a lesbian, they responded that God would still love her. For a split second I wonder if it’s truly a love-thy-neighbour Christianity being advocated here, but Michela explains the catch: God is prepared to love lesbians provided we don’t have sex with women. Neither of us can keep a straight face. I asked Michela what she said to that. She replies, with a mischievous grin: “No way. I love sex with women.” Our laughter carries throughout the street. In this we are agreed. I’ll take lesbian sex over God’s love on any day ending in y.

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Michela guides me through the metro and leaves me at Grand-Place.  The square is even more beautiful than I had remembered, a magnificent display of gilt and Gothic architecture. Spotting a security guard, I explain that I’m here to help the European Women’s Lobby set up for their event. He doesn’t let me in, says the EWL aren’t here yet, and so I sit at the edge of the square and scribble away in a notebook until another volunteer arrives. With a confidence that is uniquely American, she talks security into hallletting us inside. The EWL are nowhere to be seen, so we explore the building and marvel over the opulence of Brussels. The room is extraordinary. Wooden walls panelled with richly painted murals, a high ceiling supported by ornately carved beams, and even pews lining the back – it looks more like a church than a feminist meeting space. There is something delicious about repurposing places that symbolise male wealth and power for women’s liberation. The meeting space in Glasgow Women’s Library, where we recently held an all-female literary festival, used to be a gentlemen’s reading room.

When the EWL team arrives, I am filled with relief. We set up signs and flags, put out badges, organise seat reservations, and arrange a selection of literature about the European Women’s Lobby’s projects – tasks that are comforting in their familiarity after three years of volunteering at the Women’s Library. Believing passionately in feminist documentation, I snap pictures as we go. I take a photo of Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls and text it to Liz Kelly.

Liz theorised the continuum, radically altering the way male violence is framed and conceptualised not only within feminist theory but support and prevention work. I think she’ll be pleased by the way her work is being applied but, more than that, I think she’ll enjoy “disrupting.” It’s a good word. Disruption is very Liz: being so thoroughly radical in her feminism has created a boldness in her this is catching. Being radical in my own feminism lends me a certain courage, too – not once do I question my right to be at Loud and United, or the legitimacy of being there.

As soon as we are ready, the doors open. Two hundred and fifty women from around the world enter the hall, united by a commitment to ending male violence. Edith Schratzberger-Vécsei, President of the European Women’s Lobby, gives the opening address. She talks of how habituated to male violence societies across the world have become, invites us to “disrupt an ancient system” in dismantling patriarchy. “All the forms of violence that we’ll be discussing today have one goal: to silence women.” It is fitting, then, that we should be loud as well as united.

The first panel is HERstory. Women’s organisations from across Europe share their expertise in resisting male violence against women. The agent is named. The root cause 20170608_135151is addressed. Biljana Nastovska is exactly right in her assessment of patriarchy: “violence against women is a manifestation of unequal power relations between women and men. Violence against women is not accidental, but structural and political.” There is something profoundly moving about witnessing the women of the Observatory’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls, the passion of their belief in this cause. Vanja Macanovic explains why she works for the Observatory: “As long as one woman is raped or beaten, prostituted or trafficked, the European Women’s Lobby Observatory will be there to fight it.” Her words, so resolutely spoken, have a superhero quality about them.

I wish that frontline workers in women’s organisations were celebrated and valourised the same way Wonder Woman is – while Diana Prince provides a symbol of hope, the work the women’s sector do is very real. In Britain, 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced street harassment. 45% have experienced it in a form of unwanted touching. And when women of colour resist street harassment, we get racist abuse too. The support and prevention work done in the women’s sector is vital. It makes this world a better place. The Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt neatly sums up the endemic of male violence against women: “when we talk about gender-based violence, it is violence because you are a woman.” In every society, we are punished and abused simply for having been born female.

The second panel is Inspiring Initiatives by Women’s Rights Activists. Inspiring is right. The organisations represented are La Maison des Femmes, Sexual Violence Centre Cork, Lilies of the Street, and Women’s Tribunal. These women stare unflinchingly at the very worst of male violence in order to support women through it, enduring in the hope of creating a world in which male violence is eliminated. The words of Mary Crilly (Sexual Violence Centre Cork) in particular stand out. She talks candidly about the rage she feels against male violence, how the horror of male violence weighs upon her, and feeling burnt out as a result. Mary acknowledges how high the cost can be. And then Mary describes why she keeps going, why every woman in the room must keep going too. She says “at some point in your life someone will come to you and say ‘this happened to me’. If you are open to hearing it, they will tell you.” I think of that telling. I think of being told. Mary is right when she says that meeting such a disclosure with empathy is one of the most important things any of us will ever accomplish.

The mechanism of violence is what destroys women, controls women, keeps women in their so-called place. If we want to end male violence against women, we must think of the most vulnerable and leave no woman behind. – Salome Mbugua

Next, we hear testimonies of women who have survived male violence. Witnessing this panel is an extraordinary privilege. Monica Weissel Alvarez speaks with radical honesty about her experience of intimate partner violence. The total absence of institutional support she received – Monica’s helplessness to escape her abuser, being “trapped in circles of domination” – is devastating to hear about. Alisha Watts recounts her experience of online grooming, of how she was isolated and exploited by her abuser. As Alisha’s voice trembles, I am in awe of her courage – the bravery required to share something so raw and painful in front of two hundred and fifty people in the hope of helping other women and girls. That iconic Maggie Kuhn quote springs to mind: “Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.”

The final panellist to speak is Fiona Broadfoot, who became an abolitionist campaigner upon exiting the sex industry. Nothing on this earth could have prepared me for hearing Fiona’s story. She was groomed into prostitution at fifteen and spent eleven years in the sex trade.

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Of that time, Fiona says “I was at immediate risk of extreme sexual violence and abuse. I lost my identity and what little self-confidence I had. Rape became an occupational hazard.” She repressed the trauma by telling herself it was a job like any other. At 17, Fiona told herself “innocent women will be raped if I don’t do this.” Fiona begins to cry while sharing her story, for which she makes no apology: “it’s a sign I’m a healthy human. I used to distance myself and display no emotion.” It’s only then that I notice the tears on my own face, notice that women all around the room are in tears too. There is no shame in crying. I never want to become the kind of person who can look at such injustice and remain unmoved.

As with Monica’s story, it is devastating on two levels: that Fiona experienced this violence, and that institutional misogyny meant structures that should have helped her worked against her. Fiona’s pimp was on first name terms with the Vice Squad. She was criminalised and he was not. When she tried to rebuild her life, Fiona was kicked out of her college course due to having been arrested for prostitution. Afterwards, she returned to prostitution. Fiona’s words will stay with me for the rest of my life, as will her strength and dignity. Even with so much cause to be angry at the world, Fiona spends her life trying to make it a better place for the girls who live in it. I am determined to follow her example, to emulate Fiona’s generosity of spirit. Getting called SWERF (sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist) on Twitter is a tiny, tiny price to pay for standing beside Fiona and all the women in her position, of which there are many. Although not all women survive the sex industry. The mortality rate of women in prostitution is up to forty times above the average. Between 60 and 80% of women in prostitution experience regular physical and sexual abuse by men. The sex industry isn’t revolutionary or liberating, but a manifestation of patriarchy and capitalism. It is time to end demand, to end men’s belief they are entitled to sexually access women’s bodies.

After the Stories of Survivors of Male Violence panel, I am emotionally exhausted. And so I fulfil that millennial stereotype and check my phone for a bit, retreating into the world of WhatsApp and Twitter. Liz has replied, asking if the continuum was referenced in the EWL literature. I read through the pamphlet, find no direct reference to Liz or her research, and write back to tell her. This is a difficulty within feminist theorising. Good Loud United Badgesfeminist practice involves sharing ideas and making information as widely accessible as possible. Radical feminism can challenge ownership and institutional power as following patterns of male dominance. But there is something inherently radical about acknowledging women’s work, the development of women’s ideas over time and who made it possible. As Virginia Woolf observed, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Making women’s ideas invisible, treating them as common knowledge rather than giving credit, only serves to further the erasure of women in public life. The continuum is a widely known concept. Upon seeing the pamphlet, I thought immediately of Liz’s work. But if I hadn’t read Surviving Sexual Violence (Kelly), hadn’t known where the continuum came from, making that connection would be impossible. Other women could read the pamphlet without being able to trace the idea back to its source.

Referencing women’s ideas is a revolutionary act. It is a form of resistance to say that a woman made this, a woman did this, a woman thought this. And so I reference Liz publicly, Tweeting about the use of her theory in Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls. Liz responds to my Tweet, saying that she loves this use of her work but believes as feminists we have a responsibility to acknowledge one another. The European Women’s Lobby get back to her immediately and positively. I’m confident they will add the appropriate references to the publication, and glad to have nudged them in the right direction. Acknowledging women’s ideas is at the heart of my life with Glasgow Women’s Library.

It’s just as well I do check Twitter. My friend Pauline has Tweeted her astonishment at finding me here, so far from Scotland. I fizz with excitement at the thought of Pauline here in this room. Sure enough, her Tweets pepper #LoudUnited. We make plans to meet up after the symposium. This will be the first time I have met Pauline in person, though we have been friends for over a year. We met through radical feminist Twitter. My favourite thing about Twitter is that it has the power to connect women around the world, that it hosts such a fertile ground for feminist discourse.

As the panel changes over for the final time, a woman sat in the row in front turns to face me. She asks “are you Claire? Do you write Sister Outrider?” Guilty as charged. I nod. She recognised me from Twitter, says that my writing is exciting and that she is glad to have met me. After she turns back to face the front, I mull over her words. It’s not totally uncommon to be recognised at home, buying books or visiting libraries. Those are settings in which I am expected, places where I have worked. But this is a continent away from those contexts. Although my writing has been translated, I could not have predicted that anyone would connect me to it. It is in parts disconcerting and thrilling. I vow not to let myself develop an inflated sense of self-importance, regardless of how far my writing ever reaches.

And then in walks Gloria Steinem, a masterclass in humility from which a good few writers could learn. Her presence is assured yet unobtrusive, though heads swivel. Nothing about the way Gloria conducts herself is designed to monopolise attention. She sits in the second row awaiting introduction whilst Twitter explodes with her arrival.

When Gloria takes the stage, there is heartfelt applause. She holds up one fist in a feminist salute, just like in that iconic photograph of her with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes. It

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Gloria Steinem addresses Loud and United

was Gloria’s commitment to joint speaking tours with Black women, her approach to interracial solidarity between women, that drew me to her work. And now the woman whose words have come to me through books, videos, and podcasts is speaking to this audience directly. She highlights that the women in this room have overcome boundaries of difference to come together in support of women’s liberation. Observing that patriarchy is under five thousand years old, that it was not universal and is not permanent, she creates a feeling of optimism. It is possible in that moment to imagine that a better future is within reach, a world free from male violence.

Although the word intersectionality (Crenshaw) is never explicitly used, the principles are there in what Gloria says. She talks of race and class and caste alongside gender, about how all hierarchies are interconnected, sharing her theory of supremacy crimes: acts of violence and domination committed not for material gain, but with a view to maintaining the privileges that come with being at the top of a hierarchy. Gloria credits Black Lives Matter as being “a brave and important movement” and goes on to discuss the crimes of George Zimmerman. Before he murdered Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s history was littered with acts of violence against women. In her view, these are both forms of supremacy crime. “Supremacy crimes are related. One predicts another.”

Next comes the part I have been silently dreading: the march. At risk of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about keyboard warriors and slacktivism, I hate going to protests. It’s not a question of if I will experience an anxiety attack, but rather how many. The crush of people, the noise, the difficulty in getting away – these are difficult. Discursive activism is what comes naturally. Earlier this year I went on the Women’s March in London to protest Trump’s inauguration and the erosion of women’s rights. It was powerful to be part of that resistance. It was also terrifying. I put on an oversized pair of sunglasses and prayed that Liz – so bold and determined – wouldn’t notice that I was crying. There was a point when I wanted to ask her if we could go to one side while I closed my eyes and did a breathing exercise, but in the rush I just couldn’t find the words. So I didn’t talk to her for whole stretches of time, lost in my own panic. Liz tried to steer us through the crowds as quickly as possible. Afterwards, knowing what it cost, she told me that I did a brave thing in marching. Liz is a good friend. But today I am here alone, une femme seule. I make a beeline for Joanna, the EWL Secretary-General, and decide to keep a member of the team within sight at all times. So radical.

On the way out of the building, I hand Gloria a Glasgow Women’s Library badge. It’s one of my creations – badge-making is one of the many unexpected skills I have picked up at GWL. Another is confidence. I ask Gloria to sign her book for me, and she obliges. Joanna takes a picture of us together. And for the first time in memory I don’t look at the image wondering whether I look sufficiently thin or pretty. I look truly happy, and that is enough.

The protest is in turns brilliant and scary. Provided I keep the EWL team in sight, the panic is manageable. As we march, we chant: “Sol-sol-sol! Solidarité avec des femmes du monde entire!” Solidarity with women of the entire world. This, I believe in wholeheartedly. Loud and United feels like a fitting description of the group. People stop to listen to our message, to watch the protest go past. The crowd is dotted with pussy hats and feminist banners. We are a force to be reckoned with. A shout goes up: “keep your rosaries away from my ovaries!”

A stage is waiting in the middle of the square. Various women’s organisations wave banners and lead chants. Balloons are blown up. T-shirts and badges are handed out. On the other side of the square, women draw the Venus symbol in purple chalk. In the middle, they lay flowers in memory of all the women killed by male violence. A feeling of harmony between women makes alright simply to occupy this space.

IMG_20170609_224917_653Wielding an impressive megaphone, Joanna takes the stage to introduce Gloria. Perhaps it is my imagination, but Gloria seems more at ease in the midst of a protest than behind a lectern. She observes a truth that is obvious to women of colour yet often disregarded within mainstream feminist spaces: “Sexism and racism go together. You can’t fight one without the other.” The Black women beside me cheer, and I do too. It feels good to have the connection between racism and misogyny acknowledged, highlighted by a woman who is arguably the world’s most recognisable living feminist. There is always that danger in feminist space that white will be treated as the standard unit of womanhood.

Girls line the front of the stage holding up the Loud and United banner. It is moving to see the future of feminism standing before a woman who is emblematic of the second wave, the past and the future woven together in the present. The smallest girl raises her fist like Gloria. When the rally is over, Gloria gestures to the girl’s father who lifts her onto the stage. I love this *picture. It captures the joy, the hope, and the solidarity of the day.

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(*Image shared with the express permission of the child’s parent. Not to be recirculated.)

As the rally disbands, two young women sat smoking on the stage call me over. Both recognise the Glasgow Women’s Library logo on my tote bag. One of their friends was an ERASMUS exchange student in Edinburgh and frequently travelled through to GWL. Many women in and around Glasgow consider the Library a home away from home, a peaceful place to work or while away the hours. It’s nice to think of that Women’s Library joy sending ripples across the continent, of international connections between women.

After

Following the buzz of the protest, it is a relief to sit and chat with my AGORA sisters: Ilaria, Ahinara, and Aurelie. Ahinara has a Spanish translation of Gloria’s book, which I 20170609_224529admire. We get drinks and snacks from a nearby supermarket and listen to a salsa band play live music. It feels good to simply be in that moment. Michela joins us when she finishes work, and I finally get to chat to Pauline in person. We talk about the power of radical feminist Twitter, how online misogyny works to silence women, and anonymity on social media. Wary of threats and violence, Pauline doesn’t share her name or location on Twitter. This layer of privacy enables her to maintain a distance between life online and offline. Men tend to exploit anonymity, use it as a shield from consequence when sending abuse, whereas women often use anonymity as a way of protecting ourselves from abuse. To an extent I regret not creating a separate Twitter account for Sister Outrider and remaining anonymous, but at first it never occurred to me that more than a dozen people would actually bother to read this blog.

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As ever, I am astonished by the energy of my AGORA sisters. Ahinara goes to do more work, and Aurélie departs for a feminist meeting. The rest of us wander through Brussels in search of food. Over dinner we discuss how male violence shapes the very fabric of society. More importantly, we discuss forms of resistance. There is a slight irony to sipping a neon blue cocktail named after Walter White, a character who typifies Toxic Masculinity: Nice Guy™ edition, as the conversation unfolds. Pauline tells us of a case in which a violent father used his last weekend of unsupervised visitation rights to murder his two children and commit suicide in order to punish his wife for ending their marriage. Their bodies, well-hidden, were found by chance. He had intended for her to spend the rest of her life wondering what happened to her missing children. It’s a harrowing story, not an isolated incident but part of the pattern of male violence. Sometimes I think the company of other women – their understanding and encouragement – is the only thing that makes life under patriarchy bearable. That, and good food.

Before she goes, Pauline invites me to come for a visit in her home country. I accept. In the style of Shonda, this is my year of yes – no more turning down adventures or opportunities. Radical feminist Twitter is a brilliant community, connecting women around the world. It’s filled with challenges and complexities, but also women looking to share and develop their ideas. It’s also a good place to make friends. My generation were warned about stranger danger online, yet there are few things I delight in more than meeting radical feminists from Twitter in person. There is something wonderful about being together with someone that has shared space and ideas with you. Bridging the gap between community space online and offline isn’t always practical, but it can be wonderful.

 

Ilaria and Michela take my for my first authentic Belgian waffle, which tastes like heaven, and tour of the Brussels gay scene, which feels like home. In both aesthetic and atmosphere, the bar we gravitate towards reminds me of nothing so much as Delmonica’s, though no doves hang from the ceiling. But first they give me a tour of LGBT 20170609_224229art around the area. For Pride, a crossing is made into a rainbow. In the alley beside Rainbow House, there are gorgeous protest murals as tall as the surrounding buildings. It’s touching to witness this art as resistance, touching that Ilaria and Michela thought to show it to me. There is a popular saying in radical lesbian circles: “A day without lesbians is like a day without sunshine.” Ilaria and Michela remind me of the truth in those words. We discuss lesbian culture over cocktails, including mounting tension between lesbian and queer politics. Like every lesbian I know back home, Ilaria is frustrated that LGBT spaces are dominated by gay men. Still, there is something undeniably wholesome about seeing men sharing tender gestures – holding hands, cuddling on benches, and kissing one another on the mouth in greeting. It’s a refreshing change from the brutality of conventional masculinity.

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“I hope you realise that what you see in porn is not real life lesbian sex! It’s just girls having sex the way men would want them to…”

The next morning, I’m up early – a little fuzzy after the previous night’s antics, but filled with purpose. Pierrette has invited me to join an abolitionist meeting she is facilitating with young activists from across Europe. During Young Feminist Summer School Pierrette ran a workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model called Whose Choice? – I was impressed by how she conducted that session and am keen to see what other forms her work takes. Like so many great things, the meeting happens in a library. Stickers on the spines of books make books about women, sexual politics, and gender easy to find.

Often we are told that ending demand is impossible, that in this world men will inevitably buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Proponents of the sex industry commonly fall back on the defence that “it has always been this way”, positioning opposition to the prostitution of women as naïve. Similarly, social conservatives tell us that male dominance over women is part of the natural order. Both rely on a sense of hopelessness at the scale of the problem to discourage feminists from pursuing social change. Yet this network of activists demonstrate such commitment to ending demand that I can’t help feeling hopeful, even if it is an uphill struggle. They care. That’s such a simple thing to say, but it’s true. They care. And how one views the sex industry does ultimately boil down to a question of empathy. To feel empathy with women, one must recognise us as fully human. And it is impossible to simultaneously feel empathy with women and view our bodies as sexual objects which money entitles men to access.

20170609_225123A narrative of “choice” is often used to whitewash the structural power imbalances upon which the sex industry depends. According to research, “poverty, family loss, homelessness, drug addiction and a history of physical and sexual abuse combine to make young women vulnerable to entering prostitution.” Consideration of choice without analysis of context is meaningless when discussing the realities of women – and they are overwhelmingly women – prostituted as part of the sex industry. When we talk about choice in relation to prostitution, it is important to scrutinise the choice of the men who buy sex. We must question why so many men feel entitled to sex with women, why they consider sexual access to our bodies an inalienable right. This meeting is one of those rare occasions in life when I am truly happy to see that men are part of the group, giving wholehearted opposition to the sex industry. After all, demand will not end until men’s attitudes towards women change.

Mid-way through the session, Gloria Steinem makes a surprise appearance. I don’t notice her straight away, having returned from the bathroom, although she is sitting directly in front of me. Gloria fits into the group quite naturally. She participates in but does not dominant the conversation between activists and experts, making the odd suggestion when useful. I like that her public profile hasn’t distracted Gloria from feminist activism and organising. The way she occupies group space, present and unassuming, is true to good feminist practice. Though I could happily spend all day learning from this group – not simply what they say, but how they say it – I must resume my own life on the road.

As I leave the room, Hanuka presses a copy of her book into my hands. Big City Violets is a diary of her time as a social worker, filled with difficult truths and delicate line drawings, which makes this gift all the more personal. I begin to read it on the journey home, until the turbulence grows too much. Even then it stays in my thoughts. Writing can be cathartic, a way of giving voice to painful things that are hard to express and making sure they no longer go unseen. Hanuka’s book shows a cycle of trafficking and prostitution and drug addiction and violence, a cycle that decimates women’s lives. Not only did Hanuka contain those truths within herself, she put them out into the world. So the seeds of liberation are planted.

Exhaustion catches up with me as I zig-zag through passport control. I wonder what Brexit will mean for determining airport lines, how we will queue – such a British worry. But dividing people by whose passport is EU and whose isn’t becomes redundant. Both trips to Brussels filled me with an appreciation for the European Union, in particular all the social good it has made possible. A familiar feeling of horror sets in as I consider anew the consequences of Brexit. What good are the politics of isolation?

Airports are terrible places for grief. I think it’s because the world is filtered into a binary of home and elsewhere, the familiar and the unknown. A part of me cannot help but expect that my grandfather will be there waiting for me, as he so often was, eager to hear what I have achieved during the course of my absence from our home. I remember his delight as I stepped onto the ward last September – the promise of home I brought to him, as he so often brought to me. I remember the scratchy blue wool of his jumper against my cheek. But my mother is waiting for me, has driven over an hour to collect me. There’s work to do at the Women’s Library, on Sister Outrider, and in so many other spaces. I have stories to share and truths to tell. Coming back is not always easy, and neither is continuing. But if we do not return from one adventure then we cannot begin the next.


Bibliography

Kat Banyard. (2016). Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. (1989). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color

Gail Dines. (2010). Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality

Liz Kelly. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence

Hanukah Lohrengel. (2016). Big City Violets

Audre Lorde. (1977). The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

Christine Miserandino. (2003). The Spoon Theory

Rachel Moran. (2013). Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution

Gloria Steinem. (2015). My Life on the Road

Grasping Things at the Root: On Young Women & Radical Feminism

A brief foreword: a number of young women have contacted me in the last year, writing to ask about what it is like to be publicly radical in my feminism. That young women embrace radical feminism makes me optimistic for the future. That young women are too scared to be open about their radical feminism is utterly grim. And so this post is dedicated to every young woman bold enough to ask questions and challenge answers.

Update: this post has since been translated into French.


 

Why does radical feminism get so much bad press?

Radical feminism isn’t popular. That’s not exactly a secret – Pat Robertson’s infamous Holy Cow! Too Funny!!!!!!claim that the feminist agenda “…encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” has set the tone for mainstream discussions of radical feminism. While Robertson’s perspective on radical feminism verges upon parody, his misogyny served with a side of blatant lesbophobia, it has also served to frame radical feminism as suspect.

If radical feminism can be written off as something sinister or dismissed as the butt of a joke, none of the difficult questions about the patriarchal structuring of society need to be answered – subsequently, power need not be redistributed, and members of the oppressor classes are saved from any challenging self-reflection. Rendering radical feminism monstrous is a highly effective way of shutting down meaningful political change, of maintaining the status quo. It is, therefore, predictable that the socially conservative right are opposed to radical feminism.

What’s often more difficult to anticipate is the venom directed towards radical feminism thought by the progressive left, which is assumed to support the politics of social justice. For women to achieve that justice, we must be liberated from patriarchy – including the constraints of gender, which is both a cause and consequence of male dominance. Yet, when one considers why that hostility emerged, it becomes sadly predictable.

Two factors enabled the left to legitimise its opposition to radical feminism. Firstly, the way in which liberation politics have been atomised by neoliberalism and replaced by the politics of choice (Walter). Personal choice, not political context, has become the preferred unit of feminist analysis. Therefore, critical analysis of personal choice – as advocated by radical feminism – has become a matter of contention despite its necessity in driving meaningful social change. The second factor is the gradual mainstreaming of a queer approach to gender. Instead of considering gender as a hierarchy to be opposed and abolished, queer politics position it as a form of identity, a part to be performed or subverted. This approach ultimately depoliticises gender, which is far from subversive, disregarding its role in maintaining women’s oppression by men. Feminists who are critical of gender are treated as the enemy, not gender in itself.

As a result, we find ourselves in a context where radical feminism is reviled across the political spectrum. On social media it feels as though radical feminists are just as likely to be abused by self-proclaimed queer feminists as we are men’s rights activists – the main difference between the two groups is that MRAs are honest about the fact they hate women.

Young women in particular are discouraged from taking up the mantle of radical feminism. We have been raised on a diet of hollow buzzwords like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’, taught to pursue equality instead of liberation. From the ‘90s onwards, feminism has been presented as a brand accessed through commercialism and slogans instead of a social movement with the objective of dismantling white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks).

guerilla girlaThe third wave of feminism was marketed as a playful alternative to the seriousness of the second wave, which is routinely misrepresented as joyless and dour. Manifestations of women’s oppression, such as the sex industry, were repackaged as harmless choices with the potential to empower (Murphy). If young women are not prepared to accept pole dancing and prostitution as a harmless bit of fun, we risk being tarred by the same boring brush as the second wave; we are denied the label of “cool girl” and all the perks that come with remaining unchallenging to patriarchy. It is no coincidence that “pearl-clutching” and “prude”, accusations commonly directed towards radical feminists, are loaded with ageist misogyny – if radical feminists are presumed to be older women, the logic of patriarchy dictates that radical feminism must be boring and irrelevant. Both the desire for male approval that is drilled into girls from birth and the tacit threat of being associated with older women are used to keep young women from identifying with radical feminism.

Liberal feminism has gained mainstream appeal precisely because it doesn’t threaten the status quo. If the powerful are comfortable with a particular form of feminism – liberal feminism, corporate “lean in” feminism, sex-positive feminism – it is because that feminism presents no challenge to the hierarchies from which their power stems. Such feminism can offer no meaningful social change and is therefore incapable of benefiting any oppressed class.

What are the negative consequences of being openly radical?

The backlash to being openly radical is the least fortunate element of it. I won’t lie: in the beginning, that can be intimidating. With time that fear will fade, if not dissipate. You will stop thinking “I couldn’t possibly say that” and start wondering “why didn’t I say that sooner?” The truth demands to be told, regardless of whether or not it happens to be convenient. Backlash and abuse directed towards radical feminists is a silencing tactic, plain and simple. Whether it comes from the conservative right or queer feminist left, that backlash (Faludi) is a means of silencing dissenting women’s voices. This realisation is freeing, both on a personal and political level. Personally, the good opinion of misogynists is of little value. Politically, it becomes clear that speaking out is an act of resistance. You will simply stop caring.

It takes energy, carrying the hatred people direct towards you – at some point you will realise that you’re not obliged to shoulder that burden and give yourself permission to set it down. Spend that energy on yourself instead. Read a book. Play an instrument. Talk with your mum. Do your nails. Binge-watch The Walking Dead. The time you spend worrying what people say about you, worrying if people like you, is a precious resource that cannot be recovered. Do not give them the gift of your worry – it is exactly what they want. Evict haters from your headspace.

You’re scared of being called a TERF. Let’s be real. That fear of being branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is why so many feminists are afraid to be openly radical, are increasingly unwilling to acknowledge gender as a hierarchy. And that’s alright to feel that fear – it’s meant to be scary. However, the fear needs to be put into perspective. The first time I was ever called “TERF” was for sharing a petition opposing female genital mutilation on Twitter. And when I pointed out that girls were at risk of FGM precisely because they were born female in patriarchy, that the girls who are cut are often of colour, often living within the global south (Spivak) – not exactly enjoying a wealth of cis privilege – the accusations only continued.

It spreads like wildfire. Because I did not repent for sharing that petition, because I did not condemn other women to save myself in the court of public opinion, it went on. That I am a lesbian (a woman who experiences same-sex attraction, i.e. disinterested in sex involving a penis) has only fanned the flames. My name can now be found on various shit lists and auto-block tools across the internet, which is pretty funny. Sometimes you do just have to laugh – it’s the only way to stay sane.

What’s less amusing is being told that I am dangerous. There is an insidious idea that any feminist who queries or critiques a queer perspective on gender is some sort of menace to society. Women who have devoted their adult lives to ending male violence against women are now described, without a trace of irony, as being violent. On a political level, it’s disturbing that disagreement over the nature of gender is positioned as violence within feminist discourse. There is an undeniably Orwellian quality to those opposing violence being described as violent, a double-speak perfected by queer politics. Framing gender-critical feminists as violent erases the reality that men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of violence against trans people and, in doing so, removes any possibility for men to be held accountable for that violence. Men are not blamed for their deeds, no matter how much harm they cause, whereas women are often brutally targeted for our ideas – in this respect, queer discourse mirrors the standards set by patriarchy.

Radical feminism is commonly treated as being synonymous with or indicative of transphobia, which is deeply misleading. The word transphobia implies a revulsion or disgust that simply is not there in radical feminism. I want all people identifying as trans to be safe from harm, persecution, and discrimination. I want all people identifying as trans to be treated with respect and dignity. And I do not know another radical feminist who would argue for anything less. Although radical and queer perspectives on gender are conflicting, this does not stem from bigotry on the part of the former. Abolishing the hierarchy of gender has always been a key aim of radical feminism, a necessary step in liberating women from our oppression by men.

As is often the case with structural analysis, it is necessary to think in terms of the oppressor class and the oppressed class. Under patriarchy, the male sex is the oppressor and the female sex the oppressed – that oppression is material in basis, reliant on the exploitation of female biology. It is impossible to articulate the means of women’s oppression without acknowledging the role played by biology and considering gender as a hierarchy – deprived of the language to articulate our oppression, language which queer politics deems violent or bigoted, it is impossible for women to resist our oppression. Therein sits the tension.

joan jettUltimately, getting called names on the internet is a cost I am more than willing to pay if it is the price required to oppose violence against women and girls. Were it otherwise, I would be unable to call myself a feminist.

Did I choose to be ‘out’ as radical?

At no point did I make a decision to be publicly radical. Even in its most basic form, my feminism understood that ‘sex positivity’ and porn culture were repackaging women’s exploitation as ‘empowering’, that endless talk about choice only served to obscure the context in which those choices are made. I also recall being puzzled by the words sex and gender being used interchangeably in contemporary discourse – the former is a biological category, the latter is a social construction fabricated to enable the oppression of women by men. Seeing gender treated as an amusing provocation or, worse, something innate in our minds, was deeply disconcerting – after all, if gender is natural or inherent, so too is patriarchy. I was conscious that my views were considered old-fashioned but, although it was slightly isolating, not troubled by the tension between me and what I now know to be liberal feminism.

It was only through finding radical feminist Twitter that I realised plenty of International-Feminism-01contemporary feminists thought with the same framework, that these ideas did not exist solely in books that had been written some twenty years before I was born. I do not say this to disparage the feminism of the 1970s, but rather to point out that there was an almost wishful nostalgia to my conceptualisation of that era and the politics it embodied. The second wave felt impossibly far away – thinking about it was like thinking of a party for which you are already decades too late. It felt like that feminism, of radical ideas and action, was gone. Now I realise that is exactly what young women are conditioned to think in the hope that we will grow complacent and accept our oppression instead of challenging it at the root.

Having grown up and developed my ideas, it now seems unlikely I would have found a place had I been of that context – as lesbian feminists go, I am fairly apolitical with regard to sexuality: I’m still not convinced it is possible to choose to be a lesbian, do not know that I would choose to be a lesbian even if the option had been there (there is an undeniable appeal to being slightly more ‘of’ than Other), and oppose the notion that bisexual women are being half-hearted in their feminist praxis because they will not ‘become’ lesbians. Yet, I would not have found my way into those conversations without radical feminist Twitter.

As my political consciousness was catalysed by radical feminist Twitter, a community that continues to challenge and delight me, it seemed natural to participate in that discourse publicly. I was more concerned about developing my ideas – learning from and, later on, teaching other women – than any potential reaction. Perhaps naïvely, I had not fully considered the convenience of closeting my politics. Being connected to radical feminist discourse, engaging with its ideas and the women behind them, was always the priority. I did not initially consider the possibility of acquiring public profile, and now consider it as a largely unfortunate by-product of my participation in feminist discourse as opposed to something worth maintaining in its own right – perhaps why I do not self-censor for the sake of popularity.

Are there professional consequences for being a radical feminist?

It depends on what you do. Countless radical feminists have been reported to their employers for differentiating between sex and gender. Being openly radical when you work in the women’s sector carries a particular risk. Similarly, women who are academics or hold some form of institutional power are in a delicate position, faced with the dilemma of jeopardising a career or speaking out. I know dozens of radical feminists who achieve more social good for other women by saying nothing explicitly radical whilst doing the most extraordinary, necessary work. None of that work would be possible if those women chose to die on the hill of gender politics. A direct result of that would be other women losing out – from literacy classes to policy on male violence, there would be very real consequences if covertly radical women lost their positions. There are times when staying quiet is the smarter option, particularly in conversations about gender politics, and I will not condemn women who make that tactical decision.

My career is freelance – in this respect, being directly accountable only to myself is useful. That being said, a freelance career is dependent on organisations being willing to commission my writing or workshops. Becoming a pariah is fairly counterproductive in that respect. At points people have contacted (or at least threatened to contact) places where I study, volunteer, and write. Nothing has ever come of it. Why? Their accusations are false. I have nothing to hide about feminism – there is no shameful secret at the heart of my sexual politics. I will only ever say what I believe in, what I can back up with evidence, what a substantial body of feminist theory supports.

Being able to speak with conviction and follow through when questioned is crucial. Those qualities are also what appeal to the people and organisations who hire me. A recurring theme with commissions: at least one person within the organisation has covertly voiced support for my radical feminism. Radical feminism is less of an anathema than we are made to believe.

I am commissioned to produce work that I believe in. Nothing my detractors have said or done changes that fact. To quote Beyoncé, the best revenge is your paper.

How do non-radical feminists react?

Badly. Not always, but often. Some of the most rewarding and thought-provoking engagements are with women who are not radical feminists yet engage in good faith. Unfortunately, those interactions are in the minority.

Abuse from strangers, while it can be frightening, is something to which I have grown habituated. I report it to the relevant authorities and move on. Following the most concentrated period of abuse I have endured, it was not the threats that weighed on my mind, but the responses of queer and liberal feminists. A number openly celebrated my abuse and its consequences. Theirs is the type of feminism that is opposed to racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. up until the point those prejudices damage someone whose politics do not align with their own. That was disconcerting. Be prepared for those moments. Be prepared to lose false friends, too.

It’s a strange position to be in. If the label TERF has ever been applied to you, it strips away something of your humanity in the eyes of the wider public. You are no longer viewed as a worthy recipient of empathy or even basic human decency. This isn’t surprising, because TERF is often used in conjunction with violent threats and graphic descriptions of abuse. It legitimises violence against women.

TERF functions something like “witch” in The Crucible. Only by condemning other women can you avoid that condemnation yourself. There is a frantic edge behind the panic it spreads. There are plenty of feminists who will be prepared to monster you to save their own reputations. They are not worth your respect, let alone the time it would take to puzzle out their motives.

It is also worth considering the responses of feminists who are not publicly radical. Women routinely tell me that I am saying what they believe, express gratitude that I speak out, tell me that my words resonate. And this is gratifying, yes, but it is also isolating. An almost supernatural courage is projected onto openly radical women, an exceptionalism that is often used by other women to justify their silence. Glosswitch often speaks about this phenomenon, and she is right – it would be far more rewarding if the women who offer private support would publicly claim their own radical politics instead, provided they are in a position to do so.


 

Bibliography

bell hooks. (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

Feminist Current

Miranda Kiraly  & Meagan Tyler (eds.). (2015). Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism

Gayatri Spivak. (1987). In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

Le problème qui n’a pas de nom… parce que le mot « femme » est qualifié d’essentialiste

The Problem That Has No Name because ‘Woman’ is too Essentialist is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.


Voici le troisième de ma série d’essais sur le sexe et le genre. Les deux premiers : 1 (Le sexe, le genre et le nouvel essentialisme) et 2 (Lezbehonest (Parlons franchement) à propos de l’effacement des femmes lesbiennes par la polique queer) sont également affichés sur TRADFEM.

Inspirée par la prise de position de l’autrice Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sur l’identité de genre et par la réaction qu’elle a suscitée, je parle ici du langage dans le discours féministe et de l’importance du mot femme.


 « Y a-t-il une façon plus courte et non essentialiste de parler de « personnes qui ont un utérus et tous ces trucs »? », a demandé sur le réseau Twitter la journaliste Laurie Penny. À plusieurs égards, la quête de Penny pour trouver un terme décrivant les personnes biologiquement femmes sans jamais utiliser le mot femme décrit le principal défi posé au langage féministe actuel. La tension entre les femmes qui reconnaissent et celles qui effacent le rôle que joue la biologie dans l’analyse structurelle de notre oppression s’est transformée en ligne de faille (MacKay, 2015) au sein du mouvement féministe. Des contradictions surviennent lorsque des féministes tentent simultanément de voir comment la biologie des femmes façonne notre oppression en régime patriarcal et de nier que notre oppression possède une base matérielle. Il existe des points où l’analyse structurelle rigoureuse et le principe de l’inclusivité absolue coexistent difficilement.

Au cours de la même semaine, Dame Jeni Murray, qui anime depuis 40 ans l’émission radio de la BBC « Woman’s Hour », a été prise à parti par des trans pour avoir posé la question suivante : « Est-ce que quelqu’un qui a vécu en tant qu’homme, avec tous les privilèges que cela implique, peut réellement revendiquer la condition féminine? » Dans un article rédigé pour le Sunday Times, Murray a réfléchi au rôle de la socialisation genrée reçue au cours des années de formation dans le façonnement des comportements ultérieurs, en contestant l’idée qu’il est possible de divorcer le moi physique du contexte sociopolitique. De façon semblable, la romancière Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie est présentement mise au pilori pour ses propres commentaires sur l’identité de genre.

Lorsqu’on lui a demandé « La façon dont vous en êtes venue à la condition féminine a-t-elle de l’importance? », Adichie a fait ce que peu de féministes sont actuellement disposées à faire en raison du caractère extrême du débat entourant le genre. Elle a répondu sans détour et publiquement :

« Alors, quand des gens soulèvent la question « est-ce que les transfemmes sont des femmes? », mon sentiment est que les transfemmes sont des transfemmes. Je pense que si vous avez vécu dans le monde en tant qu’homme, avec les privilèges que le monde accorde aux hommes, et que vous changez ensuite de sexe, il est difficile pour moi d’accepter que nous puissions alors comparer vos expériences avec les expériences d’une femme qui a toujours vécu dans le monde en tant que femme, qui ne s’est pas vu accorder ces privilèges dont disposent les hommes. Je ne pense pas que ce soit une bonne chose d’amalgamer tout cela. Je ne pense pas que ce soit une bonne chose de parler des enjeux des femmes comme étant exactement identiques aux enjeux des transfemmes. Ce que je dis, c’est que le genre ne relève pas de la biologie, le genre relève de la sociologie. »

Au tribunal de l’opinion queer, le crime d’Adichie a été de différencier, dans sa description de la condition féminine, les personnes qui sont biologiquement des femmes, et élevées en tant que telles, de celles qui passent du statut masculin au statut féminin (et qui étaient, à toutes fins utiles, traitées comme des hommes avant leur transition). Dans le discours queer, les préfixes de « cis » et de « trans » sont conçus pour tracer précisément cette distinction, mais ce n’est que lorsque des femmes féministes précisent et explorent ces différences que leur reconnaissance suscite la colère.

La déclaration d’Adichie est parfaitement logique: il est ridicule d’imaginer que les personnes socialisées et perçues comme femmes au cours de leurs années de formation ont vécu les mêmes expériences que les personnes socialisées et perçues comme hommes. La société patriarcale dépend de l’imposition du genre comme façon de subordonner les femmes et d’accorder la domination aux hommes. Amalgamer les expériences des femmes avec celle des transfemmes a pour effet d’effacer le privilège masculin que détenaient les transfemmes avant leur transition et de nier l’héritage des comportements masculins appris. Cela nie la signification réelle du moyen d’accès à la condition féminine pour façonner cette expérience. Cela nie ces deux ensembles de vérités.

Le site web Everyday Feminism a publié une liste de sept arguments visant à prouver que les transfemmes n’ont jamais détenu de privilège masculin. Cet essai aurait peut-être été plus efficace pour préconiser la solidarité féministe s’il n’avait pas, dès la première phrase, adressé une attaque misogyne et âgiste envers les féministes de la deuxième vague. Dans cet article, Kai Cheng Thom soutient que «[…] si les transfemmes sont des femmes, cela signifie que nous ne pouvons pas bénéficier du privilège masculin – parce que le privilège masculin est par définition une chose que seuls peuvent vivre les hommes et les personnes qui s’identifient comme hommes. »

Voici le nœud de la question – la tension qui existe entre la réalité matérielle et l’auto-identification comme facteurs de définition de la condition féminine. Si la transféminité est synonyme de la condition féminine, les caractéristiques de l’oppression des femmes cessent d’être reconnaissables comme expériences de femmes. Le genre ne peut pas être catégorisé comme un mode d’oppression socialement construit s’il doit aussi être considéré comme une identité innée. Cette lecture efface le lien entre le sexe biologique et la fonction première du genre : l’oppression des femmes au profit des hommes. Comme l’a dit Adichie, cet amalgame est au mieux inutile. Si nous ne pouvons pas reconnaître les privilèges dont disposent les êtres reconnus et traités comme masculins sur leurs homologues féminins, nous cessons de pouvoir reconnaître l’existence du patriarcat.

La biologie n’est pas le destin. Cependant, au sein de la société patriarcale, elle détermine les rôles assignés aux filles et aux garçons à la naissance. Et il existe une différence cruciale dans la façon dont les êtres biologiquement masculins et biologiquement féminins sont positionnés par les structures dominantes de pouvoir, indépendamment de l’identité de genre.

« Les filles sont socialisées de façons nuisibles à leur sentiment de soi, socialisées à s’enlever de l’importance, à se plier aux égos masculins, à penser à leurs corps comme des sites de honte. Arrivées à l’âge adulte, beaucoup de femmes luttent pour surmonter, pour désapprendre une bonne part de ce conditionnement social. Les transfemmes sont des personnes nées hommes et des personnes qui, avant leur transition, ont été traitées en tant qu’hommes par le monde. Ce qui signifie qu’elles ont vécu les privilèges que le monde accorde aux hommes. Cela n’élude pas la douleur de la confusion de genre ou les aspects complexes et pénibles de leur sentiment d’avoir vécu dans des corps qui n’étaient pas les leurs. En effet, la vérité sur le privilège sociétal est qu’il ne concerne pas la façon dont vous vous sentez. Il concerne la façon dont le monde vous traite, les influences subtiles et pas si subtiles que vous intériorisez et absorbez. » –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Si les femmes ne peuvent plus être identifiées comme membres d’une classe de sexe à des fins politiques, l’oppression des femmes ne peut plus être directement abordée ou contestée. En conséquence, les objectifs féministes se trouvent sapés par la politique queer.

La linguiste Deborah Cameron a identifié une nouvelle tendance actuelle, celle de l’« étonnante femme en voie d’invisibilisation ». Elle met en évidence le modèle d’effacement des réalités vécues par les femmes, y compris leur oppression, par un langage neutre à l’égard du genre. Mais alors que la féminité est sans cesse déconstruite dans le discours queer, la catégorie de la virilité demeure, elle, à l’abri de toute contestation.

Ce n’est pas un hasard si la masculinité reste incontestée, même au moment où le mot femme est traité comme offensant et « excluant ». L’homme est présenté comme norme de l’humanité, et la femme comme autre-que-l’homme. En réduisant les femmes à des « non-hommes », comme a tenté de le faire le Parti Vert britannique, en réduisant les femmes à des « personnes enceintes », comme conseille de le faire la British Medical Association, le discours queer perpétue la définition de la femme comme autre. L’idéologie queer pousse les conventions patriarcales à leur conclusion logique en repoussant littéralement les femmes hors du vocabulaire et donc de l’existence.

Définir la classe opprimée en fonction de l’oppresseur, nier aux opprimées le vocabulaire pour parler de la façon dont elles sont marginalisées, ne contribue qu’à ratifier la hiérarchie du genre. Bien que ces changements linguistiques semblent à première vue inclusifs, ils ont pour conséquence imprévue de perpétuer la misogynie.

« Supprimer le mot femme et les termes biologiques de tout échange concernant la condition féminine corporelle semble dangereux, écrit la chroniqueuse Vonny Moyes. Refuser de reconnaître l’anatomie des femmes, leurs capacités reproductives et leur sexualité a longtemps été le fait du patriarcat. Il semble que nous ayons bénéficié de quelques décennies dorées de reconnaissance, et que nous avons pu afficher fièrement notre expérience vécue de la condition féminine corporelle, mais nous devons maintenant abdiquer ce vocabulaire au nom du reste du groupe. Même si la logique semble être aux commandes, il est difficile de ne pas ressentir l’effacement de cet aspect de la condition féminine, avec de troublants échos du patriarcat traditionnel. »

Aborder les questions du sexe biologique et de la socialisation genrée est devenu de plus en plus controversé; les adeptes les plus extrêmes de l’idéologie queer qualifient ces deux thèmes de mythes TERF (un qualificatif péjoratif signifiant « féministe radicale excluant les trans ». On souhaiterait bien un caractère mythique au lien entre la biologie des femmes et notre oppression, ou aux conséquences de la socialisation genrée. Dans un tel scénario, celles qui possèdent un corps féminin, les femmes, pourraient simplement échapper par auto-identification à l’oppression structurelle, et choisir de faire partie de n’importe quel autre groupe qu’une classe opprimée. Mais il est manifeste que l’exploitation de la biologie féminine et la socialisation genrée jouent toutes deux un rôle central dans la création et le maintien de l’oppression des femmes par les hommes.

La politique queer reconfigure l’oppression des femmes comme une position de privilège inhérent, tout en nous privant simultanément du langage requis pour analyser cette même oppression et y résister. Le thème de l’identité de genre laisse les féministes déchirées par une sorte de dilemme : soit accepter que d’être marginalisées en raison de notre sexe constitue un privilège « cis », soit protester et risquer d’être stigmatisée comme TERF. Il n’y a pas de place pour les voix dissidentes dans cette conversation – pas si ces voix sont celles de femmes. À cet égard, il y a très peu de différence entre les normes établies par le discours queer et celles qui régissent les règles patriarcales.

Le mot femme est important. Avoir un nom confère du pouvoir. Comme l’observe Patricia Hill Collins (2000), l’autodéfinition est un élément clé de la résistance politique. Si la condition féminine ne peut être articulée positivement, si elle n’est comprise que comme l’envers négatif de la virilité, les femmes sont maintenues dans la position d’objet. Ce n’est qu’en considérant les femmes comme le sujet – en tant qu’êtres humains auto-actualisés ayant droit à l’autodétermination – que la libération devient possible.

« La force du mot « femme » est qu’il peut être utilisé pour affirmer notre humanité, notre dignité et notre valeur, sans nier notre féminité incarnée ou la traiter comme une source de honte. Ce mot ne nous réduit pas à des ventres ambulants, ni ne nous dé-genre ou dématérialise. C’est pourquoi il est important pour les féministes de continuer à l’utiliser. Un mouvement dont le but est de libérer les femmes ne devrait pas traiter le mot « femme » comme obscène. » (Deborah Cameron)

Sans une utilisation fière et explicite du mot femme, la politique féministe manque de l’ampleur nécessaire pour organiser toute résistance réelle à la subordination des femmes. On ne peut pas libérer une classe de personnes qui ne peuvent même pas être nommées. La condition féminine est dévaluée par ces insidieuses tentatives de la rendre invisible. Si les femmes ne se jugent pas à la hauteur du malaise créé par le fait de nous nommer directement, précisément, nous ne pouvons guère prétendre valoir la peine des difficultés que la libération doit susciter.

Toute éventuelle infraction causée par une référence sans équivoque au corps féminin est peu de chose en comparaison des violences et de l’exploitation de nos corps féminins en régime patriarcal. Comme le dit Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: « « Parce que tu es une fille » ne constitue jamais une justification de quoi que ce soit. Jamais. »


Bibliographie 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2017). Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Kat Banyard. (2010). The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

Deborah Cameron. (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Patricia Hill Collins. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Second Edition)

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist

This is the third in my series of essays on sex and gender (see parts 1 & 2). Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on gender identity and the subsequent response, I have written about language within feminist discourse and the significance of the word woman.

Update (17/03.17): this essay is now available in French.


 

Screenshot_20170315-144208“…what’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?” In many ways, Laurie Penny’s quest to find a term describing biologically female people without ever actually using the word woman typifies the greatest challenge within ongoing feminist discourse. The tension between women acknowledging and erasing the role of biology in structural analysis of our oppression has developed into a fault line (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement. Contradictions arise when feminists simultaneously attempt to address how women’s biology shapes our oppression under patriarchal society whilst denying that our oppression is material in basis. At points, rigorous structural analysis and inclusivity make uneasy bedfellows.

That same week Dame Jeni Murray, who has hosted BBC Woman’s Hour for forty years, faced criticism for asking “Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood?” Writing for the Sunday Times, Murray reflected upon the role of gendered socialisation received during formative years in shaping subsequent behaviour, challenging the notion that it is possible to divorce the physical self from socio-political context. Similarly, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for her comments on gender identity.

When asked “does it matter how you arrived at being a woman?” Adichie did what few feminists are presently prepared to do because of the extremity within debate surrounding gender. She gave a candid public response:

“So when people talk about ‘are transwomen women?’, my feeling is transwomen are transwomen. I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of transwomen. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”

In the court of queer opinion, Adichie’s crime was to differentiate between those who are biologically female and raised as such, and those who transition from male to female (and were, for all intents and purposes, treated as male before undergoing transition), in her description of womanhood.  Within queer discourse the prefixes of ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are designed to draw precisely that distinction, yet it is only when feminist women articulate and explore those differences that their acknowledgement becomes a source of ire.

Adichie’s statement is perfectly logical: it is ludicrous to imagine that those socialised and Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie_photo1read as female during their formative years have the same experiences as those socialised and read as male. Patriarchal society depends upon the imposition of gender as a means of subordinating women and granting men dominance. Conflating the experiences of women and transwomen erases the male privilege that transwomen held prior to transition and negates the legacy of learned male behaviour. It denies the true significance of how one arrives at womanhood in shaping that experience of womanhood. It denies both sets of truths.

Everyday Feminism published a piece outlining seven points that prove transwomen never held male privilege, a piece which would perhaps have been more effective in advocating feminist solidarity if it didn’t direct ageist misogyny towards second wave feminists in the opening line. Within this article, Kai Cheng Thom argues that “…if [transwomen] are women, that means we cannot receive male privilege – because male privilege is by definition something that only men and masculine-identified people can experience.”

Here is crux of the matter – the tension that exists between material reality and self-identification in shaping definitions of womanhood. If transwomanhood is synonymous with womanhood, the hallmarks of women’s oppression cease to recognisable as women’s experiences. Gender cannot be categorised as a socially constructed means of oppression if it is also to be considered as an innate identity. The connection between biological sex and the primary function of gender – oppressing women for the benefit of men – is erased. As Adichie stated, this conflation is at best unhelpful. If we cannot acknowledge the privileges those recognised and treated as male hold over their female counterparts, we cannot acknowledge the existence of patriarchy.

Biology is not destiny. However, within patriarchal society, it determines the roles ascribed to girls and boys at birth. And there is a fundamental difference in how those biologically male and biologically female are positioned by dominant structures of power, irrespective of gender identity.

“Girls are socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning. A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own. Because the truth about societal privilege is that it isn’t about how you feel. It is about how the world treats you, about the subtle and not so subtle things that you internalize and absorb.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If women can no longer be identified as members of a sex class for political purposes, women’s oppression cannot be directly addressed or challenged. Subsequently, feminist objectives are undermined by queer politics.

Linguist Deborah Cameron has identified the trend of “the amazing disappearing woman”, highlighting the pattern of women’s lived realities and oppression being rendered invisible by gender-neutral language. Whereas womanhood is relentlessly deconstructed within queer discourse, the category of manhood is yet to be disputed.

no womenIt is not an accident that masculinity remains uncontested even as the word woman is treated as offensive, exclusionary. Man is positioned as the normative standard of humanity, woman as other-to-man. In reducing women to “non-men”, as the Green Party attempted to,  in reducing women to “pregnant people”, as the British Medical Association advised, queer discourse perpetuates the framing of woman as other. Queer ideology takes patriarchal conventions to their logical conclusion by quite literally writing women out of existence.

Defining the oppressed class in relation to the oppressor, denying the oppressed the language to speak of how they are marginalised, only serves to ratify the hierarchy of gender. Though such linguistic shifts appear inclusive at first glance, they have the unforeseen consequence of perpetuating misogyny.

“Removing the word women and biological language from discussions of female bodily reality seems dangerous. Refusing to acknowledge the female anatomy, reproductive capabilities and sexuality has long been the work of the patriarchy. It seems we had a few golden decades of acknowledgement, and could wear our lived experience of bodily womanhood proudly – but now we have to drop that language in favour of the group. Even with logic in the driver’s seat, it’s hard not to feel this particular aspect of womanhood is being erased with uncomfortable echoes of patriarchy past.”Vonny Moyes

Addressing the issues of biological sex and gendered socialisation have become increasingly controversial, with more extreme elements of queer ideology positioning both subjects as TERF “myth”. It would be easy to wish the connection between women’s biology and our oppression, the consequences of gendered socialisation, were myths. In such a scenario, those in possession of a female body – women – could simply identify our way out of structural oppression, choose to be part of any group other than an oppressed class. Yet exploitation of female biology and gendered socialisation both play a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining the oppression of women by men.

Queer politics repackages women’s oppression as a position of inherent privilege whilst simultaneously depriving us of the language required to address and oppose that very oppression. The issue of gender identity leaves feminists in something of a double-bind: either accept that being marginalised on account of your sex is cis privilege or speak up and risk being branded a TERF. There is no space for dissenting voices in this conversation – not if those voices belong to women. In this respect, there is very little difference between the standards set by queer discourse and those governing patriarchal norms.

The word woman is important. With a name comes power. As Patricia Hill Collins observes (2000), self-definition is a key component of political resistance. If womanhood cannot be positively articulated, if womanhood is understood only as a negative of manhood, women are held in the position of object. It is only through considering women as the subject – as self-actualised human beings with the right to self-determination – that liberation becomes possible.

“The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.”Deborah Cameron

Without proud and open use of word woman, feminist politics lack the scope to mount anyradfem-symbol real resistance to women’s subordination. You cannot liberate a class of people that may not even be named. Womanhood is devalued by these insidious attempts to render it invisible. If women do not consider ourselves worth the inconvenience caused by naming us directly, specifically, we can hardly argue that we are worth the difficulties that liberation must bring.

Any potential offence caused by referring unequivocally to the female body is minor compared to the abuse and exploitation of our female bodies under patriarchy. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”


Bibliography

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2017). Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Kat Banyard. (2010). The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

Deborah Cameron. (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Patricia Hill Collins. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Second Edition)

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

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.

steinem hale

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

Le sexe, le genre, et le nouvel essentialisme

Sex, Gender, and the New Essentialism is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.


Un bref avant-propos : Ce texte est le premier d’une série d’essais sur le sexe, le genre et la sexualité. Si vous êtes d’accord avec ce que j’ai écrit, très bien. Si vous n’êtes pas d’accord avec quoi que ce soit dans ce texte, c’est aussi très bien. Quoi qu’il en soit, votre vie restera intacte après avoir fermé cet onglet, indépendamment de ce que vous pensez de ce billet.

Je refuse de me taire de peur d’être associée au mauvais type de féministe. Je refuse de rester silencieuse au moment où d’autres femmes sont harcelées et maltraitées pour leurs opinions sur le genre. Dans l’esprit de la sororité, ce billet est dédié à Julie Bindel. Il se peut que nous ayons parfois certaines divergences d’opinion, mais je suis très heureuse de son travail pour mettre fin à la violence masculine infligée aux femmes. Pour citer feue la grande Audre Lorde : « Je suis décidée et je n’ai peur de rien. »

________________________________________

Quand je me suis inscrite pour la première fois en Études de genre, mon grand-père m’a appuyée; il était ravi que j’aie trouvé une orientation dans la vie et acquis une éthique de travail qui ne s’était jamais matérialisée au cours de mes études de premier cycle. Par contre, il s’est dit stupéfait par le sujet. « Pourquoi avez-vous besoin d’étudier ça? », demanda-t-il. « Je peux te dire ceci gratuitement : si tu as des *parties masculines, tu es un homme. Si tu as des *parties féminines, tu es une femme. Il n’y a pas beaucoup plus à en dire. Tu n’as pas besoin d’un diplôme pour savoir cela. »(* Les conventions sociales empêchaient mon grand-père et moi d’utiliser les mots pénis ou vagin / vulve dans cette conversation, ou dans tout autre échange que nous eûmes.)

Ma réaction initiale en a été une de choc: après avoir passé un peu trop de temps sur Twitter, et avoir été témoin de l’extrême polarité du discours entourant le genre, j’étais consciente qu’exprimer pareilles opinions dans les médias sociaux risquait d’exposer son auteur à une campagne de harcèlement soutenue. Puis, comme il était blanc et mâle, je me suis dit que si ‘ai mon grand-père septuagénaire devait s’aventurer sur Twitter, il resterait sans doute à l’abri de ce genre d’agressions, qui sont presque exclusivement adressées à des femmes.

Par ailleurs, le fait d’entendre ce point de vue exprimé avec une telle désinvolture dans le jardin où nous étions ensemble, constituait une échappée des tensions caractérisant le monde numérique, la peur qu’éprouvent les femmes d’être stigmatisées comme étant du « mauvais genre » de féministe et lapidées publiquement en conséquence . Cet échange m’a poussée à considérer non seulement la réalité du genre, mais le contexte du discours entourant le genre. L’intimidation est une puissante tactique de censure : un environnement régi par la peur ne se prête ni à la pensée critique ni à la parole publique ni au développement des idées.

Jusqu’à la fin de sa vie, mon grand-père est demeuré béatement ignorant du schisme que l’idée de genre a créée dans le mouvement féministe, un fossé qui a été surnommé les guerres de TERF. Pour les non-initiées, le mot TERF signifie Radical Feminist Trans-Exclusionary – un acronyme utilisé pour décrire les femmes dont le féminisme critique le genre et préconise l’abolition de sa hiérarchie. La façon dont on devrait aborder le genre est sans doute la principale source de tension entre les politiques féministe et queer.

LA HIERARCHIE DU GENRE

Le patriarcat dépend de la hiérarchie du genre. Pour démanteler le patriarcat – l’objectif de base du mouvement féministe – il faut aussi abolir le genre. Dans la société patriarcale, le genre est ce qui fait du masculin la norme de l’humanité et du féminin, l’Autre. Le genre est ce pourquoi la sexualité féminine est strictement contrôlée – les femmes sont qualifiées de salopes si nous accordons aux hommes l’accès sexuel à nos corps, et de prudes si nous ne le faisons pas – alors qu’aucun jugement de ce type ne pèse sur la sexualité masculine. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les femmes qui sont agressées par des hommes sont blâmés et culpabilisées – elle « a couru après » ou « elle l’a provoqué » – alors que le comportement des hommes agresseurs est couramment justifié avec des arguments comme « un homme, c’est un homme » ou « c’est fondamentalement quelqu’un de bien ». Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les filles sont récompensées de penser d’abord aux autres et de rester passives et modestes, des traits qui ne sont pas encouragés chez les garçons. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les garçons sont récompensés de se montrer compétitifs, agressifs et ambitieux, des traits qui ne sont pas encouragés chez les filles. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les femmes sont considérées comme des biens, passant de la propriété du père à celle du mari par le mariage. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les femmes sont censées effectuer le travail domestique et émotionnel ainsi que la vaste majorité des soins, bien que ce travail soit dévalué comme « féminisé » et par la suite rendu invisible.

Le genre n’est pas un problème abstraite. Une femme est tuée par un homme tous les trois jours au Royaume-Uni. On estime que 85 000 femmes sont violées chaque année en Angleterre et au pays de Galles. Une femme britannique sur quatre éprouve de la violence aux mains d’un partenaire masculin, chiffre qui s’élève à une sur trois à l’échelle mondiale. Plus de 200 millions de femmes et de filles vivant aujourd’hui ont subi des mutilations génitales. La libération des femmes et des filles de la domination masculine et de la violence utilisée pour maintenir cette disparité de pouvoir est un objectif féministe fondamental – un objectif qui est incompatible avec l’acceptation des limites imposées par le genre comme frontières de ce qui est possible dans nos vies.

« Le problème du genre est qu’il prescrit comment nous devrions être plutôt que de reconnaître comment nous sommes. Imaginez combien nous aurions plus de bonheur, combien plus de liberté pour exprimer notre véritable personnalité si nous ne subissions pas le poids des attentes de genre … Les garçons et les filles sont indéniablement différents au plan biologique, mais la socialisation exagère les différences, puis amorce un processus d’autoréalisation. » Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

Les rôles de genre sont une prison. Le genre est un piège construit socialement en vue d’opprimer les femmes comme classe de sexe pour le bénéfice des hommes comme classe de sexe. Et l’importance du sexe biologique ne peut pas être négligée, en dépit des efforts récents pour recadrer le genre comme identité plutôt que comme hiérarchie. L’exploitation sexuelle et l’exploitation reproductive du corps féminin sont la base matérielle de l’oppression des femmes – notre biologie est utilisée comme moyen de domination par nos oppresseurs, les hommes. Même s’il existe un très faible nombre de personnes qui ne s’inscrivent pas parfaitement dans la structure binaire du sexe biologique – les personnes qui sont intersexuées – cela ne modifie pas la nature structurelle et systématique de l’oppression des femmes.

Les féministes critiquent la hiérarchie du genre depuis des centaines d’années, et avec raison. Lorsque Sojourner Truth a déconstruit la féminité, elle a critiqué la misogynie et le racisme anti-Noirs qui façonnaient la définition de la catégorie de femme. Se basant sur ses prouesses physiques et sa force d’âme comme preuve empirique, Truth a observé que la condition de femme ne dépendait aucunement des traits associés à la féminité et a contesté l’altérisation des corps féminins noirs qui était requise pour élever la fragilité perçue de la féminité blanche au statut d’idéal féminin. Son discours « Ain’t I A Woman? » (Ne suis-je pas une femme?) est l’une des premières critiques féministes connues de l’essentialisme de genre; Le discours de Truth était une reconnaissance de l’interaction entre les hiérarchies de race et de genre dans le contexte de la société patriarcale raciste (bell hooks, 1981). Simone de Beauvoir a elle aussi déconstruit la féminité en affirmant que « l’on ne naît pas femme, on le devient ». Avec Le Deuxième sexe, elle a soutenu que le genre n’était pas inné, mais qu’il créait des rôles que nous sommes socialisé-e-s à adopter conformément à notre sexe biologique. Elle a souligné les limites de ces rôles, en particulier celles imposées aux femmes en raison de l’essentialisme de genre, l’idée que le genre est inné.

Comme l’a fait remarquer Beauvoir, l’essentialisme de genre a été utilisé contre les femmes pendant des siècles dans une tentative d’entraver notre entrée dans la sphère publique, de nous refuser une vie indépendante de la domination masculine. Les prétentions d’un manque de capacité intellectuelle des femmes, de leur passivité inhérente et de leur irrationalité innée étaient toutes utilisées pour restreindre la vie des femmes à un contexte domestique au nom du principe que c’était l’état naturel de la femme. L’histoire démontre que l’insistance sur l’hypothèse d’un « cerveau féminin » est une tactique patriarcale utilisée pour maintenir entre les mains des hommes le suffrage, les droits de propriété, l’autonomie corporelle et l’accès aux études. Vu la longue histoire de misogynie basée sur des a priori concernant un cerveau féminin, le neurosexisme (Fine, 2010), en plus d’être scientifiquement faux, est contradictoire à une perspective féministe.

Pourtant, le concept d’un cerveau féminin est une fois de plus mis de l’avant – non seulement par des idéologues conservateurs, mais dans le contexte des idées politiques queer et de gauche, que l’on présume généralement être progressistes. Les explorations du genre en tant qu’identité, par opposition à une hiérarchie, reposent souvent sur la présomption que le genre est inné – « dans le cerveau » – plutôt que socialement construit. Par conséquent, le développement de la politique transgenre et les désaccords subséquents sur la nature de l’oppression des femmes – ce qui en est la racine et comment la femme est définie – sont devenus une ligne de faille (MacKay, 2015) au sein du mouvement féministe.

FÉMINISME ET IDENTITÉ DE GENRE

Le mot transgenre est utilisé pour décrire l’état d’un individu dont la perception personnelle de son sexe diffère de son sexe biologique. Par exemple, une personne née avec un corps de femme qui s’identifie comme un homme est qualifiée de « transhomme ». Une personne née avec un corps d’homme qui s’identifie comme femme est qualifiée de « transfemme ». Être transgenre peut impliquer un certain degré d’intervention médicale, pouvant inclure une thérapie de remplacement d’hormones et une chirurgie de réaffectation de sexe. Ce processus de transition est alors entrepris pour aligner le moi matériel avec l’identité interne d’une personne transgenre. Toutefois, parmi les 650 000 Britanniques qui entrent dans la catégorie transgenre, on estime à seulement 30 000 le nombre de personnes ayant effectué une transition chirurgicale ou médicale.

Le terme trans a d’abord décrit les personnes nées hommes qui s’identifient comme femmes, ou vice versa, mais il est maintenant utilisé pour désigner une variété d’identités ancrées dans une non-conformité de genre. À ce titre, l’étiquette de trans comprend aussi bien l’identité non binaire (quand une personne ne s’identifie ni comme homme ni comme femme), la fluidité de genre (quand l’identité d’un individu est susceptible de passer du masculin au féminin ou vice versa), et le statut de « genderqueer » (quand un individu identifie à la fois au masculin et au féminin ou à aucun de ces deux pôles), pour ne citer que quelques exemples.

L’antonyme du concept de transgenre est celui de cisgenre, un mot utilisé pour désigner l’alignement du sexe biologique et du rôle de genre assigné. Le statut de cisgenre a été qualifié de privilège par le discours queer, en désignant les personnes cis comme une classe d’oppresseurs et les trans comme les opprimés. Bien que les personnes trans soient indéniablement un groupe marginalisé, aucune distinction n’est faite entre les hommes et les femmes cis en considération des manifestations de cette marginalisation. Pourtant, la violence masculine est systématiquement responsable des meurtres de transfemmes, un motif tragique que Judith Butler identifie comme étant le produit du « … besoin des hommes de satisfaire aux normes culturelles du pouvoir masculin et de la masculinité ».

Dans l’optique queer, c’est le genre auquel on s’identifie et non l classe de sexe à laquelle on appartient qui dicte si on est marginalisé par l’oppression patriarcale ou si on en bénéficie. À cet égard, la politique queer est fondamentalement en contradiction avec l’analyse féministe. Le point de vue queer situe le genre dans l’esprit, où il existe comme identité auto-définie de façon positive – et non comme hiérarchie. Du point de vue féministe, le genre est compris comme un moyen de perpétuer le déséquilibre de pouvoir structurel que le patriarcat a établi entre les classes de sexe.

« Si vous ne reconnaissez pas la réalité matérielle du sexe biologique ou son importance comme axe d’oppression, votre théorie politique ne peut incorporer aucune analyse du patriarcat. La subordination historique et pérenne des femmes n’est pas apparue parce que certains membres de notre espèce choisissent de s’identifier à un rôle social inférieur (et le suggérer serait un acte flagrant de blâme des victimes). Elle a émergé comme moyen permettant aux hommes de dominer la moitié de l’espèce qui est capable de porter des enfants et d’exploiter leur travail sexuel et reproducteur. Nous ne pouvons pas comprendre le développement historique du patriarcat et la persistance de la discrimination sexiste et de la misogynie culturelle sans reconnaître la réalité de la biologie féminine et l’existence d’une classe de personnes biologiquement féminines. » (Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about sex and gender)

Comme la théorie queer s’articule sur la pensée poststructuraliste, , elle est par définition incapable de fournir une analyse structurelle cohésive d’une oppression systématique. Après tout, si le moi matériel est arbitraire dans la définition de la manière dont on ressent le monde, il ne peut alors être pris en compte dans la compréhension d’une classe politique quelle qu’elle soit. Ce que la théorie queer n’arrive pas à saisir, c’est que l’oppression structurelle n’est pas liée à la façon dont un individu s’identifie. Le genre en tant qu’identité n’est pas un vecteur dans la matrice de domination (Hill Collins, 2000); que l’on s’identifie ou non à un rôle de genre donné n’a aucun rapport avec la position que nous assigne le patriarcat.

LE PROBLÈME AVEC LE CONCEPT DE « CIS »

Être cis signifie « s’identifier au genre qui vous a été assigné à la naissance ». Mais l’assignation des rôles de genre basés sur les caractéristiques sexuelles est un outil dont se sert le patriarcat pour subordonner les femmes. L’utilisation des limites imposées par le genre pour définir la trajectoire du développement d’un-e enfant est la première manifestation du patriarcat dans sa vie, et c’est particulièrement préjudiciable aux filles. L’essentialisme qui sous-tend l’a priori que les femmes s’identifient aux moyens de notre oppression repose sur la conviction que les femmes sont intrinsèquement adaptées à cette oppression, que les hommes sont intrinsèquement adaptés à nous imposer leur pouvoir. En d’autres termes, classer les femmes comme « cis » équivaut à de la misogynie.

Dans l’optique postmoderne de la théorie queer, l’oppression des femmes en tant que classe de sexe est reconfigurée comme un privilège. Mais, pour les femmes, être « cis » n’est pas un privilège. À l’échelle mondiale, la violence masculine est une des principales causes de décès prématurés des femmes. Dans un monde où le féminicide est endémique, où un tiers des femmes et des filles peuvent s’attendre à subir la violence masculine, être née de sexe féminin n’est pas un privilège. La question de savoir si une personne née femme s’identifie à un rôle de genre particulier n’a aucune incidence sur si elle sera soumise à des mutilations génitales, si elle aura du mal à accéder à des soins de santé génésique, ou si elle sera ostracisée quand elle aura ses règles.

L’on ne peut se désengager par identification personnelle de d’une oppression qui est matérielle à la base. Par conséquent, l’étiquette de « cisgenre » n’a peu ou rien à voir avec le lieu qu’impose le patriarcat aux femmes. Présenter le fait d’habiter un corps féminin comme un privilège exige une méconnaissance totale du contexte sociopolitique de la société patriarcale.

La lutte pour les droits des femmes s’est avérée longue et difficile, avec des avancées réalisées à grand prix pour celles qui ont résisté au patriarcat. Et ce combat n’est pas terminé. L’évolution significative de la reconnaissance des droits des femmes, provoquée par la deuxième vague du féminisme, a entraîné un mouvement délibéré de ressac sociopolitique (Faludi, 1991), qui se répète aujourd’hui dans la mesure où la capacité des femmes à accéder légalement à l’avortement et à d’autres formes de soins de santé génésique sont mis en péril par la généralisation d’un fascisme conservateur partout en Europe et aux États-Unis. Les intersections des enjeux de race, de classe, de handicap et de sexualité jouent aussi leur rôle dans la définition des façons dont les structures de pouvoir agissent sur les femmes.

Pourtant on voit aujourd’hui, au nom de l’inclusivité, les femmes être dépouillées des mots nécessaires pour identifier et ensuite défier notre propre oppression. Les femmes enceintes deviennent des « personnes enceintes ». L’allaitement devient le « chest-feeding ». Les références à la biologie féminine sont traitées comme une forme d’intolérance, ce qui interdit, sous peine de transgression, d’aborder directement les politiques entourant la procréation, la naissance et la maternité. En outre, neutraliser le langage en en supprimant toute référence au sexe n’empêche ni ne conteste pas l’oppression des femmes en tant que classe de sexe. Effacer le corps féminin ne modifie pas les moyens par lesquels le genre opprime les femmes.

L’optique queer place attribue fermement aux gens s’identifiant comme trans la propriété du discours sur le genre. En conséquence, le genre est maintenant un sujet que beaucoup de féministes tentent d’éviter, malgré le rôle fondamental joué par la hiérarchie dans l’oppression des femmes. Les invitations à boire de l’eau de Javel ou à mourir dans un incendie s’avèrent, sans surprise, une tactique de bâillon efficace. Les blagues et les menaces – souvent indiscernables les unes des autres – au sujet des violences contre les femmes sont couramment utilisées comme façon de supprimer les voix dissidentes. De telles agressions ne peuvent être considérées comme une violence à l’endroit de dominants par des dominés. C’est au mieux une forme d’hostilité horizontale (Kennedy, 1970), au pire une légitimation de la violence masculine contre les femmes.

La politique identitaire queer ne tient pas compte des façons dont les femmes sont opprimées en tant que classe de sexe; elle fait parfois l’impasse à leur sujet de façon délibérée. Cette approche sélective de la politique de libération est fondamentalement déficiente. Dépolitiser le genre, en adoptant une approche acritique des déséquilibres de pouvoir qu’il crée, ne profite à personne – et surtout pas aux femmes. Seule l’abolition du genre permettra de se libérer des restrictions qu’il impose. Les chaînes du genre ne peuvent être recyclées en poursuite de la liberté.


BIBLIOGRAPHIE

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). Le Deuxième sexe

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: La guerre froide contre les femmes

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender

bell hooks. (1981). Ne suis-je pas une femme? Femmes noires et féminisme

Florynce Kennedy. (1970). Institutionalized Oppression vs. the Female

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide

Sojourner Truth. (1851). Ain’t I a Woman?


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

Sex, Gender, and the New Essentialism

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. If you agree with what I have written, that is fine. If you disagree with any of the following content, that is also perfectly fine. Either way, your life will go on undisturbed after you close this tab irrespective of what you think about this post.

I refuse to remain silent for fear of being branded the wrong type of feminist.  I refuse to remain silent as other women are harassed and abused for their views on gender. In the spirit of sisterhood, this post is dedicated to Julie Bindel. Our views may not always converge, but I am very glad of her work to end male violence against women. In the words of the late, great Audre Lorde: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

Update: this essay has now been translated into French.


 

When I first enrolled as a Gender Studies student, my grandfather was supportive – delighted that I had found direction in life and developed a work ethic that had never quite materialised during my undergraduate years – yet bemused by the subject. “What do you need to study that for?” He asked. “I can tell you this for free: if you’ve got *male parts, you’re a man. If you’ve got *female parts, you’re a woman. There’s not much more to it. You don’t need a degree to know that.” (*Social convention prevented my grandfather and I from using the words penis or vagina/vulva in this conversation, or any other we shared.)

My initial reaction was shock: having spent a bit too much time on Twitter, having witnessed the extreme polarity of discourse surrounding gender, I was conscious that expressing such opinions on social media carried the risk of becoming subject to a sustained campaign of harassment. Then again, being white and male, I reasoned that – were my septuagenarian grandfather to venture onto Twitter – he would be likely to remain safe from this abuse, which is almost entirely directed towards women.

All the same, hearing that perspective spoken with such casualness as we sat in the garden together was a world apart from the tensions contained in digital space, the fear women carried of being branded the ‘wrong sort’ of feminist and publicly targeted as a result. This exchange pushed me to consider not only the reality of gender, but the context of gender discourse. Intimidation is a powerful silencing tactic – an environment governed by fear is not conducive to critical thought, public discourse, or the development of ideas.

Until the end of his life my grandfather remained blissfully unaware of the schism gender has created within the feminist movement, a divide that has been dubbed the TERF wars. For the uninitiated, TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist – an acronym used to describe women whose feminism is critical of gender and advocates the abolition of the hierarchy. How one should approach gender is arguably the main source of tension between feminist and queer politics.

The Hierarchy of Gender

 

Patriarchy is dependent on the hierarchy of gender. To dismantle patriarchy – the core objective of the feminist movement – gender must also be abolished. In patriarchal society, gender is what makes male the normative standard of humanity and female Other. Gender is why female sexuality is strictly policed – women called sluts if we allow men sexual access to our bodies, called prudes if we don’t – and no such judgements are passed on male sexuality. Gender is why women who are abused by men get blamed and shamed – ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘she provoked him’ – while the behaviour of abusive men is commonly justified with ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘he’s a good man, really’. Gender is why girls are rewarded for being nurturing, passive, and modest, traits that are not encouraged in boys. Gender is why boys are rewarded for being competitive, aggressive, and ambitious, traits not encouraged in girls. Gender is why women are considered property, passing from the ownership of father to husband through marriage. Gender is why women are expected to provide domestic and emotional labour along with the vast majority of care, yet such work is devalued as ‘feminised’ and subsequently rendered invisible.

Gender is not an abstract issue. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. It is estimated that 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales. One in four British women experiences violence at the hands of a male partner, a figure which rises to one in three on a global scale. Over 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. The liberation of women and girls from male dominance and the violence used to maintain that power disparity is a fundamental feminist goal – a goal that is incompatible with accepting limitations imposed by gender as the boundaries of what is possible in our lives.

“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations… Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialisation exaggerates the differences, and then starts a self-fulfilling process.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

Gender roles are a prison. Gender is a socially constructed trap designed to oppress women as a sex class for the benefit of men as a sex class. And the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Sexual and reproductive exploitation of the female body are the material basis of women’s oppression – our biology is used as a means of domination by our oppressors, men. Although there are minority of people who do not fit neatly into the binary of biological sex – people who are intersex – this does not alter the structural, systematic nature of women’s oppression.

Feminists have been critiquing the hierarchy of gender for hundreds of years, and with good reason. When Sojourner Truth deconstructed femininity she critiqued the misogyny and anti-Black racism shaping how the category of woman was defined. Using her own physical prowess and fortitude as empirical evidence, Truth observed that womanhood was not dependent on the traits associated with femininity and challenged the Othering of Black female bodies required to elevate the perceived fragility of white womanhood into the feminine ideal. Ain’t I a Woman is one of the earliest known feminist critiques of gender essentialism; Truth’s speech was an acknowledgement of the interaction between hierarchies of race and gender within the context of white supremacist patriarchal society (hooks, 1981).

Simone de Beauvoir too deconstructed femininity, stating that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” With The Second Sex she argued that gender is not innate, but provides roles into which we are socialised into adopting in accordance with our biological sex. She highlighted the limitations of these roles, in particular the limitations imposed upon women as a result of gender essentialism, the idea that gender is innate.

As de Beauvoir observed, gender essentialism has been used against women for centuries in an effort to deny us entry to the public sphere, life independent of male dominance. Claims of women’s inferior intellectual capacity, inherent passivity, and innate irrationality were all used to restrict women’s lives to a domestic context on the basis that it was woman’s natural state. History demonstrates that insistence upon a female brain is a tactic of patriarchy used to keep suffrage, property rights, bodily autonomy, and access to formal education the preserve of men. Owing to the long history of misogyny resting upon assumptions of a female brain, in addition to it being scientifically untrue, neurosexism (Fine, 2010) is contradictory to a feminist perspective.

Yet the concept of a female brain is once more being advocated – not only by social conservatives, but within the context of queer and leftist politics, which are generally assumed to be progressive. Explorations of gender as an identity as opposed to a hierarchy often rely upon the presumption that gender is innate – “in the brain” – and not socially constructed. Therefore, the development of transgender politics and subsequent disagreements over the nature of women’s oppression – what lies at its root, and how woman is defined – has become a faultline (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement.

Feminism and Gender Identity

 

The word transgender is used to describe the state of an individual whose personal understanding of their own gender does not align with their biological sex. For example, someone born female-bodied who identifies as male is referred to as a transman. Someone born male-bodied who identifies as female is referred to as a transwoman. Being transgender can involve a degree of medical intervention, potentially including hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery, a process of transition undertaken to bring the material self into alignment with the internally held identity of a transgender person. However, of the 650,000 British people fitting under the trans umbrella, a mere 30,000 are estimated to have made any surgical or medical transition.

The term trans initially described those born male who identify as female, or vice versa, but is now used to denote a variety of identities rooted in gender non-conformity. Trans encompasses non-binary identity (when a person identified as neither male nor female), genderfluidity (when an individual’s identity is liable to shift from male to female or vice versa), and genderqueerness (when an individual identifies with both or neither masculinity and femininity), to name just a few examples.

Converse to transgender is cisgender, a word used to convey the alignment of biological sex and ascribed gender role. Being cisgender has been framed as a privilege by queer discourse, with cis people positioned as the oppressor class and trans people as the oppressed. Although trans people are undeniably a marginalised group, no differentiation is made between the cis men and women in consideration of how that marginalisation manifests. Male violence is consistently responsible for the murders of transwomen, a tragic pattern Judith Butler identifies as being the product of “…men’s need to meet culturally held standards of male power and masculinity.

From a queer perspective, it is the gender with which one identifies as opposed to the sex class to which one belongs that dictates whether one is marginalised by or benefits from patriarchal oppression. In this respect, queer politics are fundamentally at odds with feminist analysis. Queer framing positions gender in the mind, where it exists as a positively self-defined identity – not a hierarchy. From a feminist perspective, gender is understood as a means of perpetuating the structural power imbalance patriarchy has established between sex classes.

“If you do not recognise the material reality of biological sex or its significance as an axis of oppression, your political theory cannot incorporate any analysis of patriarchy. Women’s historic and continued subordination has not arisen because some members of our species choose to identify with an inferior social role (and it would be an act of egregious victim-blaming to suggest that it has). It has emerged as a means by which males can dominate that half of the species that is capable of gestating children, and exploit their sexual and reproductive labour. We cannot make sense of the historical development of patriarchy and the continued existence of sexist discrimination and cultural misogyny, without recognising the reality of female biology, and the existence of a class of biologically female persons.” – Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about sex and gender

As queer theory is built upon post-structuralist thought, by definition it is incapable of providing cohesive structural analysis of systematic oppression. After all, if the material self is arbitrary in defining how one experiences the world, it cannot then be factored into the understanding of any political class. What queer theory fails to grasp is that structural oppression is not connected to how an individual identifies. Gender as an identity is not a vector in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins, 2000) – whether or not one identifies with a particular gender role has no bearing on where one is positioned by patriarchy.

The Problem with ‘Cis’

 

Being cis means “identify[ing] with the gender you were assigned at birth.” But the assignation of gender roles based upon sex characteristics is a tool of patriarchy used to subordinate women. Having the limitations imposed by gender used to define the trajectory of their development is the earliest manifestation of patriarchy in a child’s life, which is particularly damaging for girls. The essentialism behind assuming women identify with the means of our oppression rests on a belief that women are inherently suited to that oppression, that men are inherently suited to wield power over us. In other words, categorising women as ‘cis’ is misogyny.

Through the post-modern lens of queer theory, women’s oppression as a sex class is repackaged as a privilege. But, for women, being ‘cis’ is not a privilege. Globally, male violence is a leading cause in the premature deaths of women. In a world where femicide is endemic, where one third of women and girls can expect to experience male violence, being born female is not a privilege. Whether or not a natal female identifies with a particular gender role has no bearing whether she will be subject to female genital mutilation, whether she will struggle to access reproductive healthcare, whether she is ostracised for menstruating.

It is impossible to opt out of oppression that is material in basis by means of personal identification. Therefore, the label of cisgender has little to no bearing upon where women are positioned by patriarchy. To frame inhabiting a female body as a privilege requires a total disregard for the sociopolitical context of patriarchal society.

The fight for women’s rights has proven to be long and difficult, with advancements achieved at great cost to those who resisted patriarchy. And that fight is not over. Significant developments in the recognition of women’s rights brought about by the second wave of feminism were deliberately met with socio-political backlash (Faludi, 1991), a pattern currently repeating itself to the extent that women’s ability to legally access to abortion and other forms of reproductive healthcare is jeopardised by the mainstreaming of conservative fascism across Europe and in the United States. Intersections of race, class, disability, and sexuality too play roles in defining the ways in which structures of power act upon women.

Yet, in the name of inclusivity, women are being stripped of the language required to identify and subsequently challenge our own oppression.  Pregnant women become pregnant people. Breastfeeding becomes chestfeeding. Citing female biology becomes a form of bigotry, which makes addressing the politics of reproduction, birth, and motherhood impossible to directly address without transgressing. In addition, rendering language neutral of any reference to sex does not prevent or challenge women being oppressed as a sex class. Erasing the female body does not alter the means by which gender oppresses women.

Queer framing locates the ownership of gender discourse firmly with those identifying as trans. As a result, gender is a topic many feminists try to avoid in spite of the hierarchy playing a fundamental role in women’s oppression. Invitations to drink bleach or die in a fire are, unsurprisingly, an effective silencing tactic. Jokes and threats – often indistinguishable – about violence against women are commonly used as a means of suppressing dissenting voices. Such abuse cannot be considered “punching up”, the oppressed venting frustration at the oppressor. It is at best horizontal hostility (Kennedy, 1970), at worst a legitimisation of male violence against women.

Queer identity politics fail to account for and at times wilfully ignore the ways in which women are oppressed as a sex class. This selective approach to the politics of liberation is fundamentally flawed. Depoliticising gender, adopting an uncritical approach to the power imbalances it creates, benefits nobody – least of all women. Only the abolition of gender will provide liberation from the restrictions it imposes. The shackles of gender cannot be re-purposed in the pursuit of freedom.

 


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1952). The Second Sex

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender

bell hooks. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman?

Florynce Kennedy. (1970). Institutionalized Oppression vs. the Female

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide

Sojourner Truth. (1851). Ain’t I a Woman?

 

Why I Reclaim the Night: Being a Black Woman in Public Space

A brief foreword: Forth Valley Rape Crisis invited me to speak at Reclaim the Night in Stirling. A friend editing a zine, Why I Reclaim the Night,  for RTN Nottingham and London asked for contributions. Both prompted this reflection.


I’m writing this on the train home. Legs tucked carefully to one side. Eyes down, even when I’m not looking at the notepad, because I don’t want any man to use his entitlement to female attention to translate an incidental glance into an invitation to talk. I get the train back from Glasgow around this time of evening a few times every week. It’s a familiar environment. I’ve spent thousands of hours in identical carriages. But I never let my guard down. I don’t let the rocking of the train lull me to sleep after a busy day, like the man opposite has.

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Now the weather is turning, the nights are drawing in. It gets dark earlier every day. I prefer Glasgow in the summer, and not just because it rains less. I feel safer when it’s light. If a man begins to follow me, gets too close, he will be easier to spot. Other people are more likely to notice and intervene. In the dark, walking through the city, I am vulnerable. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’m afraid a man will rape me. 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking, or other forms of male violence every single year – the threat of male violence is very real. When men call to me on the street, when men touch me against my will, I am terrified. So I hurry from place to place, taking care not to linger beyond any specific purpose, and waste not a second in walking back to the train station.

Like anyone else, I am keen to get home – out of the cold, back to reliable wifi and lounge trousers. But I don’t want to miss the train because I don’t want to hang around the station for 40 minutes. If I am waiting, a man will approach me despite every last atom in my body willing him to stay away. The book, the headphones, the rigid posture – none of these things rid him of the delusion that my time and personal space are rightly his for the taking. He will sit beside me, press his leg against mine, nudge my foot. He will ask where I’m heading, if he can join me. He will, more often than not, ignore me when I ask him to please leave me alone. The station staff have always disappeared by this point, are as difficult to catch as smoke.

You would think getting on the train would be a relief after that – the brightly lit carriages, the security cameras, the presence of a conductor. But it isn’t always. The man who slid his hand up my thigh. The man who curled around me, using my body as a pillow on the last train home despite me begging him to please, please, please stop – none of my pleading made a difference, and he only stopped when another man told him he was out of order. The man who asked me if I liked taking big Black cock (white men have this sick way of fetishising Black bodies and sexuality). The man who tried to follow me into the toilet. The man who will be next. They are all threats.

Sometimes, when I am trying to be as inconspicuous as possible when you are the only Black woman on the train, I wipe off my lipstick. I don’t want any part of me to stand out, to attract a second glance. In these ways I fold myself up, make myself smaller, in the hope of avoiding male attention – always unwanted. My entire relationship with public space is defined by a need to be near-invisible in the hope I will be lucky enough to escape male violence. For so many women, it is the same.

But being invisible isn’t a solution: if it’s not me, it will be another woman harassed or hurt by men. And that is unacceptable. I refuse to be silent when other women are at risk. I’m not the only one in danger – every woman is – and that injustice fills me with rage. The idea of us all being made small because of men, that makes me furious. That anger keeps me challenging patriarchy when despair makes me want to give up. So does the support and encouragement of other women.

That’s why I’m going to speak at Reclaim the Night in Stirling: to use my voice and say that this is unacceptable. To march with other women, to stand up and be counted as their sister, to take up a space in which I’d be afraid without other women by my side.

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.