What is feminism? Does feminism have an image problem? How can we work across differences of race, class and sexuality? What are the biggest contemporary feminist issues? What role is there for men within feminism? How do we deal with conflict among feminists? These were just some of the questions that were addressed the panel discussion on intergenerational feminisms and media cultures which took place last week in a a packed room at the Marx Memorial Library in London. Forming part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science, the event was hosted by Jessalynn Keller and Alison Winch from Middlesex University. Heather went along and found it inspiring to have feminists aged from 16 years to 60 on the panel and an atmosphere based on unity rather than tension. In this post, she shares some brief insights from the event.
The event kicked off with short comments by invited speakers, followed by a wider debate…
Ikamara Larasi, from Imkaan and the Rewind & Reframe project, spoke first, describing how she often found herself as the only woman of colour on a panel (as she did then) or as one of very few women of colour in feminist settings. In such cases, she’s found a consensus on the need to tackle gender issues in media representations, but not on the need to tackle race or to see the two as connected.
Jessica Ringrose from the Institute of Education discussed how while the media has focused on girls beating boys in examinations, this debate diverts attention from ongoing male privilege evidenced in the (widening) gender pay gap and violence against women and girls. She mentioned her research with Rosalind Gill, Laura Harvey and Sonia Livingstone on sexting, through which they made links between boys’ entitlement to girls’ bodies online and offline sexual harassment and rape.
Next up were Rosa Tully and Lucy Parfitt who set up a feminist club at their school Highgate Wood. Rosa talked about being brought up in a home where she was encouraged to question things and so it did not feel like a big jump to set up a space for girls to talk and share their experiences, in the context of their being silenced in the classroom and other informal school spaces. Their club attempted to go beyond the personal to wider global political issues. Lucy had a different journey to feminism, being from a home where such issues were not discussed. She talked about how the feminist club was started in response to a non-uniform day when lots of girls were sent home when they turned up to school wearing fashionable clothing that was deemed ‘inappropriate’ by school staff. In the process of setting up the club, she learned that it wasn’t just her that felt angry when she saw boys hugging girls and pushing up their skirts without their consent – ‘It was okay to be angry’ she said. She identified the three main issues that formed the focus of the Feminist club; body image, street harassment and trying to be the ‘perfect girl’ – both ambitious and feminine.
Lynne Segal from Birkbeck, University of London, rounded off the speakers. She rejected the pitting of generations of feminists against eachother and offered an overview of the impact of feminism historically on women’s lives. On one hand, ‘we’ won and won – gaining reproductive control, entry to professions, increased education, and greater state action on violence against women. On the other, we lost and lost as the financial meltdown and austerity have hard hit all vulnerable groups including women, particularly older women. She recalled that sexuality was the issue that originally split the Women’s Liberation movement with some seeing all men’s potential violence against women as the factor responsible for women’s oppression. For Lynne, this remains problematic, and she, like the other speakers, underlined the need to see race, class, sexuality and gender as intertwined.
The event then opened up to a wider discussion and reached a general consensus around the importance of an inclusive feminism, but also for one that rejects the creeping commodification and branding of feminism, that retains a link to equality, and that does not exclude others. Speaker after speaker asserted the need to retain the word ‘feminism’ but also to educate the world on what it means. Ikamara talked about how she’d only found her way to feminism when she’d realised it meant not having relinquish her taste in music.
There was also a consensus about the need to resist feminist sectarianism. As Lynne described, all of us struggle to fit our gender. This causes even more pain to men than to women, a pain that men then inflict onto women and other men. The more you think about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, the more complicated it becomes. Working with, not denying this complexity is the key to feminist thought and action. This of course means that we need to involve men. This is an issue which hit the news recently after being promoted by actress Emma Watson, but it’s something that feminism has done since its earliest days.
The event finished with the important words: ‘If we’re not all involved in some actions, we’re going to be miserable fuckers.’
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