Thursday, March 09, 2006

Many Stones Can Build An Arch; Singly None

Audra Williams has a really interesting piece about feminists in their 20s and early 30s on Rabble. I felt a little anxious about writing about it first, because I disagreed with her to the point where I was highly annoyed by what she was saying. But then I re-read it, and I realised that I agreed with her argument.

I'm not doing this to be adorable; this is what it's like in my brain. I have Feminist Insecurity. In fact, if I didn't repeat those first two points to myself, I'd never have the guts to say the third. And it's not just me. So many feminists in their 20s and 30s are like this. We apologize, we disclaim and, worst of all, we don't reach out to other young feminists for fear of being called out as the frauds we feel we are.

One of the ways this isolation manifests itself is that we don't organize in the ways of the generations of feminists before us. We don't join. We're not sure if we should, and we can't seem to navigate the movement as it is.
This is an incredibly important question. What is it that makes feminism an individual enterprise for some people, rather than a collective experience?

Audra presents this problem as a generational one: second-wave feminists organised, third-wave feminists generally do not (I do have a rant about the term third-wave, and what it ignores, but I'll save that for another time). She describes third-wave achievements as follows:
That isn't to say there isn't a great deal of amazing energy and teamwork happening with younger women right now. We have Shameless magazine. We have independent women's businesses like Venus Envy and Peach Berserk. We have menstrual experts like Blood Sisters. We have bands like Pony Da Look, Bontempi and the Maynards. We've got body-positive troupe Big Dance.

While our achievements are not the sort of feminism that older women hope to see, one thing that we've done well is dissect and influence culture. Third wavers might not have an abortion caravan, but we've got record labels. Maybe we don't attend candidate's school, but we're running feminist businesses. We don't hold consciousness-raising sessions, but we stitch and bitch.
This was the bit I was afraid of being overly sarcastic about, because for me those lists don't begin to compare (even leaving aside my opinion of alternative businesses). These individual project don't make a movement.

Having said all this I've spent most of my time as a feminist without belonging to a feminist group. My feminism mainly involves words, writing, ranting, yelling, talking, and other words, but not actions. I try to make my feminism part of my activism, but I don't really know what to do, or who to do it with. I don't believe that women of my age are just lamer than the women who came before and who were able to turn their words into something more.

I think Audra has identified one possible reason, which is that feminism can be set up as a standard that women should attain, rather than a form of analysis. I had an activist friend tell me recently that she didn't know anything about feminism. Which shocked me, but I understood what she was saying, because feminism can be seen as something that happens in a rarefied atmosphere, that comes once you've taken a women's studies class and read the right books.

I think this is bullshit, I think all you need to do to be a feminist is to listen to other women and stand beside them. You take that step, and everything else you need will follow. I'm not devaluing analysis, I think it's vital, but feminism isn't dependent on doing the reading.

I think possibly another reason is that I don't think we've got any idea how to fight patriarchy (for lack of a better term), because it's so pervasive. There are days when I go to the supermarket and I just want to grab every single magazine and rip it into to tiny pieces stomp on them, because almost every page of almost every magazine devalues women. I hear stories about how women are relegated to the kitchen during a particular campaign, and I despair that 30 years of calling sexist men out has got us precisely nowhere. I hear the pay gap is getting wider and I know so many employers who promote men to the jobs that pay higher over women time and time again. I see how raising children is treated as some kind of weird hobby, where it's fine if you want to do it, but don't ask the rest of us to support you.

I'm all over the place here - we've got too much theory, and not enough. But I think what I basically want to say is that feminism needs to start with women's lives and move to collective action, and through that I'm hoping we'll learn how to fight.

In the end I think that might have been what Audra was saying too:
Oh, I bet you are now all so excited to join and build NAC! But don't forget, you can't join NAC [A Canadian coalition of feminist groups]. After the last day of meetings wound down, I was whining to longtime feminist activist Lee Lakeman about this very thing: “So now I have to go win over some Nova Scotia women's group if I can find it in order to get the right to come here and try to win NAC over?” Lee looked at me like I was perhaps a moron and said, “Why don't you start your own group?”

As soon as she said “Why don’t you start your own group?” I started to hear “!!!!!!!!” “!!!!!!!!” “!!!!!!!” in my head, because WHAT. A. GREAT. IDEA.

Here is the deal. You need 10 people and a feminist mandate. Make sure you formally exist six weeks before the AGM (which is happening in May). You also have to have a recommendation by an existing member group. But really, contact me, we'll find a way.

The idea of starting a group is fairly terrifying, because if we're going to start groups we have to go on the record with stances, and we have to collaborate and lead and follow. But we have those skills, I know we do. It's just a question of applying them in a new way. What issue infuriates you the most? How do you think it can best be addressed? What have you been wishing someone else would do? Assemble a team and get on it.
This post was also posted at Alas


  1. We apologize, we disclaim and, worst of all, we don't reach out to other young feminists for fear of being called out as the frauds we feel we are.

    I find I can very much appreciate some of the things Williams is saying here.

  2. Anonymous6:22 pm

    HI - just a stickler point - NAC is not a 'Canadian abortion rights group' - it's the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and it's an umbrella group of all kinds of feminist groups that gives feminist voices a national presence. They actually have an annual meeting at Ottawa where they have a standing appointment to meet & lobby all the political parties (it's amazing, I've been there). Because they are a 'group of groups' they can claim real #s and real connections across the country (tho some politicians still resist that).

    The AGM is also incredible, all these reps from all kinds of feminist groups... bringing together groups that many never come together otherwise, certainly not across a country as huge as ours. Isolation's a big thing here for distance as well as ideology.

    I point this out to make it clear why one has to make a group just to get to go to the NAC AGM, and to offer it as a model for every nation...

  3. Hi Minerva

    Thanks for the point I've made the change. That sounds fantastic, I wish some structures like that had survided in New Zealand.

    I'm not sure if I will be able to build a group, at least not immediately. But I'm going to put it on my long-term plan, and look at some issues that I'd be interested in (and certainly keep an eye out for groups to join).

  4. I too, feel the same as you about much of this post.

    I have become overwhelmed by the patriarchy. It is everywhere and I can't see a way out.

    Apparently there is a Feminist Choir in Palmerston North. But it would be women of the second wave.

  5. You should join the choir - they're fantastic (and unlike the Wellington choir not Labour dominated).

    For me, inter-generational feminist activity has given me strength.