A movement that should be a force for solidarity among women, for change, and for fun, has become miserably fractious. Time to restore its positive vision, internal tolerance and appetite for camaraderie
No one likes a feminist. By definition most men don’t like you and experience has shown that women who aren’t feminists really don’t like you. These days, though, it’s the other feminists who like you least of all.
That sounds like a cheap gag, but it’s a real problem.
In the fight for liberation from patriarchy, women can’t afford to worry about being popular. Taking the piss out of the oppressors is encouraged, as is having a bit of a barney about Betty Friedan, or the Nordic model of sex work – before upsetting the neighbours with rowdy protest-song karaoke.
Making yourselves unpopular with the people on the outside is part of feeling good about being on the inside – which is why feminists should take seriously the fact that attempting to be a half-decent feminist has, in the last few years, become an utterly miserable experience.
Adjusting your behaviour and language to make other people feel comfortable is all part of normal social interaction, especially for women. But it’s intrinsically hostile to activism.
By definition, activist movements are fighting an opposing side. They are propelled by a deeply held sense of shared purpose and sustained by a feeling of togetherness and camaraderie. Modern feminism is running low on both. Our movement can draw strength from the ferocity of our opposition, but it can only survive if it is strong within itself, independent of that opposition.
I can now grudgingly admit that I have always been a rubbish feminist. First off, I was embarrassingly slow on the uptake. I was employed in the marketing department of Patriarchy Inc. for a decade, give or take, peddling diet and relationship advice in women’s magazines. It took getting married and having kids for me to start seeing the realities of structural and institutional sexism that keep women down.
Once I started seeing it I couldn’t stop. I quickly passed my GCSE in corporate feminism, stomping about in a blind rage, holding forth about how working women are routinely talked over in meetings, passed over for promotion, and significantly underpaid relative to their male peers. I gave some very stirring talks about it, I can tell you, sometimes in front of actual men! What a blast!
Feeling rather satisfied with myself, I graduated to what I like to call “entrepreneurial feminism”, occasionally setting foot in glossy “women-first” clubs, mainly to drink free Chablis. I was rubbish at this pseudo-feminism too, though, because I couldn’t bring myself to attend an “empowerment workshop” and I didn’t even have an idea for a startup.
It was all very jolly, I suppose – apart from my creeping scepticism that we might not actually be able to smash the patriarchy with an expensive scented candle. With not inconsiderable regret, I flounced off in search of something else.
Earnest feminism is the room-above-a-pub type, the kind that still depends on leafleting as a core media channel. I much prefer this set up, even though the wine is crap and never free. I met a far more interesting and varied group of women (including way more lesbians, which was a bonus).
None of us was under any illusion about the seriousness of the mission, which is why we needed so many jokes to keep us going. I felt like I was finally approaching the inner sanctum, where the Proper Feminism happens. Political, gruesome, hard-edged feminism that makes a big fuss and a real difference to women who have no chance.
I was working flexibly so I was able to do what most women just can’t, and committed to a number of positions, official and unofficial, in the so-called “women’s sector”. I started spending more time than I could really spare with clever and dedicated people who had all somehow carved out half a day a week (women tend to be quite busy) to volunteer (feminism is not a lucrative career choice) to try and get some change to happen. The atmosphere in meetings was frosty but productive. These women did not agree on much, hardly anything in fact, but they knew how to operate – with policymakers, business leaders and other influential people. I was learning more than I was actually helping for sure, but for a time I genuinely enjoyed it.
Gradually, over the last two or three years, things have changed. Those previously frosty-but-productive meetings have frozen over completely and well-intentioned projects have been abandoned. Young women in university feminist societies and older ones in feminist groups are scared to ask questions for fear of being mocked, or bullied, or worse by other feminists.
The “safe space” – if I can use that loaded phrase – where women who want to help, or who just want to listen and learn, can turn up and join in without risking anything (or everything) has all but disappeared. That unifying sense of shared purpose that is essential if we are to draw especially (but not only) young women to the movement has been whittled down to almost nothing.
We can’t even join hands and resist male violence because we get tangled up in debates over the application of equality legislation, the question of “women-only” refuges and what to do about racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
Meanwhile, and I am sorry to say this, the patriarchy really isn’t scared of us with our cheap wine and our leaflets and (most of all) our infighting. We don’t exactly have them on the run. More proof of my rubbish feminism is that for every moment I have spent worrying whether I’m doing it right, I’ve spent another lamenting feminism’s inability to get men involved, wondering what more I can do to welcome them in.
Men have a crucial role to play in eventually ending patriarchy, and we urgently need their money to grease the wheels. But the sad truth is that right now – feminism is a tough sell for women let alone men. The harder we make it for women to get involved, the easier we make it on the oppressors.
I am far from the first woman to note that the women’s movement can only win if we resolve our differences and achieve solidarity. But I strongly believe that the differences between us are what makes being a feminist satisfying, even sometimes – dare I say it – actually enjoyable. It might seem like an odd goal to have, but I do believe that’s the only way anyone’s going to stick around.
Right now, those points of difference – demographic, attitudinal, political, generational – are crushing all the joy out of the fight, and scuppering our chances of progress. Through my adventures in feminism I have come across plenty of women with whom I disagree completely and don’t like at all, but whom I am compelled to respect and work with.
Furthermore, despite often being absolutely insufferable myself I am grateful to feminism for bringing me and my amazing partner together, and introducing me to a handful of wonderful friends, women whose lives, politics and feminism are quite different from mine. We debate, often fiercely, and then we snort with laughter and hug it out.
The trouble is that women everywhere who see what is happening to women’s rights across the world, and who would ordinarily be energised and motivated to join the movement – as corporate, entrepreneurial or earnest feminists, or the myriad other types I’ve never even heard of – are looking at feminism and thinking: nah.
Women of all ages and backgrounds who might be prepared to volunteer and protest, to knock on doors and lobby MPs, to fundraise, research and generally make a great big, bloody racket, are looking at our – I should say their – movement, and turning away. They don’t like the look of us. I don’t like the look of us either.
I know feminism is not needlecraft (although feminist embroidery is totally a thing). It’s not a nice little hobby. I get that we have to be braver on behalf of all the women who don’t have a choice. That’s the whole point. It is right that we must hold each other accountable when we come up short. But there must be a better way of doing that than calling another feminist a disgusting, pathetic traitor for not throwing herself in front of the King’s horse. If the qualifying standard for “legit feminist” is set at “must be word perfect and prepared to martyr herself for the cause”, we’re all screwed. We have to make women feel that it’s OK to have an off day, or a day off.
At the risk of sounding like a management consultant, we have to sell a new story. We have to show women that the fight is worth it for its own sake, for the friends you make, the things you learn, the places you go and – most of all – the change you can affect. Things look bleak right now, but the feminists who came before us (not to mention those still at it who’ve already been flogging away for decades) have delivered some major wins. They have shown us change is possible.
Let’s not waste another second sanitising what we’re fighting for to make our movement more palatable for men, and instead use all our energy, guile and inventiveness to make more women feel welcome in our movement. The more the merrier has never been truer. If we don’t, we’ll soon have nothing, and nobody left.
The fight for feminism
At a time when women’s rights across the world are increasingly under threat, why is feminism eating itself alive? What can be done to bring everyone together?