Ten years of feminist activism

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

I haven’t blogged for a long time because I was pregnant and then I had a baby and young babies take up all your time and energy. I keep thinking that I miss blogging as it was, before ‘influencers’ and #content, before feeling like each post had to be perfectly crafted and perfectly nuanced, for the book deal, for the brand, for guarding against the accusations of ‘ranting’ or ‘lacking grace’ or ‘not having researched the subject matter sufficiently’. Blogging as it was, then, when people made the leap from Livejournal et al to setting up public, personal blogs and things weren’t quite so strategic. I guess that’s got something to do with the fact I’ve hesitated once or twice while writing this and asked myself what the point of the post is and what it’s saying. But that’s not the blogging I miss.

It’s ten years since I attended my first feminist march* and first feminist conference. Ten years. I suddenly realised this one night a couple of months ago when I came across this piece by Jess McCabe, published in 2007 and looking at the resurgence of feminist activism around that time that included marches being revived and six new feminist publications launching in the space of 18 months. The same year, The Guardian profiled some of ‘the new feminists’ who were ‘trying to rebrand the f-word’ and feminist writing and journalism was very much on the agenda. It reminded me of my copies of Subtext magazine, still in a cupboard in my bedroom - and how excited I was to find out more about feminist media at FEM 08 in Sheffield, the aforementioned first feminist conference.

FEM 08 was the fourth FEM conference organised by a team including Kat Banyard, which grew from 90 attendees at its first event in 2004 to 500 attendees the year I went. I remember the excitement of being on the train and spotting women I recognised from their newspaper columns, women with banners from organisations I followed online. Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune were there that day handing out the surveys that would become the research behind Reclaiming the F Word. Three years later I would chat with Kristin over coffee at Watford railway station and discuss the need to bring Christian feminists together, an idea that eventually became the Christian Feminist Network, but in 2008 I don’t think I even really knew any other Christian feminists yet. I was still desperately in search of likeminded churchgoing women who didn’t believe their destiny lay in some heavily gender stereotyped ideal of ‘Biblical womanhood’.

Talks I attended at the conference included 'The Rape Conviction Rate Scandal', 'The Female Face of Poverty' and 'Challenging Destructive Masculinities', although, as my rather breathless Livejournal entry detailing the day explained, the highlight for me was the seminar entitled 'Grassroots Feminist Media' - it was 'so inspiring' to meet the women behind The F Word and Subtext magazine and I was beyond excited about the 'current explosion in feminist media'. Just two years previously I'd been immersed in the world of weekly women's magazines through work, seeing article upon article picking over celebrities' weight, clothes and relationships, 'scary skinny size 0’ celebrities on one page; on the next, shaming other celebrities for having cellulite. The state of my own body image at that time wasn't helped by the media I had consumed and the wounds were raw.

Today's plethora of feminist-flavoured online media outlets and coverage of marches and #MeToo in mainstream magazines means I often forget that the body-shaming, diet-obsessed side of women’s publishing still exists (although some magazines have closed now, as have the 'lad's mags' that were the focus of so much activism back then). Part of that, I guess, is a result of having hung out in the internet feminist bubble for so long. But really, perceptions of feminism in the mid-2000s were very different: we’d all read Female Chauvinist Pigs and its critique of ‘raunch culture’ - some of which now seems to recall almost ancient history in popular culture - Playboy merchandise, trucker hats, Paris Hilton, push up bras and thongs.

In the book, Ariel Levy argues that early noughties ‘raunch culture’ - ‘the emergence of a woman-backed trash culture’ is a ‘rebellion’ against second-wave feminism, the outworking of unresolved conflict between the feminist movement and the sexual revolution, yet also ‘a garbled attempt at continuing the work of the women’s movement’. In her conclusion, she wrote that ‘The proposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it’. Explicitly feminist media, at the time, seemed like a breath of fresh air and for us as young women reacting against the imposition of ‘raunch culture’, crucially important.

It can certainly be argued now that once feminism began to have its cultural 'moment', at some point over the last few years, the movement started to become commercialised and exploited - for content, for developing celebrities' careers, for making money around International Women's Day. And more coverage and more hype sadly doesn’t mean that we’re any closer to getting rid of misogyny. But feminism wasn’t having that ‘moment’ yet and sitting in a student union building talking about subverting mainstream publishing with a more diverse range of articles and body positive messages seemed like revolution when you were 23 years old in 2008 and probably still does for young women, in other corners of the internet and other feminist get-togethers in 2018.

Some of the debates that would later bubble to the surface of the movement and cause pain, splintering groups and communities and friendships were only just developing among everyone involved. Germaine Greer gave the closing speech that day and received a standing ovation - let’s say no more. I also attended a talk on lapdancing clubs by Object. The following year - or maybe the same year - I'm not too sure - I remember the debates following Reclaim the Night London about the way some women had been chanting and booing outside Spearmint Rhino and how the women who worked there might feel about it. I observed the white, middle class profile of most of the attendees at the conference - people like me, it has to be said - who seemed a world apart from my work colleagues back at home. A re-reading of Female Chauvinist Pigs today throws up a host of assertions that would be seen as problematic now and online feminism itself has changed so much, particularly due to fallout caused by what’s often been referred to as call-out culture, where, as noted in this 2011 piece by Flavia Dzodan that always comes to mind when I think about the most toxic elements of call-out culture and ‘trashing’, ‘we all lose’.

In the years following 2008, discussion via Twitter and personal blogs came to define the feminist journey for so many of us, especially those not fortunate enough to live somewhere with feminist networks or groups or for those who met a lot of feminist friends online. I was continually offering to get involved in a magazine or blog that someone wanted to launch and sometimes writing several blog posts every week. Blogs felt like the resistance, the opposition to traditional, sexist media and much was being made of their democratising effect on whose voices had the potential to be heard (doesn't all this seem a bit quaint now?). Some time ago I really wanted to set up a website where women active in the movement at that time could submit pieces about their memories of what some call the beginnings of the Fourth Wave (and what some believe is still the Third Wave). I never got round to it and I worry about so many memories being lost as blogs disappear and websites close and some people take their activism offline and even ‘hashtag feminism’ has evolved.

Ten years since FEM 08, when I think of all the women I’ve met as a result of feminism and the women just starting out in activism at that time, our lives have moved on in so many ways. We’re mostly in our 30s and busy, busy, busy with work, or children, or work and children. Some have moved overseas. We still do activism and write and work with women’s organisations. We don’t always make it to things that happen in London any more because life gets in the way. We share each others’ projects and work and discuss motherhood as a feminist issue on Facebook and even celebrate each other’s books because things have moved onwards and upwards from those first blog posts and discussions on Twitter about sexism in the tabloids.

Things have also become more complicated. We learned that for all the talk of the internet promoting a more diverse range of voices, privileged voices were always favoured and promoted over more marginalised ones. Pushback against this has been vitally important but hard work; change has been slow; listening and addressing assumptions isn’t always easy. Online, people talk of moving on from being a ‘baby feminist’, learning much as they ‘grow up’. Sometimes we forget that everyone starts somewhere. For us, that somewhere was the mid Noughties, when social media was still a thing for ‘internet people’ - and it was life-changing.

*The very first Million Women Rise march. I didn't know anyone else who was going so I volunteered to be a steward. It rained quite a lot and I was posted at the door of the loos in Trafalgar Square during the rally so missed the speeches but the march itself was like nothing I'd ever experienced before.

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